How a Dilapidated Cabin in the Desert Became a Dreamy Airbnb

Check out how this couple gutted a run-down cabin and remade it into a bohemian desert oasis for rent on Airbnb—and get some tips on how to do it yourself.

Brian and Kathrin Smirke standing outside Joshua Tree rental home

Brian and Kathrin Smirke visited Joshua Tree National Park six years ago on a weekend getaway from their home in Los Angeles. They left with a souvenir: a $33,000 derelict cabin. "A squatter had lived there for a year, and the cabin had been foreclosed. There were pipes sticking out of the wall. Windows were broken. The drain lines had rotted out. And it wasn't connected to the septic system," Brian says.

The couple works together building, designing, and developing real estate at their company, We Are In Our Element. They wanted to remake the house quickly and creatively for their own use and as a rental property. After 10 months of work, the Smirkes could finally vacation at their finished property with bohemian desert decor and rent it out via Airbnb for $145–$185 per night while they're away. Now they host 120 adventure-seeking visitors each year.

Follow along with their journey from ruins to rental extraordinaire, then learn how to decorate and promote your vacation rental for the best possible guest experience.

Kathrin Smirke

It makes you happy that all this work you put into saving a house can make other people happy."

— Kathrin Smirke

Set (and Stick to) a Budget

Bohemian style southwestern living room

The pair set a budget of $45,000 to cover materials, labor, and furnishings and got to work. With the help of hours of YouTube and manufacturer videos, Brian gutted the house and took on every remodeling project that came up. He even saved wood from the extensive demo to make shelves, lights, the platform bed, plant stands, and anything else they dreamed up. The living room light fixture is made of scrap wood and a $5 light kit. Brian turned 4x4-inch fence posts and a metal base into a coffee table.

Curate a Decor Style

modern triangle shelving unit with geometric artwork and concrete floors

For the bohemian desert decor, Kathrin mapped out a style that merged her preference for eclectic and vintage with Brian's clean and modern taste. "We balance each other out," she says. Luckily, their cost-saving sources of Craigslist, Etsy, eBay, thrift stores, budget retailers—even furniture put out on curbs in their Los Angeles neighborhood—suits their style. Brian built most of the home's decorative elements, including this triangle shelf unit. Kathrin repurposed legs from a midcentury table she found curbside for the base.

Brian Smirke

I like designing with limitations. It makes us come up with unique ideas on a budget. It's more rewarding that way."

— Brian Smirke

Get on Social Media

Kathrin found this antique claw-foot tub on Craigslist for $80 and painted it orange. The cozy, private spot is now a popular photo op for guests. Kathrin uses Instagram to curate a real-time travelogue for future visitors. Renters at the Smirkes' cabin tag photos with #cabincabincabin, and Kathrin reposts using the location's account, @cabincabincabin.

Hire a Maintenance Team

platform bed bench and hanging closet bar in bedroom

The bed's platform doubles as a built-in bench at the end of the bed. Kathrin added yarn pom-poms to a quilt to give it the look of a Moroccan bedspread. Concrete floors were under old linoleum. The pair sanded and sealed them for a modern update.

You'll need people to do things like wash bedding, cleaning, and repairs unless you live nearby. Be prepared by finding a pro on Yelp or Angie's List who you can call with time-sensitive maintenance issues.

List the Property (with Pretty Photos)

In the kitchen, they installed ready-to-assemble cabinets around a refurbished antique stove they found for $200, including delivery. The green vintage fridge (a $75 find) fits with the room's other retro accessories.

Take photos of key rooms—the kitchen, bedroom, bathroom, and gathering spaces—during the day when natural light is best. List it on sites like Airbnb or HomeAway so renters can find you.

Be a Good Host

dining room with salvaged wood wall art tumbleweed chandelier

The Smirkes used salvaged wood around the doorway and as wall art to fill the dining room with rustic character. The tumbleweed light fixture adds a quirky note inspired by the landscape. (For safety, they use 3-watt LED bulbs that stay cool.)

Before and during their stay, engage with guests and respond to their questions and comments. Help them explore by providing dining and activity ideas. Send out an email guide before their trip or offer suggestions in a booklet on the dining room table.

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