It started life as DIY kit assembled in a spare patch of land for a newly homeless friend. Now this tiny wooden cabin sheltering in the oaks and redwoods of Aptos, California, is the most popular rental on Airbnb.
Other properties on the home-sharing website are more glamorous, and others are more likely to be tagged by Airbnb’s “wish list” button.
But in terms of actual bookings, the mushroom cabin, which describes itself as a “geodesic dome loft”, has consistently come out on top since it began listing on the site about seven years ago.
Back then, owner Kitty Mrache had been advertising the cabin on Craigslist “but I was frustrated with how undependable people were,” she said. “They would say they were coming and then wouldn’t show up.”
At the time, Airbnb was in startup mode – just 11 months old and, according to Kitty, and “going through a lot of challenges”. In those early days, listings were either in New York or San Francisco. The mushroom cabin was among the first that placed Airbnb outside cities.
“Almost immediately, we began getting reservations,” said Mrache, who runs the property with her husband, Michael. But it wasn’t until Airbnb invited them to a party for selected hosts, where company employees excitedly claimed they were “rock stars” and dragged them off to meet the founders, that they realized “the impact we were making or how comparatively successful we were”.
“We were blown away,” she said of the Airbnb event for its VIP hosts. “We had no idea what the culture was like in San Francisco. I used to live there in 1968 – so it was kind of a shock to me. Almost everybody at the party was hip, young and really into loud music. Very fancy clothes. And here we come in our laid-back, Santa Cruz dress. I was a little out of place.”
The mushroom dome shares the same unpretentious vibe of its founders: originally it was just 100 square feet, a compact in order to comply with regulations and not require a permit. But the cabin has over the years been moved, expanded and fixed up from its original pentagonal base. Its rustic, wooden charm is unchanged.
On Airbnb, the listing goes out of its way to stress its compactness. “The cabin is not as big as it looks in this photo,” reads one caption. “The magic of a wide-angle lens!” says another, of the minute bathroom.
“I don’t want people to have an illusion that they’re going to [a] large place,” Mrache said.
For $110, you can squeeze three people into the cabin. Climb a ladder to reach the double bed, and you’ll be in touching distance of the patchwork, wooden dome ceiling, a glass section of which looks out to the forest. Down below, there’s a futon, and a small table and kitchen. Behind a curtain is a bathroom, with composting toilet and tiny tiled shower.
As well as European holidaymakers and Bay area weekenders, many of the guests who book are interested in the Tiny House movement. “They want to experience what it’s like before they commit to building something and living like that,” she added.
“The mushroom dome is a terrific example of some of the more unusual homes that are featured on our site,” said a spokesperson for Airbnb, which has an 80% replica of Mrache’s cabin in their HQ. “Like all of our superhosts, Kitty and Michael are committed to offering extraordinary hospitality, which is of course highly desirable to prospective guests.”
But wannabe visitors need to line up.
The wait list is several months long, with every weekend booked through the spring and summer. So popular is the mushroom cabin that it had only three vacant nights last year. (The couple also now rent a small studio on the property – the Hummingbird Hangout – and hope to build a treehouse in the future.)
“Doing this has made a huge difference to our income,” Mrache said. “For the first time, we’re not scraping by.”
In her faded Airbnb logo T-shirt, Mrache said she was aware of criticism of Airbnb, and the part the tech company has played in rising rents, especially around San Francisco.
“I understand how that can be a problem in a city if you have a greedy landlord renting out multiple listings, which could be for permanent residents,” she said. “But in the case of all the people I know renting– they don’t want to have a permanent resident in that space. We didn’t want to rent out permanently because I have four adult children who like to visit.”
But the Mrache children also have to wait in line. “My kids like to come and stay,” she said. “But they have to make an appointment.”