Would you swap your hotel for a perfect stranger’s bed? So-called social travel networks have seen a surge in popularity as people find new ways to cash in on their possessions, space and even time. Websites such as Airbnb, Wimdu and 9flats enable holidaymakers to bypass hotels and homeowners to make money renting out their pads for just a few weeks of the year – but there are risks.
The breadth of choice is impressive. Airbnb has listings in 33,000 cities, ranging from beachside apartments and mid-century bungalows to city lofts and country cottages.
A few minutes of browsing finds places to suit almost any budget and taste; a one-bedroom Berlin loft for £186 a week, a three-floor cube house in Rotterdam for £574 a week, and even a luxury three-bedroom LA penthouse, complete with pool table, fire pit and hot tub, for £1,634 a week.
Some sites specialise in whole properties to rent (such as Housetrip), but others allow you to refine your search to find private rooms and shared rooms. Onefinestay takes things a step further, concentrating on rentals of upscale apartments and houses in London and New York, taking care of everything for owners including replacement linen, cleaning, insurance, storage of valuables and meeting guests.
Owners are often encouraged to share their insider knowledge and pass on top tips to the people staying in their home. Some hosts go beyond the call of duty, offering free bikes to use during your stay, pointing out the best restaurants and even taking you on a tour of the city.
So the benefits are clear, yet for both host and guest, cost and security are the priorities.
If you are tempted, be clear as to exactly what you will end up paying, looking out for extras such as cleaning fees and admin charges. Airbnb takes a 6-12 per cent cut from guests and charges hosts 3 per cent for complete bookings, while HouseTrip charges a service fee of 10-20 per cent and an admin fee of 3 per cent (for both guests and hosts). Cancellation fees will apply too, and may differ from one listing to another, although they usually work as a percentage refund depending on how late you leave it to cancel your booking.
When it comes to safety, self-regulation in the form of reviews is a huge part of how these markets work. A lack of decent photographs and incomplete descriptions are usually enough to put people off, but the community relies on every member to provide feedback and flag up issues.
Fraudsters can use these sites to advertise holiday villas or apartments that don’t actually exist, so research the holiday firm and think twice before you pay an owner directly. The Association of British Travel Agents (Abta) offers some handy advice; check terms and conditions to confirm exactly what you are paying for, and don’t be afraid to ask questions, as a legitimate company or owner should be able to answer your queries.
Avoid using a money transfer agent such as Western Union or Moneygram to pay for accommodation, as these are not intended for commercial payments and your money cannot be traced if you encounter a problem.
The sites should do their bit too. For example, Airbnb offers a free “host guarantee” in many countries, reimbursing hosts for damage to their property up to £600,000, although this protection is subject to various exclusions including jewellery and motor vehicles. Similarly, for guests, the better sites offer a 24-hour support team, and they wait for up to 48 hours after a guest’s booked check-in date so that if there is anything wrong on arrival they can hold the money until a solution has been found. They should also provide emergency properties and last-minute changes so that your holiday isn’t ruined.
If you are planning to let your home, you also need to consider the tax and legal implications. In the UK, if you are renting out a room, short-term lets are considered the same as taking in lodgers, so the first £4,250 you earn each year is tax-free under the Rent A Room scheme (although you will need to inform your mortgage provider and contents insurer).
If you are renting out your entire house, you are liable for tax on any earnings (if you earn less than £2,500 you can ask HMRC to adjust your PAYE code, otherwise you’ll need to fill in a self-assessment form each year). Be warned that subletting is usually forbidden under the terms of residential mortgages, although lenders may consent to short-term lets. Some renters have even been served with eviction notices for violating their leases.
Legal issues could also be a concern as homeowners in some cities have run into regulatory barriers. For example, many US cities ban rentals of fewer than 30 days if properties have not been licensed and inspected (although housesitting and home swaps are both possible). A judge in New York recently issued a $2,400 (£1,600) fine to an Airbnb host, and in Quebec, the government is also trying to crack down on rentals without permits.
