Airbnb: Spare room revolution

Make yourself at home: More and more people are making some extra cash by renting spare rooms or even their whole property to strangers.
Make yourself at home: More and more people are making some extra cash by renting spare rooms or even their whole property to strangers. Photo: Simon Schluter. Thanks to Donovans, St Kilda for the couch and muscle.

Got room? Airbnb is literally changing how we live.

You might have had a chuckle when you read about it. A New Yorker rented his Manhattan apartment out for a weekend via a website, only to discover that the guest was hosting a "sex party freak fest" that resulted in a trashed apartment, and a threatened eviction. Oops. That website? Airbnb.

Airbnb is possibly the easiest form of ''collaborative consumption'' that folk can get involved with. You may have seen the rest: car share programs, and co-ops where you borrow someone else's lawnmower for the weekend, without having to buy one for life. It's about sharing what you've got.

Airbnb is the ultimate in sharing; it's about opening your entire home or a room or couch to someone else, for a night or a week or a month or two. It's quite a community - you review where you stayed and your host reviews you, too. Melburnians - essentially amazing world travellers themselves - have taken to it like fish to water; there are 2764 listings here. That's 2764 people offering up a spare room or an entire house or flat to what are, effectively, strangers.

We're discovering that rather than putting up an ad to find a possibly pesky housemate who doesn't do the dishes and may never leave, we can get an exotic travelling soul from, say, Denmark, who will move on long before our interest has waned. We're discovering that hosting folk from around the world can do wonders for our bank accounts, stave off loneliness and even fund our renovations. Pop your locale into Airbnb and see what's on offer on your street. You'll probably be surprised.

Lucy, her partner and toddler son live above an arty shop in busy Fitzroy. They started renting out former studios at the rear of the shopfront (itself, rented) in December. "I went into it with this vague sense of dread," she reflects. "The retail was getting really quiet, and I thought: 'I'm going to have to do something for an income!' These [the back rooms] were our studios, and I just poured all of the money into getting bits of furniture and paint and everything. We did them up. Filled the cracks in the wall - just that took four days."

Since then, she and her partner have been renting them out through Airbnb at $70 a night for the larger room and $60 for the smaller one. "It's taken the edge out of the rent for us, and … we're actually able to pursue our art practice. So we're much nicer to one another. There's trying moments, but there's nights of lovely relief when we're alone again. I thought it would be a real siege on our relationship, but actually a lot of the people staying are quite busy and doing their own thing," says Lucy.

Thornbury flat owner Emma used Airbnb when she moved out of her two-bedroom ground-floor flat in September last year. "I was moving elsewhere for a while but didn't know how long I'd be there, and I didn't want to have to move all my furniture," she reflects. She listed her property on the site and has had 10 different groups stay since. "I put it up and got heaps and heaps of people inquiring about it. It was a reasonable price for what it was - $500 a week if they booked for a month," she says. So far, apart from the loss of some cheap wine glasses, and one guest filling the ''green'' bin with used nappies, she says it's all been pretty smooth. "I tended to meet people first, so whenever I possibly could, I'd meet them with the key." Isn't that too late to work out someone's all wrong? I ask. "It's not entirely too late," she replies. "The whole transaction thing doesn't get finalised until 24 hours after they move in. So I could probably go: "No, you're a complete psycho, get lost!" but I haven't had any problems like that!" she says.

Emma's just moved back into her flat, but she's sticking with Airbnb and already has bookings for her spare room. "It's essentially like having a housemate; they're not paying any more than a housemate would (she's listed the room for $30 a night)," she says. "It's not about making huge amounts of money, and it's only a sofa bed. It's not really set up for someone to stay indefinitely. Also, it would be nice to have the company every now and again. And they leave!" she says, laughing.

Williamstown woman Amanda has also been bitten by the Airbnb bug. "We went to Sydney for a holiday in January 2013. I can't remember who told us about Airbnb, but we realised that we could get somewhere fabulous for a fraction of the hotel equivalent. We used it to find a flat right on the harbour that had a harbour pool. It was a two-bedroom flat and it was $250 a night - well you wouldn't get anywhere near that in a hotel. So we started to think, well hang on, we've got a fabulous house that we love, maybe we could do that too!"

