Home rental websites and apps such as Airbnb and VRBO have replaced resort town brochures. (Getty Images)
Erica Hagen, a D.C. resident, swears by Airbnb. “With the kids, it’s a lot better than a hotel; I’ve become a convert,” she says of the website and app that allows users to rent rooms or entire homes in thousands of places. But last summer, while searching online for a beach house for a family vacation, she somehow found her way to Vacation Rental By Owner. “I probably looked at Airbnb first, but there was very little left by spring. I’d heard of VRBO, and there were more options there.” She wound up renting a house on VRBO, and this year, she’s renting a new beach house from the site.
Renters seeking vacation homes used to rely on glossy brochures at real estate offices in vacation towns to find a place to rent. VRBO shook up the industry in 1995, creating a platform on which homeowners and property managers could list a property available for rent. Gradually, VRBO grew and was acquired by Homeaway, which also purchased other vacation rental sites.
“There was a common theme from the beginning to today: Vacation rentals offered a great product,” says Matt Landau, founder of the Vacation Rental Marketing Blog. “More space, more privacy and a better value than a hotel.” But not everyone knew about them
Enter Airbnb in 2008. A lot of Americans, it turned out, were enthusiastic about paying less than they would at a hotel for a space with personality and kitchen access. According to a 2016 Goldman Sachs survey, consumers who hadn’t tried Airbnb preferred a traditional hotel, but after staying in an Airbnb unit, a majority said they wouldn’t go back to a hotel.
“That was a big tipping point,” Landau said of Airbnb’s launch. “Airbnb is this wonderful gateway — everyone recognizes it, it’s increasingly accessible, with a super-easy interface.”
The site took off — as did the number of vacation rentals globally. According to a study by the Britain-based IbisWorld, the vacation rental industry grew by 3.6 percent annually between 2011 and 2016, with a particular jump during the last two years. In some resort areas, investors are developing buildings specifically to lease them out as short-term rentals.
The number of websites catering to the industry also has grown. Airbnb makes up only a fraction of those short-term rentals; others include TripAdvisor (which has several global affiliates), Booking.com, and many smaller sites.
But there’s a key difference between Airbnb and sites such as VRBO or TripAdvisor. Airbnb hosts tend to view renting their homes out as a side gig, whereas those who advertise on the other sites frequently treat the homes as businesses, complete with marketing plans and accounting systems . And that difference in seriousness is often obvious in the style of the unit.
“They were more like corporate apartments — more generic,” Sterling, Va., resident Eva Markowitz says of her experience in a couple of TripAdvisor units she rented in Europe. “There’s a printout with the WiFi code, and nothing about nearby restaurants. The special touches were missing.”
Contrast that with Atieno Bird’s property in Crozet, Va. She and her husband regularly rent out their one-bedroom carriage house, and sometimes their three-bedroom farmhouse, on Airbnb. “We have my kids’ art on the walls. We might leave local produce and one of the local wines or ciders [for guests],” Bird said. And renters respond well to the personal touches, she said. “They know it’s your home.”
That sense of personality or quirkiness is something users enjoy about Airbnb units, and Landau said it’s a big challenge for the more professional property owners and managers to match. “How does the industry grow and preserve that funkiness, while standardizing it and building something predictable?” he asks.
The industry views that aesthetic issue as a challenge, but there’s also a distinct downside to having hitched its star to Airbnb: local regulations. An enormous amount of new legislation in municipalities across the country aims to limit short-term rentals to primary residences. If the unit in question is a second home or investment property, it frequently can’t be rented for a short period. What that means is that “amateur” hosts who use Airbnb have wound up being less affected than the more professional property owners and managers.
This year, in response to residents’ complaints, Ocean City, Md., officials considered restricting Airbnb rentals. The town eventually dropped the effort — for now — but had it gone forward, it would have been in good company. Over the past few years, city after city has sought a way to limit the number of short-term rentals that can operate in their municipality. New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle and even typical tourist destinations such as Asheville, N.C., and the town of South Lake Tahoe, Calif., have crafted legislation to reduce Airbnb listings in their area.
Most of those efforts have been driven by residents’ concerns over local affordable housing shortages exacerbated by Airbnb or, as in the case of Ocean City, residents’ complaints about noise and crime, according to the Coastal Association of Realtors.
And that’s caused considerable uncertainty in the market, says Amy Hinote, founder of VRM Intel, a news site covering professionally managed vacation properties. “No one wants to sit on an investment property if they think they can’t rent it or won’t be able to in a year,” she said.
Ultimately, “is the negative impact from regulations going to outweigh the positive impact Airbnb is having on awareness [of the industry]?” asks Hinote. “The whole industry is watching to see if it’ll be a net positive.” After all, online vacation rentals are still fairly new, and it’ll be a while before the glitches settle out.
But what about those local realty companies renting out beach and lake properties that some families have been using for generations — how have they been affected by Airbnb? For many people, those properties were their first exposure, years ago, to vacation rentals.
Real estate agents say they’re doing just fine.
“It’s competition, yes,” says Grace Masden, owner of Sea Grace at North Beach, an Ocean City vacation rentals company. Like many other local real estate agents, she advertises her properties on sites such as TripAdvisor and FlipKey, as well as on Sea Grace’s own website. “It’s a service to my owners to expose the properties to as many people as I can.”
But Airbnb isn’t particularly great at week-long rentals in vacation areas; its specialty is short, urban trips. So even though the site can offer more flexibility for visitors who want to stay at the beach for only a couple of days — most beach houses rent for a week at a time — it’s often not great at locating homes for longer stays.
And those short trips end up costing more. “Someone has to pay the cleaning fees, so we pass that along to customers,” Masden said.
In fact, Madsen said, websites such as Airbnb and VRBO can be more expensive than booking a house directly from a local realty company. “Those third-party booking companies are charging owners to list their property on the site, or are charging the guest a booking fee to book the reservation, so we’re not going to take a hit — it’s the guest who’s paying it,” Masden said. “Sometimes it’s $500 more.”
Lori Brooks, principal broker at Coastal NC Realty Group, agreed that Airbnb and other sites haven’t hurt business much. Her company acts as a property manager, as well as a real estate agent, and can quickly respond to maintenance issues and repairs — or to scams, which she says are increasingly popping up as renters rely solely on online information.
Plus, she said, agencies like hers have a personal connection to renters that can’t be duplicated through a Web connection. It’s the power of tradition. “Vacationers, they book a week and save up all year, spending a great deal of money to come with their family,” Brooks said. “Airbnb can’t compete with that type of memory. People have been coming for years, and they keep coming back. We don’t see that going away.”