Landlording & Rental Properties

3 Reasons Short-Term Rentals Are Overrated in 2020

Expertise: Real Estate Investing Basics
35 Articles Written
Couple walking in front door of vacation rental with suitcases

Here’s another thing I’m ranting about, can’t I just let anything go?

I love writing “controversial” articles for BiggerPockets. (Some of my past entries include “4 Reasons DIY is Dead (An Argument for Outsourcing Everything),” “The Big Reason the VA Loan Program is a Trap for New Rental Investors,” and “Self-Help Books Do More Harm Than Good.”

In this post, I want to talk about Airbnb. It seems the whole world has become bullish on Aibnb all of a sudden, and there is no talk of downsides or potential risk at all. People are building whole business models around this company.

To be clear, this article is focused on people who want to make Airbnb part of (or entirely) their primary business model. (Note that I'm going to use the term Airbnb and short-term rentals fairly interchangeably; however, I'm speaking mostly of the industry as a whole here.)

The timing of this writing is important, because the industry is going to change a lot over time, and I have no intention of ever revising this. If in five years this turns out to be terrible insight and you’re somehow reading this in that future, I give you permission to share it to embarrass me. For today, however, in February 2020, this is where I’m at with Airbnb and short-term rentals.

Short-term rentals fill a valuable niche in the marketplace, and Airbnb offers an outstanding solution to provide that product. And I see no future where a short-term rental infrastructure goes away. It’s here to stay and it’s profitable, so under the right (many) circumstances, I am bullish on short-term rental investing.

There are, however, many risks in this business model, and I feel like these are brushed over due to market mania. It’s both my responsibility and my style to poke holes in all seemingly great ideas. I don’t want to tell you how great everything will be; instead, I want to mention all the things that can go wrong.

I believe this is the most efficient way to make us better—or maybe I just like dumping on things that are popular. So, now that I’ve agreed that Airbnb is a viable model in some circumstances, let’s discuss all the risks that come along with it.

Airbnb: A Look at the Risks of Investing in Airbnbs

1. It’s a new business model

Airbnb was founded in 2008. This is an incredibly important piece of information to consider because, like everyone who has seen success only in the up market (everything after ~2008), we don’t know how they are going to compete in the down market. They may seem like a dominant force, but they just simply haven’t been tested.

I want to really emphasize this point, because I’ve been saying it for a year now and I’m deadly serious about it.

Anyone who has participated in the economy since the crash has only known wins—this includes myself. It makes everyone seem like a genius even though they definitely aren't. We have no idea what the next downturn may look like (and I would argue that anyone who thinks they do is unreasonably arrogant). There is no way to tell how the future will shake out.

This is not to say that Airbnb is going to fail, nor am I suggesting it. But they may suffer and change, and we don’t know to what degree yet.

Rentals themselves may suffer. There may be a shortfall of renters. All sorts of stuff can happen. The point is, this is a new industry that has only seen wins, so be very careful when building your whole business model around it.

I prefer traditional long-term rentals for this very reason. The business model is tried and true, and the demand is well established.

Airbnb is not even a public company ye. Imagine how it’ll change when a corporate board starts making changes. (Consider what Wall Street did to Uber.)

A friend of mine likes to argue that short-term rentals have been around for a long time in some form in independent markets, and this signifies its robustness. Unfortunately, that doesn’t include the variable overhead that comes with scale. It’s that old “one person ruins it for everyone” rule: As the company gets bigger, it’ll annoy more people, and seemingly small probability problems will start to become apparent.

Related: Is Airbnb Really Ruining Rental Markets?

The rate of problems an Airbnb creates may be 1 out of 100, which is a non-issue with 99 Airbnbs. But with 20,000,000, it’s going to be a significant issue to mitigate. And the bigger Airbnb grows, the more disruption it causes. This will equate to more pushback from the system.

This is the core problem that all the next conditions start from: It’s new. New means volatility, uncertainty, and risk. If you design your portfolio around Airbnb, it needs to be flexible—because the model will change over time.

2. There are very few competitors

There are alternatives to Airbnb—but not many. They are surely the monopoly, and they are making a killing. Basic economics says that if you create a new industry, you get the bulk of profits in the beginning, but over time, those margins will decrease as new competitors come into the space.

