When 39-year-old British native Paul Hawes bought his Gastown apartment in a heritage building 41/2 years ago, the idea of turning it into a money-making vacation rental didn't even enter his brain.
But then the 2010 Olympics came to Vancouver and, amid the frenzy of out-of-towners willing to pay premium prices for a bunk near the Games, he made a little money renting it out for six weeks.
This year, as Mr. Hawes prepared to go to the 2012 Olympics in London (near where he grew up) and saw a year of extensive business travel coming up after that, the idea of renting out his apartment came back.
The unit just went up on the airbnb.com site this week, with magazine-worthy pictures shot by a professional photographer the agency provided free. He got four messages within 48 hours asking about renting the unit at $150 a night.
Mr. Hawes, who works in the tourism business himself on marketing campaigns, thinks it's a win-win for everyone. He gets money, Airbnb provides some sense of security (allowing him to check out prospective tenants through their Facebook or LinkedIn sites), "and it's another option for the consumer not necessarily looking for a conventional hotel room."
Mr. Hawes is not alone in this thinking. As a result of the Internet, changing travellers' tastes and entrepreneurial homeowners, vacation rentals have boomed over the past decade. Airbnb, started in San Francisco in 2008 by three design-school grads (who got the idea after trying to help people coming to the city for a design conference find rooms), now claims 200,000 listings around the world.
In B.C.'s popular tourist cities, the numbers are considerably higher per capita than elsewhere. Check under airbnb.com for Vancouver and there are 1,250 available properties. Another popular, older site, vrbo.com, lists 1,500 vacation rentals for all of B.C., with about 300 of them in Vancouver. Toronto, three times larger by population, has 961 listings under airbnb.com, for example, and 200 under vrbo.com.
For all that growth, there has been relatively muted scuffling over vacation rentals in B.C. There have been flareups in places like Victoria, Osoyoos and the Gulf Islands, where local governments, prodded by either hotel associations or irate residents, have cracked down. But that died off as local governments have either banned them or come to terms with them.
"A couple of the islands – Hornby, South Pender – have said, 'We're happy having vacation rentals in residential areas.' Others have said, 'No, residential zones are for residential,'" said Gulf Islands Trust council chair Sheila Malcolmson.
Her home island, Gabriola, went for a compromise that sees the trust issue temporary commercial-use permits. Getting the permit depends on whether your neighbours object.
New York, by contrast – prodded by its hotel association – went on a mission to restrict vacation rentals two years ago. San Francisco, concerned not just about the competition with hotels but also the removal of relatively low-cost units from the regular housing market, is looking at new legislation to regulate the growing number of vacation rentals, the city's board of supervisors president David Chiu said last month.
In Vancouver, the hotel associations say vacation rentals haven't had anywhere near the impact of the Internet or the global recession on lowering prices. The local Tenants Resource and Advisory Centre hasn't heard a single complaint. Strata councils have expressed little concern. And the City of Vancouver's chief building official, Will Johnston, also says complaints are rare.
Technically, it is illegal in Vancouver for anyone except hotels or licensed bed and breakfasts to rent out a unit for less than 30 days at a time. There are only 73 licensed B&Bs in the city. Those business operators are the most resentful about the growth of the amateur rental business.
"My worst dinner conversation topic is with friends who say, 'My kids just went to university and I want to rent out their rooms. Can you give me some advice?'" said Randy Vogel, who has invested $4-million in two properties, Granville House and Hycroft Suites, where he runs licensed operations. He is frustrated that he spends a small fortune to comply with city bylaws and pay hotel and sales taxes, only to have to compete with hundreds of others who do none of the above.
But he is in a losing battle against property owners who see them as a relatively easy source of extra income and, sometimes, less hassle than long-term rentals. And against consumers who love them.
Andrea Smith, who lives in a single-family neighbourhood near Fraser and 25th, said she appreciated having a laneway house available for vacation rentals just down the alley when her mother and sister came to visit: "It's a great convenience for the neighbourhood."
Andrea Hamel, a traveller from England who stayed in a one-bedroom apartment at the Electra on Burrard Street for two weeks earlier this year, said it was far more convenient and cheaper than previous stays at the Loden and Moda hotels.
"I thought it was brilliant," she said. "It was fantastic to have a kitchen and a place to hang out. It really was like being at home."
SIDEBAR: WHAT YOU PAY – AND WHAT YOU GET IN VACATION RENTALS
$30/night (from Airbnb.com):
"Perfect house for tourest (sic) or student."
A basement suite that looks newly renovated on Knight Street where renters get one bedroom in a multiple-bedroom unit. Renters have commented on the high number of people in the house.
$650/night (from Airbnb.com)
On Alberni Street, advertized as a few doors away from Lost Lagoon. No reviews yet, but the owner shows off the view of Stanley Park from the top deck patio.
$1,100-$1,300/week (from vrbo.com):
"Jericho Beach, New Upscale 2 Bedroom/2 Bath Condo near Beach."
A two-bedroom apartment across from La Quercia on Fourth Avenue, gets high praise from visitors who like feeling as though they're in a real neighbourhood, with convenient shopping and bus routes.