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How To Make Money With Airbnb: Risks & Rewards

Author: Daniel Jackson

Does your 9-to-5 paycheck leave much to be desired? Are you trying to pay down a mountain of debt as quickly as possible? Do you have a room in your home that you aren't using, or are you frequently out of town and paying rent or a mortgage on space you aren't occupying very often?

The peer-to-peer short-term rental service Airbnb might be the solution to your problems. Here's what you need to know about the risks and rewards of renting out all or part of your home through this service. (For more information, see The Pros and Cons of Using Airbnb.)

How to List

You decide when to make your space available and at what price. Listing is free, and you can individually approve potential guests. In setting your price, you'll want to consider the going rate in your area by looking at competing listings. You'll want to consider the costs of hosting – including cleaning, higher utility bills, taxes and Airbnb's host fee, which is 3% for payment processing. Your guests pay Airbnb's 6% to 12% booking fees. Make sure you understand Airbnb's hosting standards for listing accuracy, communication with guests, keeping your reservation commitments, cleaning your place for each guest and providing basic amenities such as soap and toilet paper. (For related reading, see How Airbnb Makes Money.)

You'll want to clean and declutter your space before you photograph it to present it in the best possible light. In most cities, Airbnb will even send a professional photographer to capture your space for free if you're an active host. When describing your place, think about what makes it unique, and try to consider it from an out-of-town visitor's perspective. Is your place within walking distance of public transit? Is it located near great restaurants, nightlife or cultural activities? What amenities can you offer: wireless Internet, a fully stocked kitchen, cable television, an outdoor patio? Your listing will be displayed on Airbnb's website, and you can also cross-promote it through social media or your own website.

Getting Permission and Paying Taxes

Before listing your place on Airbnb, you might need to get permission. If your property is controlled by a homeowners' association or co-op, check its rules to make sure you're allowed to host. If you rent, you'll want to get your landlord's blessing. Airbnb suggests adding a rider to your contract with any of these entities to specifically address hosting through Airbnb.

In addition, your locality might require a business license, and you might owe local taxes on any income you earn. For example, you might have to pay a transient occupancy tax, the same tax that applies to hotels. Hotels usually pass this tax onto their guests: You might recall the extra 12% that was added to your bill the last time you stayed somewhere. You can look up Airbnb's information on many cities' regulations here. (To learn more, read Starting a Small Business: Location and Licenses.)

You'll also owe federal taxes on Airbnb income, which will be reported to you and to the IRS on form 1099. However, you may be able to reduce your taxable Airbnb income by deducting business expenses, such as cleaning fees and insurance. (Read 10 Tax Benefits for the Self-Employed for more information.)

Personal Safety

Is it safe to rent out your home to a stranger? If you're renting out your home when you won't be there, you're certainly not at risk of physical violence. However, you'll want to find a safe place to store anything of high sentimental or financial value. Your wedding dress, Grandpa's gold watch, photo albums, your emergency cash and your tax returns are all examples of things you'll want to secure. Don't give guests the opportunity to steal your possessions or your identity.

Things get trickier if you're renting out part of your home while continuing to live there. You can keep a closer eye on your stuff (though you'd still be wise to safeguard it), but you're physically vulnerable if your guest turns out to be dangerous. It's not realistic to run criminal background checks on guests before they book or before they check in; you can do some basic Internet sleuthing, but it's not a failsafe process.

Reviews from previous hosts can offer reassurance, and you can always decline a reservation or even cancel a booking, though in some cases Airbnb will impose penalties. You can also limit the reservations you accept to guests who have completed Airbnb's Verified ID process. Both hosts and guests can have Airbnb verify their identity by uploading a valid government-issued ID and connecting a Facebook, Google+ or LinkedIn account to an Airbnb account. (See Why You May Want To Think Twice About Renting Out Your Home to learn more about the risks of hosting.)

Home Safety

Airbnb also provides guidelines for hosts to make their homes safer. If basic human decency doesn't give you enough incentive to make your place safe for guests, minimizing safety risks to guests minimizes your risk of being sued by a guest who is injured on your property. Guests also might give you lower ratings if you haven't taken basic precautions to protect them, such as installing smoke and carbon monoxide detectors and eliminating or pointing out any trip or fall hazards. If you're particularly negligent, Airbnb could refuse to let you continue to host.


