Local vacation rental owners share their experiences using online platforms to open their homes to visitors
BY ELLEN GILLETTE
For Jill Cleveland and her husband, David, the week they spent in a cottage in Scotland was simply fabulous. The Fort Pierce residents have enjoyed several family vacations where they rented a house or an apartment, explaining it is more cost-effective than staying in a hotel and eating in restaurants.
Saving is only one of the reasons Cleveland says the couple prefers vacation rentals. The complete experience is one of the other reasons. Due to their wonderful times staying in vacation rentals, the Clevelands plan to rent part of their North Carolina mountain property to vacationers one day. “The mountains are popular for tiny cabins and yurts,” Cleveland says.
Families like the Clevelands are seeking those special vacation rentals when visiting Florida, opening up new opportunities for residents. According to Airbnb, more than 45,000 Floridians have shared their homes via its website, typically earning about $6,500 per year.
The 4.5 million visitors who used Airbnb also paid for gas, food and entertainment — a boost for any city’s economy. And, these figures don’t factor in other vacation rental companies like Vrbo, FlipKey, HomeToGo and others associated with travel websites like Booking.com.
While vacation rental companies offer the same services, subtle differences send both hosts and guests to specific sites more often. Not long ago, there were only a handful of offerings on the Treasure Coast; today there are thousands. Indian River County’s Glenn Powell likes the way potential renters on Vrbo can look up his properties by number, saving scrolling time. Other hosts say Airbnb is extremely supportive.
While Airbnb was started by two men renting couch space in their apartment, today you can rent mansions, condos, treehouses, yurts — just about anything imaginable. Maybe you’d like an affordable “staycation.” Along the Treasure Coast, you’ll find a variety of experiences and prices. And if you’ve considered hosting, there is a wealth of knowledge and experience to glean.
OLD FLORIDA IN INDIAN RIVER COUNTY
When Powell visited the Roseland area in 2002, he anticipated a relaxing vacation. Instead, he fell in love with a nearly 100-year-old estate on Bay Street, once the winter home of the Goodrich family of Connecticut. “Perfect January day, no humidity, no mosquitoes. When I saw the pool, the original from the 1920s, I thought, ‘I need to buy this.’”
The Goodrich estate burned down in the 1930s and was rebuilt. A carriage house and guest house were added. Powell bought all three, and in 2012, he purchased six adjacent lots. “I like the privacy here. If the land’s ever developed, I’d rather be the one to do it.”
Powell owns additional vacation rentals in Sebastian and Wabasso as well as 12 annual rentals. He doesn’t attract the typical Florida tourist, however. “Fifteen families came for vacation and moved here, they loved it so much.”
Maintaining annual and vacation rentals requires different skill sets. “With a vacation rental, you don’t have the luxury of time. I have repair people available 24 hours a day.” Thinking about becoming a host? “Take it seriously,” Powell recommends. “Put yourself in people’s shoes, what they would want. All my renters need to bring is their toothbrushes and food.”
His vacation rental in the Schumann area of Sebastian is a 1960s custom General Development Corporation home, decorated in vintage style. “Step inside and you feel like Jackie Kennedy’s in the White House.”
Although Powell’s listings attract visitors from all over the world, he also gets local folks who want a taste of “Old Florida.” Every guest is greeted with a custom gift basket. Powell makes sure guests understand the rules and regulations and he answers questions. “I’m very present at the beginning, and then they have complete privacy.”
ST. LUCIE COUNTY’S THREE-IN-ONE
Airbnb host Barbara Unger-Lengen says that good communication is the key to a good vacation rental. She gives her phone number to neighbors, alerting them when renters will arrive. Renters are told exactly what is and is not permitted and the fact that she has a cat — details that may make the difference between a good experience and a bad one.
Unger-Lengen’s property is unique. She lives onsite, renting out three spaces: a room in her home, an RV site, and a “glamping” tent in the back yard. She requires a minimum of one week for rentals and no longer than three months.
For many vacationers, any spot in Florida is attractive, but Unger-Lengen’s location draws a certain clientele. It’s close to the hospital, Indian River State College, beaches and freeways. She’s single but has never felt unsafe with strangers there. “Airbnb vets both its hosts and renters,” she says, “and the company is very supportive to hosts if there are ever any issues.”
PELICAN’S NEST IN JENSEN BEACH
Joan Ascher had a long-term rental property attached to her home for years but decided to switch to vacation rentals this year and says, “It has been delightful!” A people person, Ascher enjoys meeting new people with her Airbnb on a quiet dead-end street. “I love interacting with people and hearing their stories,” she says.
At one time, Ascher had considered operating a bed and breakfast somewhere but says, “You have to be married to it, there all the time.” Vacation rentals provide income while maintaining more freedom. Ascher’s son and daughter-in-law renovated the one-bedroom apartment, taking out a large closet to make more room for a king-size bed and adding a vanity in the bathroom. “Pelican’s Nest,” first offered in July 2019, has received good reviews from guests, perhaps because of Ascher’s high standards.
To potential hosts, she says, “You need to be there, know your area and make suggestions about places of interest. Everything should be immaculate. Pricing needs to be fair. And be flexible!”
REGULATIONS FOR RENTALS
There’s a balancing act at both state and local levels: protecting the rights of property owners while protecting the rights of neighbors and businesses. On the Treasure Coast, each county has extensive — sometimes differing — requirements. About five years ago, “when the world began to discover Airbnb,” Powell says that some towns embraced the idea; others balked. “Still others said, ‘Now that this exists, how can we be fair?’”
One hot button: special events. Renting a huge home for a wedding, for instance, creates traffic and noise that disturbs neighbors. Powell says that closing that loophole got rid of 99 percent of the complaints.
Powell was part of the committee in Indian River County that came up with vacation rental guidelines after researching national and state trends. Certain taxes must be collected, and Airbnb has contracted with some counties to collect these, simplifying things for hosts. But, would-be hosts need to look into specific laws carefully before opening their homes, not just go by the company’s information. Will the rental affect an owner’s homestead exemption? Does the homeowners association have further restrictions? Not only must city, county and neighborhood rules be followed, hosts should clearly post their “house rules,” such as pet and smoking restrictions, in their listings.
When regulations are ignored, vacation rentals get a bad name. In April 2019, the Martin County Sheriff’s Office was alerted to an Airbnb rental in Palm City intended for a huge after-prom party. Copious amounts of alcohol and marijuana were found. Three buses bringing hundreds of teens had been arranged. Parties were expressly forbidden on the listing, but the foreign owner had little local oversight.
On the other end, vacation renters have reported faulty appliances, a lack of promised amenities, dirty accommodations, and bugs. Overall, however, the positives seem to outweigh the negatives. Vacation rentals are not everyone’s choice, but they are increasing in popularity — and availability — every year.
ARE YOU IN THE ZONE?
There’s more to owning a vacation rental than buying new towels. Airbnb, Vrbo and others offer help features online, but they also urge owners to check out local laws before listing. Permitted uses for property varies by county, city and homeowners associations, but here are some starting places:
• For the state of Florida, call 850-487-1395 or visit http://www.myfloridalicense.com
• In Indian River County, call 772-226-1237 or visit http://www.irccdd.com/
• In St. Lucie County, call 772-462-1650 or visit https://www.tcslc.com
• In Martin County, call 772-288-5600 or visit http://taxcol.martin.fl.us