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What to know before becoming Airbnb host

Kiplinger's Personal Finance

Airbnb wasn't the first website to help owners, or "hosts," rent out their homes directly to travelers. But the rental site has made it easy for anyone, in almost any city, to offer up a couch, a spare room, an in-law suite or the entire house for a short-term rental, generally defined as fewer than 30 days.

Now Airbnb has a plethora of competitors. Typically, the sites charge a service fee of at least 3 percent of the rent; in return, some lend a hand with marketing, take care of collecting taxes in some locations and offer insurance.

Airbnb, along with other sites, collects payments from your guests and deducts fees and sometimes taxes before sending the rest to you. Third-party services, including Guesty, Pillow and Proprly, offer to help make your gig as a landlord easier by managing your listings, delivering keys to guests, cleaning your place and more, often for a small percentage of the rental income.

To get started, check with your homeowners association, condo or co-op board (or landlord, if you're a renter) to see if short-term rentals are allowed and under what conditions. Your city or county may also have restrictions, but in many jurisdictions, laws that apply are rarely enforced or they haven't been updated to address sharing-economy rentals.

Your city may charge a registration fee, require you to secure city permits and business licenses, and enforce zoning rules that may prohibit short-term rentals. Sometimes that sounds more intimidating than it actually is. In Portland, you're allowed to rent out part of your primary residence as long as you register with the city and jump through a few hoops, such as notifying your neighbors and keeping a log of your guests. And you may have to undergo an inspection to ensure your rental meets safety standards.

Right now, laws governing short-term rentals tend to be enforced only if the neighbors complain because, say, your guests throw a raucous party. But that may be changing.

"I am seeing increasing oversight and enforcement of short-term rental ordinances, particularly for tax collection and code enforcement," says Paula E. Meyer, a real estate lawyer and owner of Paula E. Meyer & Associates, in Tustin, Calif. If you flout the rules and get caught, the extra bucks you make could be gobbled up by fines and other penalties.

Vacation rental websites generally take a hands-off approach to local laws, leaving it up to you to work out the legalities of subletting your home. Your city council or local government website is the best place to start your research. Airbnb also has summaries and links for about 50 U.S. cities on its "Responsible Hosting" page.

Miriam Cross is a staff writer at Kiplinger's Personal Finance magazine. Send your questions and comments to moneypower@kiplinger.com. And for more on this and similar money topics, visit Kiplinger.com.

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