Country air, meet Airbnb

A ruling in the New York Supreme Court could have far-reaching implications for that state’s vacation-rental trade. The case is also being followed by all who list room rentals on such websites as Airbnb.com and VRBO.com, and all who rent their rooms in more traditional ways — including the B&Bs and tourist homes of Rappahannock County.

The state of New York is hoping to stop residents from listing their homes on the popular room-rental site, Airbnb.com, citing a state law which prohibits renting a home for fewer than 30 days unless the owners are also present. Not surprisingly, the hotel industry accounts for much of the opposition to the practice — which has skyrocketed in the last year, with Airbnb reporting recently that it has served 9 million guests in its five-year existence, more than half of those just in the last year.

While a decision isn’t expected for several weeks, its impact could be far-reaching in New York City, one of the most-visited places in the world. Far away in bucolic Rappahannock, where referrals and repeat business often mean as much to innkeepers as advertising and web-promotion budgets, the effect is less certain.

A number of the county’s B&Bs and vacation-rental homes and cottages use such websites — Airbnb.com and VRBO.com (Vacation Rental By Owner) being among the most popular, according to County Administrator John McCarthy. The county knows this, McCarthy says, because it regularly checks the sites, especially VRBO, for listings in the area, comparing them to special-use permits the county has issued.

A recent check of the Airbnb.com site for rentals in the area turned up a listing for one of the rooms at the county’s newest hotel, Washington’s White Moose Inn. The site allows listings by anyone — homeowners renting their entire home or just a single room, B&B and hotel owners; it charges a fee to both parties in a successful rental.

Rappahannock has no rules about the length of time a room or house can be rented; instead, it simply requires a hotel, B&B or tourist home obtain the appropriate permit.

A handful of operations — six or so in the past few years, McCarthy says — were found to be operating without a permit, though McCarthy adds that it was almost always because of a lack of knowledge, not an intentional evasion of the rules.

“Some people just don’t know about the requirements,” McCarthy says. “We’ve never found anyone who didn’t come in and get a permit, or drop out because they’re not making any money.”

“I’m glad it’s not a law here,” says Sandra Cartwright-Brown, who’s owned and operated the Conyers House B&B in Slate Mills for more than 30 years, and who adds she’s “getting ready to use” VRBO.com for her spring house.

Online advertising isn’t her biggest source of business, Cartwright-Brown says — that comes mostly from referrals and returning guests, a benefit, she suspects, of being in business since October of 1981.

She does hope, however, that VRBO.com will yield some longer-term renters for her spring house, which she hopes to rent on a six- to 12-month basis. “It’s very seasonal,” Cartwright-Brown says. “It’s been relatively slow here, and picking up quickly.”

Like many B&Bs in the area, Conyers House goes through seasonal swings, Cartwright-Brown says, and does most of its business in the fall and spring. “People still come out [in winter and summer], but not in hordes.”

And while Cartwright-Brown is open to exploring the possibility of online advertising, she’s ultimately not sure if the Conyers House itself is right for a VRBO.com listing.

In contrast, Barbara Adolfi, owner of the vacation rental house the House on Water Street, says most of her business comes from online listings. Adolfi says she’s used VRBO.com for years, both to advertise her rental home — one of more than 20 in the county — and to find places to stay herself, as far away as in Washington state.

“[Online advertising] is my biggest source of referrals,” Adolfi says. “I’ve had very good experiences with it.”

Adolfi, who’s been renting the House on Water Street for 10 years, says she’s glad Rappahannock only requires a permit to operate, and hopes the courts side with Airbnb.com in New York.

“That would absolutely kill house rentals,” she says, “which is a really bad idea. That’s a huge source of tourism they’d be cutting off.”

The county, as does the town of Washington, assesses a meals-and-lodging tax for its B&Bs, tourist homes and vacation rentals. In Rappahannock’s case, the tax was implemented eight years ago, and brings in about $200,000 a year, McCarthy says.

He admits that while the tax obviously isn’t as important to the county as it is to Washington (the meals-and-lodging tax forms the bulk of the town’s income income, which is projected to reach $300,000 this fiscal year), it “does help offset [some costs] . . . and it’s better than a raise on the real estate tax.”

McCarthy also doesn’t seem worried about the court’s decision, and admits he doesn’t see how they could ban listings on Airbnb.com, “especially with the broad definition of what’s considered ‘speech’ by the Supreme Court. Then you’d be left regulating what qualifies as a post — is a post on Twitter, etc., considered a listing?”

“Hashtag-good-luck-with-that,” he says with a smile.

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