Deborah Jacobs: Designing with AirBnB in mind

A native of Brussels, former citizen of San Francisco, and a traveler of global metropolises, Deborah Jacobs is no stranger to vacation tourism. The self-made interior designer and manager of her own AirBnB rental properties has made a name for herself in Indiana’s own youthful tourist destination—Broad Ripple.

Walking into the home of Deborah Jacobs and Alan Leerkamp, a lucky guest would be welcomed by warm Midwestern hospitality and a wealth of travel knowledge. PATTERN sat with the duo responsible for the impressive AirBnB lodging options at their refurbished kitchen table under a mobile of love notes and well wishing cards.

Raised in a family environment of logic and numbers, Jacobs clung, steadfast, to a dream of working in the fine arts field. After convincing her family to let her complete a bachelor’s degree in graphic design at the Institut St. Luc in Brussels, Belgium, Jacobs received her first paid job  as a packaging designer shortly after graduation.

Having a restless spirit and natural curiosity for a culture unknown, Jacobs ventured to the United States as a student — first in Arizona and then California. To stay close to her newfound love of San Francisco, Jacobs embarked on the seemingly impossible: searching for a job in the city abuzz with creatives possessing something that she did not—US citizenship. She says her greatest shame was the amount of trees she killed with all the resumes she submitted in that time of her life.

“One day, out of desperation, I decided to target one of my favorite art galleries in the city–Caldwell Snyder Gallery. I gathered every ounce of courage I could possibly come up with to walk in with my broken English, and say: ‘You deserve a better website. I will design and build it for you, for FREE. They said: ‘Ok?!’ It was the beginning of a beautiful new chapter as an Art Director.”

After five years in San Francisco, Jacobs met the other love of her life, Alan Leerkamp, a territory manager for a pharmaceutical company.

In 2014, Leerkamp and Jacobs decided to relocate to Indiana (Leerkamp’s original home) to raise their 4-year-old daughter, Samuelle. The tradeoff for leaving a city she held dear was the opportunity to design their dream home.

Sidney Hoerter: Why did you choose the Broad Ripple area over others when deciding to move to Indy?

Deborah Jacobs: I flew in and had 16 hours to find a house. I requested a neighborhood that was walkable, and he needed a coffee shop nearby.

Alan Leerkamp: I was adamant. In that 16 hours Deborah looked at eight homes in four or five different neighborhoods including Old Northside, Fall Creek, and even Downtown. When she decided on the house, she sent me a picture of Hubbard & Cravens down the street.

DJ: I said ‘This is the coffee shop you will be going to everyday.’

AL: I knew then that the house in Broad Ripple was the one she chose.

SH: Did you look for a house that needed remodeling?

DJ: Yes. The number one priority was location; we knew it would be impossible to find the perfect location and the house of our dreams. Allen wanted the house with a finished exterior, and we planned to redo the inside.

I love designing for small spaces, and I would say that’s my specialty. But once you sell property in San Francisco, you gain a considerably larger budget. I didn’t want to get sidetracked by a bigger house just because we could afford one. We wanted a small house that was flexible enough for family visits.

AL: We wanted a flexible space that would be used all the time—no empty guest bedrooms that were only utilized sometimes.

SH: Now you have people coming in and out all the time.

DJ: Yeah, we love it. We can sit in the living room, greet them and tell them which restaurant to go to tonight. It’s so much fun.

SH: How has Indy affected your work?

DJ: It has taken a drastic turn. I still had some of my previous design clients in San Francisco and I wasn’t sure how I would restructure my career after moving here. I rented out space on AirBnb, just to fill in the gaps between family visits and people loved it.

AL: We constantly had requests for other places and that led to a condo, a house…

DJ: …and another house. Now we’re starting to remodel a condo for the summer, and we’re closing on a duplex this Saturday.

AL: If she’s not remodeling, she becomes antsy.

DJ: It really has become something that I love.

SH: How did you get your start with AirBnb?

AL: The San Francisco experience first.

DJ: We had a small, short term rental in Union Square that we rented out on VRBO and Homeaway—it was fully booked constantly. It was 285 square feet, with a custom-made Murphy bed and the space was adorable.

AL: Full kitchen with a convection oven that was about eight square feet.

DJ: I loved designing the small space. I thought once we moved to Indiana, I would have to give that up. San Francisco is a touristy area, and that was where the market for short-term rentals was; I didn’t think there was a need for it here. But I decided to try it again with the loft upstairs because my family wasn’t always here.

AirBnB has a different system; it’s free to list, but they take a cut of the profit when people rent.. I didn’t make any financial risks,  so I expected only a few hundred dollars here and there. But it became a constant source of revenue.

I loved designing the small space. I thought once we moved to Indiana, I would have to give that up. San Francisco is a touristy area, and that was where the market for short-term rentals was; I didn’t think there was a need for it here. But I decided to try it again with the loft upstairs because my family wasn’t always here.

SH: What were the steps you took to gain credibility on AirBnb?

DJ: It is hard work. It’s not passive income like other real estate because you work off of your reviews. You have to communicate with your guests and make sure everything goes smoothly. I go to every cleaning to check that the beds are made properly, all the soaps are there—it’s constant upkeep.

AL: It’s a full service business, unlike long-term rentals where you receive passive income.

SH: Was it difficult to incorporate the customer service aspect into your work life because you hadn’t necessarily dealt with that aspect while you were a graphic designer?

DJ: At first it was difficult. Eventually it allowed me to make a choice to drop the other business because the income made more sense. I certainly like the hands-on aspect of this better than sitting at a computer for graphic design.

To maintain their sanity and the professional image of responsive AirBnB hosts, Leerkamp and Jacobs chose to maintain a boundary of the 46220 zip code. One of her favorite properties is one she calls the Black Bungalow—a little black house at the corner of the quiet neighborhood. The project of renovating the Black Bungalow took on a minimalist approach.

DJ: The key was to get the light to flow through it and fill it up. I love the contrast of the stark Black exterior and the very bright and white interior. You should have heard the neighbors buzz when the painters started to paint it black! Big panic… some even came to express complaints about it, and later admitted to actually liking it!

I salvage the unsalvageable original wood floors by accentuating the wear and tear – making the scars and permanent stains a part of the casual design. Contrasting some higher end furniture against the worn floors complete the design’s balance in my humble opinion. People immediately feel right at home in the comfortable space.

Featured photo by Aliza Brown. Article photos by Esther Boston.

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