New alternatives cut into your market by finding more efficient ways of doing things, and they take less risk to start up, since the first business already did all the hard work. This means that there is a chance that Airbnb is peaking right now (or will be very soon). And when competitors bring prices down, they will also reduce the margins of the asset owner.

Bottom line: Airbnb owners may very be having their best days as this is being published, it could be all downhill from here.

As competition increases and risk reduces, short-term rental companies will be willing to make less to get a bigger market share, and end-users will be happy to pay less, as well, as competition increases. Both of these result in less profit for the home owners.

It won’t end all profitability, but it does mean whatever portion of your business model you’ve built around Airbnb is subject to change as the industry changes.

3. Regulatory risk

In the last few years, short-term rentals have gone through a lot of regulation changes in many cities.

My town of Las Vegas is a prominent example, as it was banned completely. They have decided to allow it to continue in the nearby city of Henderson, but what about all the people who live in Las Vegas or North Las Vegas?

I’m personally not a big fan of following the rules, but who wants to be in a position to have to break the law to run their business? That is not sustainable.

There are many examples of this across the country, and it will continue as short-term rentals become more popular, so it’s sort of self-defeating. The more people that jump in, the bigger it gets and the more it disrupts the normal order of things. Maybe you’re happy to be part of the disruption; but that approach comes with a lot of volatility.

Higher business costs that will further reduce current levels of profitability are incoming, guaranteed, and will likely be in the form of business licensing, taxation, and insurance costs. Think of the hotel industry, which has paid for lobbying efforts, taxes, advertising, and insurance to get people to come stay at their locations.

Airbnb skips all of those things. It’s a mistake to think that politicians won’t consider the needs of all the employees and business owners who run these hotels, and their constituents, over the profit of individuals. These industry owners have massive infrastructure investments, and they are going to fight tooth and nail to not allow too much disruption.

These costs are going to shift more and more toward the individual homeowner and investor over time. And to be clear, the end result will more greatly affect those making a disproportionate gain (investors).

I’m not sure how exactly the regulation is going to look in the end. But remember my point here is to show that we don’t know the unknowns. Short-term rentals look good now, but they are subject to change.

My Advice? Own the Asset

Here’s my take: Brokering won’t always be so lucrative.

Currently, there is a particular trend that, to me, makes it glaringly obvious that there is no way that short-term renting will continue to operate in its current form.

I know many people who are doing what is called “Airbnb arbitrage.” It basically is this:

You go to a regular landlord (like me) and rent one of their units at full price. Then, you turn around and list it on Airbnb and collect the difference.

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The problem here is that these operators are often making as much or more than the landlord would have if they listed it themselves. When someone who takes no risk (the arbitrage operator) can make more money than the person with all the risk (the asset holder), things become plain and simply unsustainable.

networking-meeting

The rule of capitalism is that you get paid more for taking more risk. So when someone can make money while taking no risk (not owning the building) on the back of someone else who takes all the risk (owning the building), it is not destined to last. Airbnb arbitragers have the same problem that Uber and Netflix have: They are brokers of assets they don’t own. And as the technology to decentralize those assets becomes increasingly cheap, more competitors are entering the market.

My guess is changes to this are going to happen soon. In fact, in late 2019, there was a situation that resulted in a house party where five people were shot. How many incidents like this are going to happen before Airbnb is forced to tighten restrictions?

This particular incident did force the company to announce that Airbnb has committed to going through all 7 million registered owners to confirm they are owners of the asset in question. Brokers for Airbnb will stick around just like property managers exist, but this arbitrage gimmick isn’t a viable strategy.

Related: Airbnb Arbitrage: 3 Tips for Persuading Rental Owners to Work With You

The Bottom Line

Maybe my message is cloudy after reading all these thoughts. I’m not really trying to talk anyone out of Airbnb. Obviously those who are making money within the industry, I applaud you. However, there are serious risks to be considered when discussing the short-term rental industry.

And from what I can tell, the risk is not being treated with the respect it deserves.

Ultimately, my suggestion is that if you already have assets that will work as a short-term rental, then you should go for it, as the margins are (currently) much higher. However, if you want to buy assets specifically around this industry, I fear many people will be in for a lot of unnecessary volatility or worse—assets that will become unprofitable.

If you’re on the fence about Airbnb or think the industry is overhyped, hopefully this helps you understand some of the risks better. Or maybe you love Airbnb and think I’m arrogant, short-sighted, and completely wrong about all points.