Speaking of liability, let's talk about insurance. Airbnb's host guarantee provides up to $1 million in insurance coverage for property damage in 29 countries, including the United States, United Kingdom and Canada. Airbnb's insurance is not a substitute for homeowner's or renter's insurance, and it doesn't protect against theft or personal liability. Talk to your homeowner's or renter's insurance company to make sure your policy will cover your property, your possessions and your liability while renting out your place through Airbnb. If you need extra coverage, an umbrella policy might be the ticket. (For more information, see It's Raining Lawsuits: Do You Need an Umbrella Policy?)

Airbnb started offering liability insurance for U.S. hosts in January. It offers up to $1 million per occurrence and is secondary to any other insurance, such as your homeowner's policy or your landlord's insurance, that might cover the incident. Like any insurance policy, Airbnb's liability insurance has conditions and limitations, so if you want to know exactly what's covered and what's not, read the fine print thoroughly.

Airbnb's host guarantee doesn't protect against wear and tear to your place, but you can charge a security deposit to cover possible damage. It's important to inspect your property after each guest checks out because otherwise you'll have no way of knowing which guest caused the damage and you won't be eligible to file a claim. You'll want to document any damage with photos and substantiate the before value of the damaged property. Airbnb asks that hosts first try to resolve any problems directly with guests before filing a claim. To file a claim with Airbnb for more than $300, you'll need to first file a police report. Hosts have a limited window to file a claim: 14 days or before the next guest checks in, whichever is sooner.

Airbnb provides an option to procure a refundable security deposit, which is what I do for each guest, says Deb Glassman, who has been renting out her Venice, Calif., home on Airbnb for the last four years. In the one or two situations where I have had to collect the security deposit for minor issues, Airbnb has always backed me 100% with the guest. She adds that staying in the studio in the back of her house while renting it out seems to be an automatic deterrent to potential guests who might want to party.

Payment Guarantees

Is it possible for a guest to crash and dash – that is, to stay overnight in your place without paying you?

Guests actually pay you through Airbnb. As long as there are no problems, Airbnb will release your payment within 24 hours of your guest's arrival, and you'll receive it within as soon as a few hours, if you choose to get paid via PayPal or via Payoneer prepaid debit card, within a few days for a bank transfer, or within 15 business days for a mailed check.

Guests must notify Airbnb within 24 hours of check-in if there's a problem that warrants a refund. If you don't respond to guests who try to contact you about a problem, they might be allowed to complete their reservation and receive a partial refund.

Airbnb could require you to refund a guest's payment if you cancel a reservation at the last minute, forget to leave the key, misrepresent your listing, don't clean your home or otherwise fail to meet Airbnb's hospitality standards. Airbnb suggests making sure you're available within 24 hours of guests' scheduled check-in to address any concerns they might have since many problems are easily resolved. In your listing, make sure you describe your room type, number of bedrooms and bathrooms, and amenities accurately. If you choose to provide linens and towels, make sure they're clean. Also note whether there will be any animals on the property.

You could also get burned if you arrange payment with a guest outside of the Airbnb website. A guest might try to do this to avoid paying Airbnb's guest fee or might be planning to rip you off. As a host, you only stand to save 3% by not going through Airbnb's payment system, plus Airbnb could refuse to do further business with you if you get caught. So don't try to circumvent the system.

Glassman says she has had a very positive experience as an Airbnb host. The guests have been lovely, interesting and appreciative for the opportunity to procure temporary housing in an expensive city at a reasonable price, she says. My favorite things about hosting are that it has afforded me an opportunity to hold onto my house while I am in career transition, and the unexpected benefit of meeting such interesting people from everywhere in the world, and even creating some new friendships.

The Bottom Line

The growing sharing economy offers ways to make extra income that weren't available even a few years ago. Many of these opportunities require you to be comfortable navigating unclear local laws, sharing your most valuable possessions with strangers and taking on additional legal liability. Airbnb is no exception, but if you're willing to take on the risks, you could make thousands of extra dollars a year. (To learn more, read Make Money Fast From The New 'Sharing Economy' and Winners and Losers in the Sharing Economy.)

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