German graduate student Ines Hanelt and a friend from Stuttgart never considered making hotel reservations on a recent two-week road tour of the eastern United States: Instead, they booked furnished rooms for a night or two at a time through airbnb.com.
“It’s cheaper than hotels,” Hanelt said during their two-night airbnb stay with Joan Tribulas in Cape Coral. “You get a real home, with real people who have inside information about the area,” Hanelt added.
The German women were among Southwest Florida tourists using peer-to-peer vacation rentals.
Short-term vacation rentals are nothing new. But online services that connect travelers with short-term lodgings in private dwellings have become high-profile, mainstream players, and include airbnb, HomeAway and affiliate VRBO, FlipKey and many more.
On a recent day, airbnb listed 41 Naples apartments or rooms for rent to travelers at rates ranging from $45 to $250 a night.
VRBO (Vacation Rentals by Owner) posted more than 1,200 listings on Sanibel Island at rates ranging from $260 to more than $3,000 a week.
Elsewhere in the country, some conflicts have cropped up. People who rent out space through airbnb and other markets for temporary housing are facing fines and eviction by the city of San Francisco on the grounds of illegally operating hotels.
Airbnb’s website tells people to check local laws and their leases. And, at least a partial solution is in sight: The company recently decided to collect and remit the city’s 14 percent bed tax on behalf of its San Francisco hosts.
Still by contrast, Southwest Florida has proven to be cautiously tolerant.
Local rental hosts like the income stream that helps some of them pay their vacation homes’ mortgage or other expenses.
Property management agents see the vacation rental portals as good advertising tools, but point out pitfalls when property owners don’t arrange for professional oversight.
Hoteliers say they welcome the competition as long as homeowners play by all the rules.
Legislation on deck
And just how much local governments in Florida can regulate vacation rentals could be changing.
Under a bill Gov. Rick Scott signed in 2011, counties and cities that did not have rules in place restricting or prohibiting short-term residential vacation rentals of 30 days or less, lost the ability to do so.
However, two similar bills in the Legislature would allow local governments once again to enact new rules for vacation rentals, with certain caveats that would preclude them from regulating them out of existence.
The Senate measure, SB 356, already passed. House Bill 307 is awaiting a floor vote in the final week of session.
On Fort Myers Beach, “We’re very anxious to see what comes out of Tallahassee,” said Don Stilwell, interim town manager.
Rules for the length and frequency of short-term rentals vary by zoning district, and are almost impossible to enforce, said Josh Overmyer, planning coordinator.
“You can have a residential street that has rentals by the week, and a street next to it is monthly rentals only. It is kind of a hodge-podge,” said Charles Drake, who lives in the town and rents out another home on the Gulf through HomeAway.
Stilwell sees two values colliding: “Property owners having trouble making ends meet, want to be able to make the rentals.”
But people moving into a single-family home community can be troubled to discover an endless succession of very-short-term tenants are their neighbors, Stilwell noted.
“If (lawmakers) can come up with something clear and enforceable, then it will help everybody,” Stilwell said.
Jeff Webb is vice president of the Lee County Hotel Association, Tourist Development Council member and owner and general manager of Hampton Inn Suites on Fort Myers’ Colonial Boulevard.
Hoteliers, Webb said, “support anything that’s operating legally, paying the bed tax, and providing a safe environment for guests.”
Homes and rooms that fly under regulators’ radar and don’t follow guidelines for short-term rentals “put us as a destination, in a bad light. If guests’ first experience here is in a house that’s not up to standards, then they might not come back again,” Webb said.
Judy Haataja owns Fort Myers Beach-based TriPower Vacation Rentals, which advertises through VRBO, an HomeAway affiliate.
“People are finding out about Fort Myers Beach through these sites,” Haataja said.
Not surprisingly, she believes the Internet bookings work out best when property owners retain professional managers. Some owners aren’t adept at screening tenants, Haataja said. And if there is an emergency at the property, a local manager can respond more quickly than an absentee landlord.
“We get 800 to 900 (renter) inquiries a month, just from HomeAway,” said Gary Young. He owns Fort Myers-based Universal Vacations, which helps people buy vacation houses, and manages them while the owners are away, as well as finding renters.
Families who might not afford a week at a luxury hotel costing several hundred dollars a night in high season, could be able to swing $1,600 to $1,700 a week “for a four-bedroom house where they can fit eight people,” Young said.
Tribulas, who offers two rooms for rent in a south Cape Coral single-family neighborhood, thinks she plays by the rules, and hopes to continue as a host with a listing on airbnb.
She also works as a real estate agent, adding: “I’m 75. If I can’t do real estate anymore, this will supplement my income.”
Tribulas charges $50 a night and up, depending on the seasonal demand. That charge includes the 5 percent county bed tax and 6 percent sales tax, which she remits to the authorities.
Tribulas’ home, which she rents from a friend, is 53 years old and would never be mistaken for a Gulf-front resort. But it has its own charms: She’s got a decorative pond near her front door. Guests are welcome to relax at her tiki-style bar that’s a centerpiece of a quirky and tropical interior.
As an airbnb host, she’s rubbed elbows with people from France, Germany, Switzerland and Sweden as well as from across the country.
Said Tribulas: I love doing this. I meet so many interesting people.”
BY THE NUMBERS
37,155 Public lodging establishments in Florida
10,362 Licensed vacation rental dwellings in Florida
890,000 Property listings worldwide on HomeAway’s network of websites in 2013, up from 324,933 in 200899
11 million airbnb guests worldwide, up from 4 million in 2013
SOURCES: State Division of Hotels Restauants; HomeAway; airbnb