What’s your take?

Definitely let me know in the comments.

Alex has spent his career in sales and finance industries and now invests in rental real estate along with working in the underwriting department at a bank in Las Vegas. Alex is an expert in long-d...
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    Anthony Petrozzella from Nesconset, New York
    Replied 8 months ago
    Well said. Thank you for covering the possible downside of Air bnb
    Alexander Felice Guy with Great Hair from Fayetteville, NC
    Replied 7 months ago
    happy to help Anthony!
    Teresia Sayler Investor from Snohomish, Washington
    Replied 7 months ago
    There have also been recent issues with hosts not getting paid by one of the STR platforms (Airbnb is fine) and this is another risk if they grow too quickly or are mismanaged.
    John Murray from Portland, Oregon
    Replied 7 months ago
    The tax implications are so much different from short term rentals, the evil self employment tax. Long term rentals are an investment, short term rentals are a business. Passive income is taxed much less than business earned income. The 15% social security and medicare tax won't be an issue as long as you max it out very quickly in the tax year. Most will not max out the SS and Medicare very quickly. For 2020 it's almost $140K in earned income but you can make as much passive, portfolio and capital gains income you want without increasing your SS and medicare obligation.
    Michael Baum from Olympia, Washington
    Replied 7 months ago
    I am not sure you are correct. I believe the taxes you are talking about come into play when you are providing "Significant Services" like daily bedding changes, breakfast etc. As long as you are offering a place to stay and nothing more, you will not be on the hook for said taxes. I have a VR in North Idaho and use Schedule C for all my deductions. Not Schedule E. And I use a CPA.
    Todd Goedeke from Sheboygan, Wisconsin
    Replied 7 months ago
    You forgot about the huge ability of using a Solo 401k to minimize taxes.
    Collin H.
    Replied 7 months ago
    don't go there. UBIT will kill you as well as a whole host of other pitfalls. Just don't.
    Todd Goedeke from Sheboygan, Wisconsin
    Replied 7 months ago
    Your article needs to differentiate between STRs and STVRs. Short term vacation rentals,cabins and homes have been around for over 50 years. Regarding arbitrage, understand that s what commercial real estate is all about. Very few business owners own the building their business sits in. Even hotels lease their buildings. It s reckless journalism to write an article having limited experience and never using sources of experience in other locations of the country. Did you even interview one person upon which you based your opinions?
    Tiffany Buoni Investor from Telford, Pennsylvania
    Replied 7 months ago
    I agree with Todd; this article is far from comprehensive. The bottom line to me is - have an exit strategy, as with any other real estate venture. I own properties that I run as STRs, but they would also be profitable as long term rentals. I will very happily capitalize on the STR market as long as it lasts, knowing that I always have other options.
    Alexander Felice Guy with Great Hair from Fayetteville, NC
    Replied 7 months ago
    Agreed that it's not comprehensive, I also suggest people capitalize on STR and they will be around for the long haul. As I stated in the first paragraph ;)
    John Patterson Contractor from Canton, GA
    Replied 7 months ago
    An added thought, just look at the boarding houses and hostel platforms that have been around for hundreds of years. Short term renting has been around for a while. The regulations are fairly new and restrictive to the smaller individual just like Realtors are to selling Real Estate. It's nearly impossible, today, sell or buy a property without having to go through banks, attorneys , and of course Realtors. It's amazing how much, money and time ,the client(both Parties) can save when not using this process and goes directly to the source. To say it affects LTRs , is equivalent to saying LTRS take away from Real Estate sales. ( which both are less than 10%. ). Even NAR is being sued ,finally, for their monopolistic approaches to the industry for taking advantages of a few clients, their system isn't perfect by far. We have become too spineless and too lazy to say that the process should only be a certain way, it's easier to not rock the boat and say "ok" instead. Luckily, we have the technology to voice our concerns and be heard in masses as never before. The downfall, is there anyone listening that will push for a better change?
    Alexander Felice Guy with Great Hair from Fayetteville, NC
    Replied 7 months ago
    It's true that short term vacation rentals have been around a long time, that's true, but not to this scale which will introduce new headaches. Arbitrage and leasing a place someone else owns are VERY different. One carries risk, and one doesn't. I agree that it would be reckless journalism to write an article with limited sources and little experience, but I'm not a journalist, and you don't know my experience level. For example, my last job was risk analysis in commercial lending and I intimately understand how the risk is laid out on both approaches. Thank you for the comment!
