For Superhosts Mary and Buster Reynolds, hospitality and home building have been a part of their lives for 40 years. “It’s a way of life,” Buster said. He and his wife Mary have been building their home by hand since 1980, and sharing it with guests. “With all these new people coming in, you get to look at your home again with fresh eyes. We are really proud of what’s happened.” The property —located in a former bird sanctuary, a 30-minute bus ride from Johannesburg, South Africa— has a main house with three guest rooms, as well as two guest cottages. And the couple finally completed it “last night!” Mary laughed, “I literally just finished tiling the new bathroom.”
Mary and Buster took some time away from tiling to tell us how they started hosting, how it’s helped support them through retirement, and why there may be another house just like theirs 3,000 miles away in Nigeria.
Hand building a home seems like a massive undertaking. Did you both work in construction before?
Mary: Actually, no. Buster is a retired cinematographer, and I worked most of my life in education. We used to have a landlord who built cottages, and they were built so poorly that we thought, if he could do it...we could do it better. So Buster did a bricklaying course, and I bought a plumbing book.
That’s your training?
Buster: (laughs) We didn’t have the money to buy a home back then. It was the only way we could get the house we wanted on the piece of land we wanted. So we started with 3,000 rand ($218 U.S.) and went from there. It was every weekend, every spare minute, every spare cent that went into the home.
Mary: Buster did the structure and I worked on the inside. The beams are made from local gumtrees, and a lot of the other wood came from the Crown Mines scrapyard, one of the first goldmines in Johannesburg. The only thing we contracted out was the electricity and the thatched roof because it’s very specialized. Thatching is a traditional craft, so we hired local experts to thatch the roof with grass hand-cut by their wives. It’s like Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel, spending almost a lifetime up and down ladders. It’s like living in a work of art.
Has chatting about the house become a good way to connect with guests?
Buster: Yes, definitely. The house is open-plan, which in 1980 wasn’t even in the dictionary. Now times have finally caught up with us! Guests come in through the kitchen door and immediately connect with [the home and] what we’re serving them for breakfast: homegrown and homemade jams, pickles and chutney as well as home-baked granola and muffins. There’s always a variety of breads, plenty of coffee and Rooibos tea, which is a South African thing. We spend at least an hour at the breakfast table talking.
Mary: We had a group from Nigeria who had anticipated a 5-star hotel. When they walked in their faces dropped, but it wasn’t long before they mellowed into the experience. By the time they left, one asked for a copy of our house plans because he wanted to build a house like ours. So somewhere in Nigeria there may be a clone of our house.
That sounds like the highest compliment! How did you get started hosting?
Mary: Through the AFS — American Field Service, an international exchange program. In 1984, we did an amazing trip to America and, upon our return, AFS was looking for host families. Since then, we’ve hosted seven students, each for a year, and from all over the world. Hosting became a way of life for us. We also added two cottages, originally for our parents, and then as rentals. In 2017, our daughter Katy encouraged us to join Airbnb, and we started getting bookings almost immediately.
What do you enjoy most about hosting?
Mary: It’s the people. We’ve always enjoyed having people here, learning about different cultures, and learning about why people come to South Africa. We had an amazing group of African-Americans from Chicago who wanted to discover their roots. We directed them to places where we thought they’d enjoy authentic African experiences. And they were completely bowled over and felt a great affinity with the culture.
Buster: There was also this Argentinian man who was so fascinated by our composting system that he wanted to go back and start a compost business. It’s stories like that that keep us going.
Mary: Plus, Buster had to take early retirement and as I am semi-retired, this supplemental income has made a huge difference. It’s allowed us to continue to live in our home. We also employ two domestic workers and a gardener. If we didn’t have the Airbnb income, they would also lose their jobs. Our intention is not to make a profit or a killing—absolutely not—but just to retain our home and keep Nelly, Elizabeth, and Mishek employed.
Do you have any advice for hosts?
Mary: You’ve got to enjoy what you’re doing otherwise it’s not worthwhile. We do enjoy it. And when people appreciate things, you know you’re doing it right.
Mary and Buster, congratulation for your wonderful success!
What I appreciated most was your comment "Our intention is not to make a profit or a killing—absolutely not—but just to retain our home and keep Nelly, Elizabeth, and Mishek employed."
This is the most wonderful attitude you have and the essence of what airbnb should be about !
Eversince I ended up alone in my house since my family moved out airbnb allowed me to keep the house in good running condition comfortably! I enjoy the coming and goings of an international young crowd coming through the nearby airpott and depending on their schedule I show them around by bike or car in the winter to let them know a bit about the history and beauty of the Saint Lawrence riverside , the Western part of the Island of Montreal. I treat all guests as family and I think the appreciation is mutually satisfying.
Thanks for sharing your airbnb history, wishing you further great times with your guests!
What an inspiring story. Especially the employment opportunities created, which are much needed in South Africa. We have a similar set-up of a self-built home and a cottage which is now let out through Airbnb. This helps to justify the employment of two women who would otherwise be struggling to support their extended families.
A huge conratulations for you both!!! We know the hard work on it, planification and efforts to be the best that you can. My couple have being working one year and a half in our apartment with a special decoration of bamboos, putting so much energy and hard work on it, so we know what this mean for you.
Congratulations again, it feels cozy, gorgeous and natural energy through the pictures!
Would love to travel to Africa someday. I will definitely keep your home in mind if i do. sounds like a very wonderful place and you go the extra mile to make sure it is a wonderful experience for you Guests.
Your home is lovely and unique and the landscaping is absolutely beautiful. Great job. I wish I lived near there, I would visit :)