Behind a discreet one-story, white textured house in Biscayne Park sits the most popular Airbnb rental in all of Florida.
Paola Ugolini has lived in the 1920s house with her family for 17 years. Originally she imagined her backyard cottage as a place for her relatives from Europe to stay when they visited Miami. But the family visits were sparse, and the cottage remained empty for much of the year. So, when Ugolini heard of a website where she could list the cottage and host tourists in 2014, she decided to give it a try.
Now, her cottage has become the most popular Airbnb listing in Florida, measured by the number of times browsers have added it to their wish lists, according to Airbnb.
“Now one after the other, the listing is almost fully booked,” she said.
Biscayne Park isn’t usually a stop on the Miami tourist circuit. It’s a small triangle-shaped residential neighborhood just north of Miami Shores known for its 1930s log cabin and “Don’t even think about speeding!” signs. Mostly one-story houses sit on green lawns; small boulevards divide the narrow, shady streets.
Only about 3,184 people live in Biscayne Park, according to the most recent 2017 U.S. Census estimate. The estimated median household income is $69,750, far above Miami-Dade’s, and the crime rate is low.
Ugolini’s cottage in her palm tree-lined yard has seen nearly 400 guests from 26 countries since she started renting on Airbnb in 2014.
“I love to host because I love receiving people and listening to their stories, and this I think gives a special energy to my place,” she said.
Ugolini rents her cottage for $85-100 per night, depending on the season. The one-room structure — named the “Cozy and charming cottage” — has terracotta floors; a queen bed sits in the middle of the room next to a desk and chair. The studio boasts a small TV, mini fridge, coffee maker, microwave and small armoire. The cottage walls are covered with art that Ugolini said reflects Miami’s multi-cultural nature — a painting from a Haitian artist, a Peruvian table runner.
The back doors open up to a table and chairs on a shady patio. Guests can use the backyard pool. The cottage has a private entrance from the street, so guests can come and go without running into the owners.
So why is this listing No. 1? It likely has something to do with service: Ugolini has achieved the website’s coveted “Superhost” designation, meaning she responds to all requests to book promptly. She goes the extra mile by providing guests with sunscreen, bug spray, beach chairs, bikes, snacks, travel guides, and extra toothbrushes. Two chocolates wait in the mini fridge along with two Cokes, Corona beers and juices.
The personal touches pay off. The cottage has 183 five-star reviews chocked full of praise.
“Our host made our stay 10X better with the cute surprises and amenities!” said Kayla, who visited the cottage last August, in her online review.
“Everything was very clean and Paola paid attention to details offering many convenient features/accessories in the cottage,” said Charles, who visited last April.
It has stiff competition. The runner-up for most wish-listed Airbnb rental in Florida is a compound in Seminole County, outside Orlando that offers accommodations in a tree house, an airplane hangar and a yurt. The number one most wish-listed rental in the U.S. is a tree house in Atlanta, Georgia, that is nearly fully booked through February 2020.
“The common denominator when we look at most wish-listed listings throughout the world is that they all have some unique, unreplicable quality,” said Ben Breit, senior public affairs manager at Airbnb. “Like with the Georgia listing, where else can you find a magical treehouse like that? With Paola’s listing, the unreplicable quality appears to be Paola herself.”
Ugolini said she gets a lot of honeymooners who want to keep to themselves. Other guests are more social; they attend neighborhood block parties or enjoy a drink with Ugolini and her family on the porch. During Hurricane Irma, two Argentine guests stuck at Miami International Airport were invited to return to the cottage for a week free of charge.
“We became good friends,” she said. “They were so happy to be with us. They didn’t know what a hurricane could be.”
Ugolini learned about Airbnb just after she had been laid off from her job at an Italian fashion company, she said. “It was perfect timing.” She dedicates time every day to respond to inquiries from interested guests and questions from people who have already booked. She takes care of the cleaning between bookings and restocks the supplies. There are only a handful of days in any given month when the cottage is empty.
Airbnb continues to grow in popularity among visitors to Florida. Ugolini is one of 45,000 Airbnb hosts in the state, a 40 percent increase since 2016. Florida hosts earned a combined $810 million last year while providing accommodations to 4.5 million guests, according to Airbnb. Some Florida cities are more Airbnb friendly than others. Biscayne Park, where Ugolini lives, does not have an ordinance against short-term rentals but does require landlords to have permits. Ugolini said she has an occupational license that allows her to have a home-based business. Miami Beach, on the other hand, has the steepest fines in the country for people who list their properties in undesignated areas.
Ugolini said her neighbors hardly notice her guests and insists that they are never noisy or rowdy. But some in Biscayne Park would like to see the village take a firmer stance against short-term rentals. Jared Susi, who has lived in the neighborhood for seven years, said he wishes Biscayne Park would use its landlord permit rules to regulate hosts.
“I have a young family, it’s not a rental community,” he said. “We purchased in Biscayne Park for us to raise our family. With an Airbnb we don’t know who is there.” Biscayne Park’s village manager did not respond to requests for comment about its policies.
Ugolini plans to continue to rent her cottage. She’s fully booked for March.