    Michael Baum from Olympia, Washington
    Replied 7 months ago
    Your AirBNB Arbitrage scenario is spot on. People are correct about commercial arbitrage, but it is not the same as the AirBNB model. We get this question nearly every week in the STR forums and most of us advise against it. It has too much risk. The owner could just do it themselves after the lease is up. The regs could change leaving you with a market rate lease you have to pay.
    Andrew Syrios Residential Real Estate Investor from Kansas City, MO
    Replied 7 months ago
    Regulation seems to be moving hard against short term rentals. Here in KC, they've made them extremely arduous. And both neighbors on the local level and big hotel chains on the national level have every incentive to lobby against them, so I would expect it to get even worse in the near future.
    Alexander Felice Guy with Great Hair from Fayetteville, NC
    Replied 7 months ago
    yeah agreed. I think the golden age of STR is NOW, and as we move into the future it will be more popular and less profitable.
    Michael Baum from Olympia, Washington
    Replied 7 months ago
    That of course depends on the location. Some areas thrive on STR's. Pigeon Forge for example. They will never go away there as it is the major source of income for the area. Now, in major cities, you will find more regs and outright bans, so you have to make sure you can convert to LTR. For example in Summit county, Colorado, they almost passed a ban on STR's. Citing rising prices and lack of rental housing. It was put down, but the area is prime with tons of STR's Breckinridge etc. If you invest in the right areas, you will have solid returns.
    Alexander Felice Guy with Great Hair from Fayetteville, NC
    Replied 7 months ago
    I didn't imply that STR were going away at all, I said I was bullish on the industry. I just cited the commonly overlooked risks, one of them being that profits are high now because new users are taking the risk of uncertainty. As the industry grows that risk will reduce, and margins will follow, but certainly not disappear.
    Andrew McCotter
    Replied 7 months ago
    I think the biggest risk in this sector definitely lies in the uncertainty around legislation. However, in my opinion, that's going to be a very short term problem to navigate. Remember all the push back a company like Uber got 3-5 years ago? Cities all over the country tried to block Uber from operating. And for the most part, that has dissipated. I'm sure there's a lot of reasons for that, but the main one is definitely money. Cities/states started levying special taxes against uber. Same thing has been done in some areas of the country for companies like Netflix. The point is, once the government gets their slice of the pie, I think a LOT of this uncertainty will begin fall away. A lot of the other points in this article are points that perhaps SOUND reasonable, but aren't really based on any statistically certainty. "So when someone can make money while taking no risk (not owning the building) on the back of someone else who takes all the risk (owning the building), it is not destined to last. Airbnb arbitragers have the same problem that Uber and Netflix have: They are brokers of assets they don’t own." How is this necessarily a problem? Companies have been making money for decades licensing out rights to products/services that they didn't necessarily create. And who is taking on the risk when you're buying a home with a conventional mortgage? The bank might be giving you the money, but they own the property if you default AND are 100% making more cash at the end of the 30 year mortgage than you are. Seems like a clear case of someone taking less risk and making more money.
    Luke Carl Rental Property Investor from Tennessee Florida
    Replied 7 months ago
    What I did read you had some fair points. I got in to STR because I lived not far from a market that was NOTHING but STR and has been forever. Before Airbnb and before the internet people were going on vacation in the family truckster.
    Alex Scattareggia
    Replied 7 months ago
    The part of running a short term rental business that is so often overlooked is that many STR's can quite easily be profitable long term more "traditional" rentals as well. Depending on the market, something that makes sense as a long term rental investment can still be more profitable as a STR in the present market. If conditions change that make it untenable then it can always be converted back to a long term rental. Every deal that I own was analyzed and purchased because of its viability as a long term rental, but as the market changed where I live they have all been converted to STR's. As with most things, if an investor is capable of changing as the market dictates they can scoop up the extra $'s along the way without accepting as much of the risk. Just my two cents. Thanks for the read.
    Collin H.
    Replied 7 months ago
