Natalie Vowell’s vacation rental in a rough St. Louis neighborhood has a grease-stained kitchen with a busted freezer and a buggy, overgrown yard. It also has a five-star rating on Airbnb.

Home is Where the Hood Is, Natalie and her husband’s one-bedroom condo, went viral this month for its brutally honest listing description. At a dirt-cheap rate of $29 per night, we’re sure pricing has at least something to do with its success. But a quick look at the comments shows that guests aren’t just satisfied with their stays—they rave about them. (Their other property, Punk Rock Flop House, is similar in spirit and boasts a 4.5-star rating with equally satisfied reviews.)

So what gives? How are Natalie and her husband raking in the kudos while some owners with over-the-top luxury villas struggle to win the admiration of their guests?

We think much of it has to do with their personalities—several guests have written to express how grateful they were for their above-and-beyond hospitality, and one even described how the couple invited him to stay with them in their own home when the rental he booked faced last minute maintenance issues.

But beyond that: these listing descriptions kick butt. They target the right audience, address shortcomings with confidence, and sell readers on the experience. Let’s break them down by their three key characteristics.

Honesty

“Yard, when freshly mowed. Don’t get too excited. This doesn’t happen often.”

Natalie and her husband make no attempt to hide their condo’s flaws. They admits it’s “cheaply renovated” (though not by its owners), that they’ve made “ZERO effort to child-proof” and that many believe a trip to this side of town means risking getting mugged or shot (though she makes a case against that belief—something we’ll address later).

Guests even have to find a hidden password within her description and use it in their inquiry email to ensure they’ve read the listing all the way through.

Why does this level of honesty work? It’s hyper-targets a specific audience. Yes, toned-down language might attract more guests—but not the right ones. The listing weeds out anyone who would rate the property poorly by being totally upfront about what to expect.

And it works. The reviews are full of guests lauding the property for being exactly what the description promised it to be, proof that a little bit of honesty goes a long way when selling a flawed property.

Humor

“While the freezer is sanitized and surprisingly functional, our best hypothesis is that a pipe bomb filled with crayons was detonated inside it. Thusly, we do not recommend using it.”

We’ve all heard it: “Beauty captures the eye, but personality captures the heart.” Natalie’s listings are shining examples of what the old cliché means. Nobody’s booking these homes for the drab kitchens or questionable locations—the descriptions’ warmth is what wins them over. Let’s take a look at some examples.

The description for Punk Rock Flop House makes a light-hearted jab at the 10 p.m. quiet time for most average vacation rentals by writing, “no noise restrictions. Go to ELEVEN if you want.” The photo captions for the yard at Home is Where the Hood Is say it’s in “Fern Gully mode” and that the “only known fauna have wings, six legs, or both.”

By using playful language and boldly making the decision to not pull the wool over your eyes, these listing descriptions let you in on their jokes as a co-conspirator. They read like a conversation with an old friend cluing you in on a secret. This invitation to have a kind of rebellious, totally unconventional experience is what drives guests towards the book button.

Humanity

“House is not leaning; photographer may have been. Want to move to St. Louis? We love new residents in our City! Just let us know in your intro message, and we’ll be glad to assist you in selecting a permanent home.”

Most importantly, the humor Natalie uses is never at the expense of the people who call the area home. As a local insider, she’s able to dispel rumors and paint a picture of a community that’s seeing hard times, but isn’t the dystopia that out-of-towners (and even other locals) may think it is.

“Many St. Louisans believe that if you go northside, you’ll either be mugged or shot. While this is a very high-crime area, 99% of the violence is fueled by personal feuds; it’s not just random attacks on innocent bystanders,” the listing description for Home Is Where the Hood Is says. “Not everyone here is a thief or a gang member, so please leave your prejudice at home. The vast majority of the people here are decent, hardworking folks trying to break the cycle of poverty, or navigating the margin between oppression and destitution.”

But it doesn’t stop there. The descriptions humanize the local community by advising guests to be kind to the elderly upstairs neighbors who listen to reggae a little too loudly and like to chat, and makes friendly reference to the iPhone 3 salesmen that might knock on the front door.

Natalie and her husband even ask guests to leave the router alone because they have it configured to share internet, which they deem a crucial resource, with surrounding homes. By showing how much they care about their community, Natalie and her husband make it known how much they’ll care for their guests.

Natalie views her rentals as providing much more than a place to crash at night. A stay with her “provides a unique glimpse into life in a working-class, low-income neighborhood, a mismanaged Midwest city, and decades of urban decay.”

And isn’t seeing the world for what it truly is what Airbnb is supposed to be about?


Want some practical advice about how to write about your own property’s flaws? Check out our guide for covering your Achilles’ heel, or join us at our free February content workshops.