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How to be a better Airbnb host ... no ... really!
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25/11/2018 - 2:18 pm
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Regular readers of this column (thank you both) will know that I am not the biggest fan of Airbnb, nor they of me.

Let’s just put that down to my issues with a company that presents itself as some kind of social service but in fact is a multi-billion-dollar corporation that, in my humble opinion, is just below flammable cladding in the list of things that are incompatible with happy apartment living.

However, we have to accept that online agencies for short-term holiday letting (STHL) are a fact of modern life … for now, at least.

And if you are planning to let your unit while you are away on holiday or even – much more likely – take it off the residential market (boo,hiss!)  how can you be a better host from you neighbours’ point of view?

Why would you bother? Well, apart from trying to be a decent human being, it might stave off the day when angry residents of your block take action against you – through both legal and informal methods – to shut you down.

So what can you do? Firstly, check your building’s by-laws.  If they say “No holiday letting” and your block is zoned residential-only, then start making plans to sell up and invest in a building that doesn’t mind short-term lets.

Forget the industry’s self-serving propaganda about freedom of choice and your rights.  It’s about the freedom to make them more money, pure and simple. Your rights begin and end with parameters defined by the law and you have no “right” to breach them.

OK, you’ve got your flat ready to go on the market and the neighbours don’t have a by-law forbidding it, so what next?

You could choose your guests carefully.  Don’t let your apartment to anyone who hasn’t had a single positive rating from previous lets.

OK, they could be nice people dipping their toes in the STHL water for the first time.  However, they could also be the previously unknown member of a flat-trashing gang whose turn it is to book a unit for the weekend rage.

Even if you are prepared to take that risk, your neighbours haven’t been given that choice and you shouldn’t make it for them.

Next, you could make sure your immediate neighbours and the building manager (if there is one) and/or someone on the committee has your home phone or mobile number.

That way you can get the call when your guests are trashing the building or trying all you neighbours’ buzzers because it’s three in the morning and they can’t get back into the pub where they accidentally left their keys.

Also, while companies like Madecomfy.com are great for changing the linens and towels and cleaning the place between lets, you should try to be there when guests arrive, just so they know there’s a person behind all this.

Using an agency to hand over and collect the keys, makes a bit of a mockery of the whole “sharing” concept, doesn’t it?

Finally, make a point of talking to your neighbours, especially to find out if there’s anything that upsets them that you can fix. For instance, all-night loud chatting on a balcony may seem like innocent fun to the holidaymakers but, using the Brady Bunch grid, that’s the residents of eight other apartments they could be diving nuts.

So think about the impact on those who have made your apartment block their permanent home.  You aren’t just disrupting the economy … you’re potentially disrupting their lives.

A version of this column first appeared in the Australian Financial Review

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04/12/2018 - 4:28 pm
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Jimmy and others,

I’ve enjoyed (yes, really) your posts over the last few years, and have paid particular attention to the ongoing debate on short term lets. Why would I be so interested? – well, I’m one of the “bad guys”, a person who owns an apartment in Sydney but who allows it to be let short term. Your vaguely positive post has given me the courage to share our situation and hopefully help your readers understand that it’s not always black and white. – one where I do believe short term lets are the only answer (for us at least), but where we have also done our best to do the right thing by our neighbours.

For us, short term letting (STL) is the only way we can access all that a city has to offer. We’re a couple in our 60’s who live on the Far South Coast (500km from Sydney) who like to spend time in the city, go to shows, visit cultural institutions, have a drink in a local bar, eat great food, and utilise public transport to do it all. And why not – after all, I bet many of your readers know of someone who has a holiday home on the coast down our way, and you may even have one yourself – and going somewhere different for your holidays is a great Australian tradition.

And it’s not only for holidays that we wanted a place in Sydney – I have an elderly mother (92) who needs someone with her 24/7 so she can stay at home, so when we’re in Sydney we split our time between staying in our apartment and relieving my brother from his carer role. Then there’s access to medical services – you may be aware that there are very few specialists who practice in regional areas, and because there’s a chronic shortage of doctors it is usually weeks (not hours) before you can get to see a GP, whereas in Sydney medical services abound, which we need as we get older.

For us, with Sydney property prices the way they are, the only way we can afford to have a city “pad” is to let it out when we are not using it (yes, we have a gigantic mortgage), and because we also want to use it has to be furnished. That means the short-term rental market is our only real option. But we wanted to do it responsibly, in an open and consultative way.

When we started looking in 2011 we limited our search to apartment blocks with a mixed use zoning – I could see the issues about residential zones coming (partly thanks to Flat Chat). When we found the place we love (in a large building of 138 apartments in Surry Hills) we checked the By-laws, and there were none restricting short term lets.

Once we bought, we immediately talked to building manager about what we were doing, and gave him our private contact details in case there was ever a problem. We also appointed a property management company specialising in temporary re-locations and Executive lets to find our tenants/guests and actively manage them along with the property. We leave it up to them to source tenants (which now that Airb’n’b is such a behemoth is becoming more challenging – I’m not a fan of Airb’n’b by the way) . Now, seven years on this arrangement is working well both for us and the building. I’m also giving back, by joining the Strata Committee, which means we get to know the permanent residents and they get to know us. I also get to hear about the problems in the building, and I can assure you that they are mainly caused by the poor behaviour of a few tenants with long term leases where the owner or real estate agent doesn’t give a toss, rather that the few apartments that are on the short term market with active property managers. 

I’m sharing all the above to point out that there are (at least in my eyes) legitimate reasons for someone to “take it (their apartment) off the residential market” which shouldn’t warrant a “boo-hiss”. And if it is done with the knowledge of the Strata Committee and the Building Manager, with an easily contactable Property Management agency taking day-to-day responsibility, then STLs can even be a win-win for an apartment block.

A couple of other points – I believe that if it were possible to restrict investors to only one STL apartment that would be both equitable and also get rid of a lot of those for whom money is the only motivation. And finally, if it’s good enough for city people to buy a country holiday home and then let it out 365 days a year (as the new changes to the Planning laws will reportedly do), why are us country people being discriminated against? A number of country towns are dying as more and more rich Sydney-siders purchase holiday homes and drive up prices, meaning that the locals can no longer afford to live locally, and because their holiday homes are not permanently let, the population drops and the towns lose services – but that’s another story. 

So, there’s always another side to the argument….

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04/12/2018 - 5:14 pm
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As you will read elsewhere, there is a lot of sympathy for people in your position, who only want to rent one property and who behave responsibly.  If Airbnb lived up to anything like their claims to help people to “share”, we wouldn’t even be having this discussion.

Just today, I was challenged by a friend over my strict definition of the word “sharing”.  I pointed to my half-drunk bottle of red wine and said, “If I sell that to you for $10, is it really sharing? And what if the bar has already refused to sell you any more booze?”

If sharing comes with caring then there’s no problem.  But caring only about profits is not the same.

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04/12/2018 - 6:12 pm
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Aaah Jimmy,

Saying “boo hiss!” to those who take their apartment off the residential market, without making any allowance for individual circumstances, doesn’t sound very sympathetic to me.

Any rate, we basically agree – Airbnb is potentially stuffing it up for the genuine people on either side of the equation, leading to a hardening of attitudes towards even the most genuine of reasons for short-term lets. Bit like terrorists really….

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