Reasonable Doubt: AirBnB comes with legal obligations

AirBnB has taken centre stage and Kevin Yee looks at how the current laws cope with this trend. A must-read for homeowners, would-be hosts, and strata owners.

Sleep-deprived and travel-weary, I dragged my way through Toronto’s Little Italy. Suddenly, my cellphone blinked a string of seemingly random numbers. The number didn’t register with the caller ID. The stranger texted to ask if my flight was late. I responded: “It was. But I just got to your door.” A door swung open and we shook hands. This is how I met the host of my first Airbnb experience.

Two weeks ago, I had no idea what this was. After my stay in Toronto last week, I’m completely won over despite having serious reservations. Airbnb intrigues me—as a traveller and as a lawyer. For those unfamiliar with it, Airbnb is a social media platform that facilitates home sharing amongst its members. Anyone can register. Members advertise their house, apartment, couch, et cetera that they wish to rent out to other members on the Airbnb website. They give their price and house rules. For guests, an Airbnb stay is often cheaper than a hotel yet more comfortable than a hostel. There is the added appeal of living as the locals do. For hosts, this is an extra source of cash. For both, this is an adventurous way to meet new people.

Airbnb acts as intermediary for host and guest with communications and payments. It also posts reviews of its members to help guests choose a booking and to help hosts decide whether to accept a guest into their home. This offers some assurance for both sides that the other person isn’t an ax murderer or a hoarder.

Does this all sound terrifying? Like it just won’t catch on? The Internet is full of horror stories detailing some extreme cases. There was a widely reported case where a host returned to his Manhattan apartment after forgetting something and discovered his Airbnb guest in the midst of a Craiglist-organized sex party. One guest in California simply refused to leave at the end of his stay. The host had to go through a time-consuming and expensive process of seeking an eviction order.

Horror stories aside, consider this: the San Francisco-based company started in 2008. After six years, Airbnb has over 800,000 listings in 190-plus countries. Over 17 million people have registered as guests. The media reports that Airbnb has been privately valued at $10 billion! We can only assume that this home sharing will continue to trend (hotels and hostels: take notice!). With so many people opening up their homes to strangers, there will be no shortage of legal issues that come up in the future.

If you’re hosting an Airbnb or thinking about it, you’ll have legal obligations depending on many factors. These factors include the city you live in, the type of accommodation you’re offering up, your legal interest in the property, and the type of bookings you’re offering.

First off, you may not even be allowed to do so. If you are part of a strata, you’ll have the strata bylaws to comply with. If you’re a tenant, check your tenancy agreement. Also, you’ll need to check if you run afoul of any insurance policy you have.

Your municipality may frown on the short-term stays that are typical for Airbnb bookings. I approached a representative of the City of Vancouver for comment on the city’s position on Airbnb-type stays: “The City is using a number of inspection and bylaw tools to monitor that renters’ rights are being adhered to with respect to short term rentals, such as AirBnB. City staff will continue to monitor to ensure that rental properties do not violate the bylaws on short term accommodations.”

What are some of those Vancouver bylaws? Zoning and Development By-law sections 10.20.5 and 10.21.6 suggest that you can’t use a “dwelling unit” or “housekeeping unit” for less than a month unless it is a part of a hotel or bed and breakfast. A strict reading of these suggests that you are not allowed to host an Airbnb guest at all. In the eyes of the city, you may be operating a business and would require a licence. How strictly the city will enforce such these bylaws is another matter.

If you decide to go ahead and invite guests into your home, you’ll likely have a duty to ensure your property is reasonably safe. For example, make sure your smoke detector is working and that the deck isn’t dangerously slippery. Otherwise, you run the risk of an injury at your home that you may be liable for.

Seeing as the legal status of these Airbnb stays may not be clear to begin with, hosts may have difficulty seeking remedies from problematic guests. If your guest turns out to be a nightmare, the municipality and the residential tenancy branch may just turn you away. There’s always the option of going through the courts. Your best avenue for recourse may be Airbnb itself—it offers some protection to its members such as insurance for property damage.

This is just as much a political issue. Municipalities may decide to clamp down on these short-term stays if more and more neighbours complain. I can see this happening in extreme instances with properties devoted entirely to short-term accommodations that bring in rowdy guests. Until then, and especially for the casual Airbnb host and guest, these types of stays will likely continue to gain in popularity.

A word of caution: You should not act or rely on the information provided in this column. It is not legal advice. To ensure your interests are protected, retain or formally seek advice from a lawyer.

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