    We have owned short term rentals and done well since 2005. Back then, you could google "vacation rental management software" or "vacation rental owners insurance" and you wouldn't come up with anything. Yes, there was VRBO, but it was extremely antiquated by today's standard. Yet we were still profitable. We actually purchased an STR at the top of the market before the housing crash, but it just kept right on renting all the way through the great recession and beyond. So I disagree that this is a new industry, at least in the Gatlinburg TN area. I look for it to be profitable for many years to come, although I agree that AirBnB and VRBO will (and should!) have new competitors come onto the scene. But that actually solidifies the industry rather than threatening it.
    Rob Massopust Real Estate Broker from Garden Grove, California
    Replied 7 months ago
    Short Term Rentals have been around longer than AirBNb, AirBNB just made it legit. Forming your investment goals around it is not a good plan. Over paying for a property with the prospect of it being a good AirBNb is risky. Just ask all those "investors" that bought homes in Anaheim CA. Its was furious, then the city banned them all! Why the hotels and Disney dont want the competition. Same with the entire city of Los Angeles, they just came down hard on AirBNB. Garden Grove CA [adjacent to Anaheim and DIsney is doing the same thing. I have a client that just got a cease and desist order and if she does not stop doing AirBNB its a $2000 a day fine. Anaheim has actually loosened up and allowing some STR's but I'd be careful. Look at converting those AirBNB rentals into Corporate Furnished housing. Better option.
    Jerry W. Investor from Thermopolis, Wyoming
    Replied 7 months ago
    Alexander, Thanks for writing the article. it always helps to consider what could go wrong. I think the single biggest danger is obviously legislation. I don't understand other markets like mine, but in my market I don't see competition hurting much since the STRs are half the price of Motels, at least during the summer. I did very poorly my first year, didn't even make enough to cover utilities. The second year I made a fair bit more, but less than if it was a regular rental. This last year I made a better than normal income. They are a lot more work, but I actually expect them to become more lucrative in my area. If I can generate the same kind of income per year as last year I expect to buy and add a few more as soon as I can. I have not raised rates on my long term rentals for many years in my little town that is a bit depressed. I anticipate raising the rates on my VRs this year a bit.
    Alexander Felice Guy with Great Hair from Fayetteville, NC
    Replied 7 months ago
    I appreciate sharing your story Jerry. Yeah I think many new people will find a similar experience to yours as time goes on. Right now the mania is making everyone excited, but reality is quite a bit less fun as you've noticed. Which was my whole point, I'm not anti-airbnb, I just know the mania is dis-proportionally high at the moment.
    Deanna Opgenort Rental Property Investor from San Diego, CA
    Replied 7 months ago
    I guess my thought about the whole Airbnb "arbitrage" idea is that in some ways it is a lot LESS risk than just renting a property to a private party. In order to be a good, successful STR the house has to be kept looking top notch. I don't have time to be cleaning bathrooms and changing towels, and beside which I'm 800 miles away, so I can't just "do it myself". If someone else wants to take the the time to spend the time on needed to run a STR more power to them, as long as they tell me ahead of time and don't let it turn into a party pad.
    Alexander Felice Guy with Great Hair from Fayetteville, NC
    Replied 6 months ago
    it is less risk for the person doing the arbitrage and a lot more risk for the person who holds the mortgage. This is why I'm so against it, the arbitrageur has no skin in the game. As of right now with AirBnb being largely shut down, I wonder how many arbitrageurs are still paying their landlords with no income. My guess is many of them will walk for the reason you said, they have no risk other than a contract which can easily be broken. This is my primary complaint, all risk, no reward, and no honor. Arbitrage is a slippery slope to sleazy and it's going to appear soon.
    Daniel Rusteen
    Replied 6 months ago
    "My guess is changes to this are going to happen soon". How right you were. I think Coronavirus is making employees understand that most in-person meetings can be held virtually or via email. And this is making employers realize the possibility of not renewing their next contact extension for the 30,000 square foot office building in one of the most expensive parts of town. As Airbnb makes it easier to travel, the internet makes it easier to work remotely, and Coronavirus makes old-school employers understand it’s possible, people will choose to live outside of crowded cities and temporarily in one location. They will be on a sort of permanent traveling experience in one location for months up to a year, rather than years.
    Alexander Felice Guy with Great Hair from Fayetteville, NC
    Replied 6 months ago
    yeah the timing of my article was part of it's value, and it's turning out to be more convenient than I could have hoped