Gabe Peyton has had roommates from all over the world — Australia, South Africa and other far-flung locales — for a night or two.
For over a year, the designer and builder has hosted guests through Airbnb in the second bedroom of the two-bedroom apartment he rents on Capitol Hill.
“I’m usually booked out a month in advance,” says Peyton, 35.
Renters stand to make money, and even some new friends, through the popular hosting site, but there’s a lot to keep in mind before launching a side business as a de facto hotel manager.
For Peyton, the hosting process has been simple. He furnished the second room in his rowhouse apartment, signed up to host and rents out the room pretty regularly for $108 a night. In between guests, he has the place professionally tidied, an added perk.
“It keeps the house clean,” he says.
Because he usually remains in the apartment when guests are staying, he’s able to get to know them and offer tips on things to do.
As far as his landlord is concerned, Peyton says, “I’m not sure if he knows, but it’s not something I would hide.”
That’s a thorny issue for renters who post their own room or extra rooms in their apartment online. Renters may follow a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy with their landlord, but if the lease prohibits subleasing, hosting may be a violation.
“The default in D.C. is that you’re allowed to do a lot with your apartment,” says Marc Borbely, a lawyer at D.C. Tenants’ Rights Center. “The only place in law that would stop you from doing something like Airbnb is what’s in your lease.”
Many leases do prohibit subleasing except with the consent of the landlord, and some have started specifically prohibiting renting on Airbnb, Borbely notes.
“There may be ways to have people do Airbnb without it being subletting,” he says, adding that it’s worth talking to a lawyer for case-by-case advice. Airbnb hosts in the District should also know they’re technically required to obtain a business license from the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA), and may be subject to zoning rules and other laws.
“You need to be aware of where the unit is located, how many people it is rented to and whether the owner is going to be present,” says Matt Orlins, director of legislative and public affairs at DCRA. “That will help you determine what type of license you need to legally rent the apartment.”
Orlins concedes, though, that it’s difficult and time-consuming for the DCRA to investigate the difference between an illegal short-term rental and someone who just has a guest over, and so investigation isn’t very likely.
Because Allie Armitage, 30, and her roommate travel a lot, they’re looking to post their rooms in Shaw on Airbnb, but are still figuring out the logistics.
“It seems like a really great opportunity to make some extra money and let people stay in a real place in D.C.,” she says. “[But] there’s a question as to whether that’s kosher.”
Borbely warns of other possible pitfalls — for instance, if paying guests refuse to leave, it can be hard to force them out, thanks to D.C.’s generous tenant protections. Regarding the potential for theft, Airbnb recommends securing or removing things like jewelry or artwork, which may not be covered by its damages policy.
If renters do decide to take the plunge, tools and services have sprung up to make it easier to manage an Airbnb business, such as Guesty, which helps people with administrative tasks like pricing rooms and communication with guests, and companies like D.C.-based Great Dwellings, which manages Airbnb rentals and deals with guests for people for a commission.
“We have no shortage of guests,” says Karl Scarlett, founder of Great Dwellings, noting that some properties they manage have guests staying 90 percent of the time. Scarlett notes that he’ll only work with clients who are legally renting out their space, such as owners and potentially renters who follow the proper channels. So that’s just one of many reasons to follow the rules when trying out Airbnb.
Hosting for a cause
Some people join Airbnb not to make an extra buck, but to provide shelter for a good cause. Last December, Amr Arafa, 34, started offering his studio apartment in Foggy Bottom on Airbnb exclusively to refugees and victims of domestic abuse. It’s part of a project he’s working on called EmergencyBNB.
Arafa’s place is currently listed on Airbnb — he charges the site’s minimum of $10 a night and reimburses guests when they arrive — but he eventually hopes to get more users and run the service entirely through his own site.
Having been on a series of temporary visas since arriving in the U.S. in 2005, “I kind of identify with people in vulnerable situations,” he says. Among his guests have been two refugees from Syria who stayed for two weeks while he was traveling, and two victims of domestic violence.
“Every time it’s very, very rewarding,” he says.
Though there are legal and safety risks, he thinks the value of the project outweighs them. “The idea is spreading very quickly,” he says. “Hopefully it gains the right momentum.”
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