They moved out of their own home and into one they had just purchased, and began the Airbnb hosting journey themselves. "We weren't sure when we were going to sell ours and we didn't want to put anyone in a long-term lease," says Amanda. They didn't need to do much to get it ready: "We gave it a clean, and cleared out a lot of stuff, we bought locks for our wardrobe and our kids' wardrobes, and emptied out our precious things, but we didn't change it. It's a typical old-style Victorian at the front but we had done a funky renovation at the back about seven years ago so it was a good house for renting out because it looked different."

They eventually sold their house, but they've factored in Airbnb as a way to fund the renovation of their current home, as Amanda explains: "We're designing the new house renovation so that we can keep doing Airbnb. We don't have the budget to do a complete standalone place, but it looks like the house will be in two parts, and we'll live in all of it when we don't have guests, and when we do have guests we can push back into half of it. We want to have a fabulous house and we can't afford it, so we've worked out that we need to rent our house out for 90 days a year in order to cover what the increased mortgage will be," she explains.

Lucy, Emma and Amanda have noticed that Airbnb is growing in popularity, which is changing who is coming to stay and what's on offer. No longer is it just the early adopters, perhaps people with attitudes similar to those who are willing to open their homes to strangers - it's heading mainstream. Now you can stay in a luxury poolhouse in Toorak, or a penthouse in the CBD, as well as a yurt in Fitzroy. And while Lucy advertises her home as an artists' home ("Partially as a disclaimer, so people know what really to expect, that there's paint here and there, and puppets.''), she has noticed a change in who is booking in.

"Recently there's been a huge growth, and the people coming through are not the kind you'd expect. When something's new, you get a lot of younger people who are in touch with trends, but now we're getting quite a lot of older ladies, and people coming for conferences," she says. Emma's also noticing this. "I prefer people who have reviews, but it's just gone nuts in the last 12 months and I'm getting lots of people who are giving it a go for the first time and you can see that they're a member since March 2014 and there's nothing on their profile and no reviews, so it's a bit more hit and miss."

The growth of Airbnb has been a boon for many people, but there are some serious losers, too. If you can snap up a room in a new Melbourne apartment for $50 a night, why bother with a hotel? And owners can seemingly make more money from the short-term rental market than the long-term market, and have way more flexibility. In Melbourne, issues were identified in a case known as Salter, as lawyer Tim Graham, a partner at HWL Ebsworth Lawyers, explains: "It involved a building in the Docklands and a couple of owners who were renting out their apartments as short-term lets. Council issued a building order requiring those owners to stop that practice on the basis that it constituted a breach of the building code."

The owners ended up in the Court of Appeal, which, according to Graham, found that serviced apartment lets can operate within a zoned residential building. "The court didn't accept that short-term letting is a class three (hotel) rather than a class two (residential). It said that short-term lets can comfortably operate within a class two residential building," he explains.

Few councils are keeping up with the change. Many building and planning folk don't know what Airbnb is, and currently it's operating under the radar. And while some hosts declare their income from Airbnb to the Australian Tax Office, many don't, considering it like a housemate arrangement. Business is booming but the lines are still blurry.

How to be the host with the most

If you are renting, check for sub-letting clauses in your agreement. If you are in a flat, check your owner's corporation rules for short-term stays.

Get legal advice on liability and insurance. Airbnb offers some cover - for instance, the New Yorker whose apartment was wrecked was quickly compensated - but you need to see what your legal responsibilities will be.

Owners Corporation Network executive officer Karen Stiles suggests that in multi-level strata properties, owners have shown concern about short-term guests exerting extra wear and tear on lifts and common areas. Think about what you can do to relieve these issues.

Communication is the key to working out who gets your keys. Good communicators will more than likely make good guests. Likewise, declare cats and dogs and anything else people may have problems with.

Realise that your neighbours may not be happy waking up each day not knowing who is living next door, especially if the whole unit or house is being rented out and you are not there to supervise. Don't underestimate the amount of cleaning you will have to do. Many Airbnb hosts take a day just to get the room or house ready for the next guest.

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