Sunday 23 July 2017

No doubt that Airbnb impacts on rents, but it's not all bad

The global online rental site has a greater impact in Ireland because we're mired in a housing crisis, writes our residential property editor

Airbnb is now the biggest hotel company in the world. Photo: GETTY
Airbnb is now the biggest hotel company in the world. Photo: GETTY
Mark Keenan

Mark Keenan

'Disruptive' is a term that tech-sector wonks are fond of applying to any new idea which causes a tsunami of change within an industry or ­product range, and generates consternation among the hitherto status quo-ed incumbents.

Netflix 'disrupted' our TV viewing habits and Spotify the way we consume music. And the Airbnb phenomenon has proven particularly disruptive to both the tourist and private letting sectors wherever it has landed globally.

In Ireland, there have been claims, as elsewhere, that Airbnb is sucking vital supply out of the regular lettings market, extracting accommodation normally provided for regular lets, and sending rentals soaring.

That Airbnb lets have had an impact on regular letting stock is without doubt and to the extent that some European cities have clamped down on it, notably Berlin and Barcelona where lets have been limited. Last year in Dublin there was a landmark decision when planners ruled that an apartment let out under Airbnb in Temple Bar should be treated as a commercial entity and that its activities should require full planning permission. That unit had been offered for sale with claims it had earned €79,000 over one year on Airbnb with a 90pc occupancy rate.

Airbnb has had a greater impact on Ireland than many other countries, first because we are a popular tourism destination and Airbnb thrives in tourist hotspots and second, because we are in the midst of a housing crisis where regular lettable accommodation is at a record low level of supply anyway.

But Airbnb may not be taking out as much "regular" lettable accommodation as people think.

Consider the data proffered on the website InsideAirbnb.com which compiles Airbnb statistics in the absence of available data from Airbnb itself.

This time last year, the website suggested that there were a total of 1,469 homes/apartments available to rent in the Dublin City area through Airbnb. That tally compared with 1,279 houses and apartments available at the same time to let 'regularly' through Daft.ie.

Today, InsideAirbnb.com estimates that there are 3,165 homes and apartments available to let in Dublin - more than twice as many "whole property" lets as this time last year. But at the same time today, it compares with 1,274 "whole" apartments and houses available to let on Daft.ie - an almost identical figure to this time last year.

Inside Airbnb also reports the perhaps surprising occupancy rate of 27pc for the Dublin units - just over a quarter. This suggests that Airbnb's in Dublin (our chosen Irish example location) are either not quite as popular as people believe, or that those who let the units are only happy to rent them for occasional terms through the year - in this case averaging a 73pc 'disuse' period.

If the latter is happening because of a high level of voluntary vacancies (therefore thanks to owner preferences), then it is actually unlikely that most of this particular tranche of Airbnb accommodation would have been available to let on the regular market anyhow, and indeed would not be there at all without the existence of the Airbnb model to facilitate it. This suggests Airbnb might even be creating new lettable spaces that didn't ordinarily exist and therefore we need to examine the possibility that Airbnb may actually be helping rather than hindering the housing crisis on balance. For a variety of reasons, many Airbnb advertisers didn't ever intend renting their property out other than an occasional basis. For example, the case of an owner away on business for chunks of the year and who wants to avail of earning potential during these periods only. There are myriad similar scenarios in which people want temporary short lets here and there, but will never contemplate a full-time letting with all the undertakings and commitments that involves.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that such "part lets" have actually provided vital safety nets for those who urgently need a roof over their head because they can't find permanent accommodation fast enough - those who have arrived in Ireland to work for multinationals (these are big users of Airbnb) or those who have suddenly found themselves minus a home because the landlord is selling up.

Despite the plum €79,000 earning per year claimed for the Temple Bar apartment last year, Airbnb lets don't suit everyone. The bedclothes and the towels must be changed and washed and the house/apartment cleaned after every stay. Letters must be met and handed the keys and instructions for the property. Fail to impress once or twice and you are shamed by a review system which puts bad Airbnber's out of business overnight.

Unlike rent a room, the entire income resulting from an Airbnb qualifies for tax. So Airbnb is also now earning money for the exchequer.

The same questions are being asked in the tourism sector - is Airbnb stripping value from the existing tourism business by disenfranchising regular hotels and B&Bs, or is it creating a whole new tourism sector (those who can't afford the former). Again the answer is probably a bit of both.

Airbnb empowers tourists to go where they like and therefore brings them into parts of Ireland which wouldn't ordinarily benefit from tourism. There's that rather exciting and slightly risky Russian roulette risk of not knowing what you might get when you shoot for an Airbnb booking. Airbnb tourists are more accepting of bad experiences because they themselves have been responsible for booking rather than a travel agent.

So Airbnb likely is a double-edged sword, bringing both a new set of problems but also bringing new benefits.

However, like all 'disruptive' concepts, it will run unfettered for a time. Then increased local red tape and regulation (tax and planning permissions already, insurance and sanitary inspections next?) begin to take the "Air" out of its sails and it is gradually transformed into a less disruptive model we are more familiar with - B&B anybody?

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