Sunday, July 17, 2016

What You Need to Know About Renting a Vacation Home

A few years ago, I wrote an article recommending that travelers rent an apartment to better experience local living while on vacation. Since then, the short-term term rental industry has exploded in popular tourist destinations, thanks to online services like AirBnB, VRBO, HomeAway and similar online services. As a result, I will never rent a whole home again. After reading about the effect this industry has had on many cities, I hope you will feel the same way.

AirBnB started out as a guy who rented an air mattress in his apartment to tourists visiting San Francisco to make enough money to cover the bills. The company still insists the majority of its hosts are people who rent out part of their home. The reality is that most of the properties are whole homes that are not occupied by the owners, and many of the owners have a large number of houses and apartments listed on this site and others.

Know the Risks
Privately owned properties can be more affordable to rent than a hotel, but that’s often because they are not paying taxes like hotels do. They are also not subject to safety inspections like hotels, so you never know what condition the home is in until you actually show up. If the place does not meet your expectations, it’s usually too late to find another one, and you are definitely not going to get a refund. If there is a fire or other catastrophe, the owners are probably not insured to operate as a hotel, so your belongings would not be covered if they were destroyed. If you aren’t concerned, consider the home in New Orleans without smoke alarms and bars on the windows where a fire started and the guests barely made it out alive. 

If you stay in a hotel, the staff is always available to provide directions, daily maid service, room service, recommendations for places to eat and tour and other important information about the area. You will usually have nothing more than a combination to a lockbox when you arrive at a whole home rental. Nobody will tell you which areas are safe to walk in and what you can do to avoid crime, which is a concern in any city.

Housing Crisis
In addition to the negative aspects that travelers face when renting a whole home, the housing market in many popular destinations like Paris, New York, San Francisco, Barcelona and New Orleans have been devastated as property owners have evicted tenants in favor of the higher prices they can charge to short-term renters. Low income service workers, artists and entertainers who used to live and work in tourist areas have been forced out of the area and must take long bus rides or pay high parking rates when driving to work. 

The dream of owning a home in these areas is now out of reach for most, and many homeowners are being forced to sell because they can no longer afford the property taxes. The popular French Quarter in New Orleans, which used to have about 6,000 residents, now has about 1,000 and has lost much of its neighborhood feel as the area has become a large center for illegal hotels.

Neighborhood Impact
With fewer full-time residents in the neighborhood, crime tends to increase as there are fewer neighbors to look out for each other and take note of who doesn’t belong. The problem is exacerbated by tourists who attract criminals by carrying large amounts of cash and flashing valuables like cameras and cell phones. With their carefree on-vacation attitude, often fueled by alcohol, they are easy prey.

As a resident of an area frequented by tourists, I have first-hand experience with the negative impact of whole-home rentals. Each weekend brings a new set of strangers to the units next to and beneath mine. While the building does have a locked security door, it can’t prevent strangers from entering when my neighbors give them a key. Some of the people are nice, but many are not, and a number have been downright frightening. On several occasions I have looked out the window and discovered strangers peering in, so I have been forced to put up a sign asking people to respect my privacy. When people are around, I have to close the shutters, so I feel like I am living in a cave. I have been awakened on several nights at 4 or 5 in the morning by drunken guests stumbling up the stairs and screaming like maniacs. Other times I have come through the gate and been followed by people who could be guests or criminals. When I’ve asked them where they were staying, I have been met with anything from rudeness to downright belligerence as if I am the one who doesn’t belong. People have left cigarettes and half-empty drinks on my window sill and the table beneath my window, thrown trash in the courtyard and basically treated the place like it’s a hotel with 24/7 maid service. One night a guest was beating his girlfriend in the unit beneath me, and another time, a guy dropped a bottle off the balcony just seconds after I passed beneath it. If these situations had taken place at a hotel or a home with an on-site owner, they would have been addressed immediately; however, with nobody on the premises, my only option is to track down the owners, but it’s become pointless because the guests will be gone in a day or so and a new bunch will be in there a few days later.  

Cities Cracking Down
Many city governments are waking up to the reality of the negative impact that short-term whole-home rentals are having and are starting to take action. Since the practice is already illegal in most areas, cities like New York and Paris are setting high fines for violators. They are also requiring platforms like AirBnB to collect taxes, which puts properties closer to the price range of hotels.

Where to Stay

If you are still looking into a short-term property rental for your next trip, please consider the impact your choice will have on the city you will be visiting. By renting a room in someone’s home, you can be helping him or her to continue to live there. By staying in a whole home, you could be the reason why someone lost his home.