MAPLE CITY — It was a risk at first.
But an idea that Mary Buschell had six years ago — to build a livable yurt on her farmstead — paid off. Even in the dead of Michigan winter, visitors pay to stay in her home. In the summer, their rental brings in more than $4,000 a month.
“When we were building it, we planned for $8,000 a year, and I thought I was being kind of generous,” said Buschell. “It’s crazy, because it way exceeded that.”
Where there’s pushback against short-term rentals, local owners like Mary and her husband offer that companies like AirBnB, VRBO and HomeAway provide a cash lifeline for homeowners.
In February, AirBnB announced broad figures on just how much its hosts earn in a calendar year. In Michigan, counties like Leelanau and Grand Traverse topped the charts in county-by-county comparisons.
Hosts in Grand Traverse County came first in gross earnings, raking in $20 million between January and September of 2021. Leelanau brought in big earnings as well, particularly in relation to its significantly smaller population. Per capita, owners in Leelanau brought in more than twice that.
Companies like AirBnB do not publicly list granular data on short-term rental. But data scraped from the company’s website show 722 short-term rental listings in Leelanau County. Grand Traverse County is home to 1,106 rentals.
For several years now, housing advocates and city officials have asked pointed questions of short-term rental owners, arguing that when more homes are bought to become short-term rentals, fewer remain for workers and families. Fewer families mean fewer neighbors who care about the neighborhood.
Mary and her husband have license to see their rental differently. For one, they built their yurt themselves — they didn’t remove a property from the market. For another, it would make a poor home, even if it sleeps a family of four, Buschell said. It’s built like a getaway — no dishwasher, no stovetop, not even a driveway for a car.
“It would be OK maybe for one person, but not for a family,” Buschell said.
When Buschell stopped into 9 Bean Rows bakery last week, she said she felt a pang of guilt at the sight of a sign seeking an affordable home.
“I always feel a little bad when I see that,” said Buschell, who is 73. Her husband, Dick Flowers, is 74. “But this has been a huge boost for our financial stability. We eat at restaurants more, we travel, we’ve done renovations on the house.”
When Dick was recently diagnosed with pulmonary fibrosis, rental income helped the family pay for his hospital bills. And most importantly, Buschell says, it’s helped them to run their home as they get older. She and her husband can’t work like farm hands anymore, hucking hay into the lofts of their barn. Rental profits let them hire workers to lend a hand, Buschell said.
“It kept us on this farm,” Buschell said. “That’s the most important thing.”
The broader argument for rentals is economical, too. Year-round visitors bring money into a retirement county. Tourists patronize restaurants, wineries and farms.
“They’re buying gas, they’re going to the dunes, they’re supporting the national lakeshore — everyone who comes here and stays here is at least paying $25 for one day.”
They bring in new neighbors, too, said Ranae Ihme, who manages more than 120 rental properties in Leelanau County. Ihme — whose company both manages rentals and sells real estate — said she has sold 23 of the rentals to out-of-town families who fell in love and decided to move in permanently.
It’s a small inversion of the trend housing advocates say is depleting long-term housing stock. About half of those 23 have moved into the area, Ihme says, enrolling their kids in schools and beginning a life in Leelanau County.
“I hate the notion that people think people are buying up these vacation properties and eliminating people living here,” said Ihme. “More and more it’s younger families who said ‘I grew up coming to Glen Arbor and now I want to be there.’”
It’s true that many of the rentals don’t see their regular owners for much of the year. Still, part of Leelanau’s history is out-of-town ownership. Parcel lists show 65 percent of county properties list owners with downstate or out-of-state addresses. It’s not an exact indicator of ghosted homes — mailing addresses aren’t vetted — but it’s the best indicator Leelanau County officials can provide.
By renting, those homes bring in tourism cash throughout more of the year.
When Mary Buschell cleans out her rental after guests stay, she notices the pizza boxes, the receipts, the leftover tickets from parks and tours. She thinks their project has done some good.
“When we take out the trash and realize the money people have spent, at Grocer’s Daughter, at every business up here — we need these places,” Buschell said, adding, “We get people who wouldn’t even come to Leelanau if they didn’t see the yurt.”
“This has been a huge boost for our financial stability. We eat at restaurants more, we travel, we’ve done renovations on the house.” Mary Buschell