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Pope Francis’ U.S. visit causes surge in home, apartment rentals

Pope Francis greets faithful during an audience to Parish groups promoting evangelization, in the Paul VI hall at the Vatican, Saturday, Sept. 5, 2015. (L'Osservatore Romano/Pool Photo via AP)

WASHINGTON — Summer travel season may be winding down, but activity on apartment and home-rental sites is heating up — and it’s all in anticipation of Pope Francis’ first visit to the U.S.

Jon Gray, chief revenue officer for HomeAway.com, says D.C.-area homes listed on the company’s website are 94 percent booked for the week of the pope’s visit, and the company has seen a 43 percent increase in the number of local residents listing their homes.

And that’s just the beginning. A spokeswoman for Airbnb tells The Washington Post that the company has nearly 3,400 guests booked in the city during the time of the pope’s visit, with 2,300 listings still available.

In Philadelphia, where the pope is expected to make the most public appearances, homes are renting for an average of $1,700 a night (rates are typically closer to $200 a night during this time of year, Gray says), and listings shot up from 62 properties to 342.

“So people are definitely pricing based on the surge in demand,” Gray says.

Increases in inventory and pricing are common for home rental sites around the time of a major event, such as a presidential inauguration or papal visit, Gray says. Visitors typically travel together in groups for these events, and renting one sizable space has its advantages over booking several hotel rooms.

At the same time, residents willing to rent out their homes view large events as an opportunity to make some extra money.

“In many cases you’re able to rent out your home and pay for another vacation or part of your mortgage or something like that,” Gray says.

Those flocking to D.C. might not have to shell out quite as much money as Philly tourists for a chance to catch a glimpse of Pope Francis at the papal parade. A three-bedroom row house in Capitol Hill is listed on HomeAway for $375 a night during the week of Sept. 21, and a one-bedroom apartment in Dupont Circle rents for $159 a night on Airbnb.

Travelers also have options when it comes to hotels in the D.C. area. According to Elliott Ferguson, president and CEO of Destination DC, hotels in the District are 80 percent booked during Pope Francis’ visit, meaning plenty of rooms are still available at reasonable rates.

Some may remember a more competitive environment in 2008 when Pope Benedict XVI visited the nation’s capital. Ferguson says that visit coincided with D.C.’s peak tourism season (April), as well as a large convention — neither of which are an issue this time around.

Ben Timashenka, regional vice president of Kimpton Hotels, says the boutique brand has seen a slight lift in reservations at its 10 D.C. hotels for the week of Sept. 21, especially at its Capitol Hill location. As a result, he says guests can expect a 7 to 12 percent rate hike.

Both HomeAway’s Gray and Destination DC’s Ferguson say those thinking of coming into town next week still have lodging options and can snag a good deal, but time is running out.

Gray encourages those looking rent a home or an apartment on a peer-to-peer website to carefully read third-party reviews. “They give you a great color for what the experience is going to be like from people who’ve stayed there before,” he says.

And consider staying at a home that’s a little farther out — especially if you’re traveling with a big group. You’ll likely find a bigger venue for a better value.

If you’re interested in renting your home to others, Gray says there’s still a good chance someone will scoop it up, especially if you price it competitively.

He encourages property owners to spend a good amount of time building the listing page: take plenty of high-quality pictures and write a detailed description highlighting the qualities of your home.

Don’t forget to keep up customer service throughout the duration of your guests’ stay. Make a welcome packet and include information such as the Wi-Fi password, local maps and restaurant recommendations.

Ferguson says regardless the reason for traveling to D.C., September is a great time for a visit.

“If you’re thinking about coming to Washington, if you have the time off, if you want to be in the presence of the pope while he’s in the nation’s capital, we clearly have rooms, there are clearly things to do,” he says.

“While you’re in the city, by all means, take advantage of all of the free museums and all of the other attractions that we have.”

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