The Rent a Room scheme is an optional scheme that’s open to owner occupiers or tenants who let out furnished accommodation to a lodger in their main home. It allows you to earn up to £4,250 a year tax-free, or £2,125 if you are letting jointly.
You don’t have to be a homeowner to take advantage of the scheme. If you’re renting you can also lease out a room to a lodger, as long as your own lease allows you to do so.
Opting in or out of the scheme
If the amount you earn from renting out the room is less than the thresholds of the Rent a Room scheme, then your tax exemption is automatic and you don’t need to do anything.
If you earn more than the threshold, you must complete a tax return (even if you don’t normally). You can then do one of the following:
choose to opt into the scheme – in which case you need to let HM Revenue & Customs know this on your tax return and claim your tax-free allowance
not opt into it – in which case you simply record your income and any associated expenses on the property pages of your tax return
To ask to be sent a tax return if you don’t normally receive one, contact HM Revenue & Customs using the link below.
Contact HM Revenue & Customs to ask for a tax return form
There’s no special form for telling HM Revenue & Customs that you don’t want to be part of the scheme. If you earn more than the threshold or already complete a tax return you simply declare the relevant lettings income and expenses when completing your tax return.
Providing meals and services
You may wish to charge for additional services when you take in a lodger, such as providing meals or laundry services.
The money you receive for these services must be added to the rent you receive to work out your total income. If your total income is more than £4,250 for the tax year (6 April to 5 April), and your overall income is greater than the individual Personal Allowance, you will need to pay some tax.
Under changes being introduced in October, council house or housing association residents will able to let out their rooms to gain thousands of pounds in tax-free rent, and keep their benefits.
One council has advised tenants that they can keep up to £4,250 in tax-free income from renting out their spare rooms in an effort to claw back any reduction in benefits they suffer as a result of the so-called “bedroom tax”.
The Government estimates that 660,000 council house tenants will be affected by the withdrawal of housing benefit for those with a spare room.
The policy is intended to make better use of council housing stock by encouraging tenants to move to more suitably-sized homes.
Ministers have been encouraging tenants to find ways to lessen the blow of losing the subsidy. Steve Webb, the pensions minister, told MPs: “Some will swap, some will take in the extra lodger, some will work extra hours: there are a range of things people can do.”
Any extra income from rent will have no bearing on a council tenant’s universal credit.
Currently, benefit claimants must declare income from lodgers. This can affect their entitlement to housing benefit, jobseeker’s allowance and income support. However, from October, tenants will be able to keep rent and retain full entitlement to any benefit, after ministers amended what counts as income in draft regulations for universal credit.
The Department for Work and Pensions said the new rules “don’t specify that income from a boarder or lodger is to be treated as either earned or unearned income, so by default the income isn’t taken into account”.
Matthew Sinclair, the chief executive of the TaxPayers’ Alliance, said: “Taxpayers will be extremely concerned about the prospect of tenants legally profiting from their access to social housing.”
“The Government must not let them make money by playing landlord with their council house.”
Jane Ellison, a Tory member of the Commons work and pensions committee, said: “If more people decide it’s appropriate for them to do this it will really help others, especially young single people who are struggling to find an affordable home.”
Labour accused the Government of an about-turn. Last year, Grant Shapps, at the time the housing minister, said tenants who sublet their homes could be jailed or fined.
A spokesman for the Department for Work and Pensions said: “Letting people take on a lodger and fill a previously empty room clearly makes better use of our social housing stock.”
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The requests are from users who want some information to help with their assessment of users before releasing direct contact details.
Although we feel the internal messaging system is the best way to firewall yourselves while assessing prospective candidates, we may be able to give very basic details without compromising privacy. Information such as, when a user registered, what County have they listed as their residential address, gender and a broad age band are being considered.
This additional information may help users judge the honesty and integrity of anyone who may be using the site for dishonest purposes. Having said that we are reliant on this information being honestly and accurately entered by the user.