The wonderful world of Airbnb Whitehorse

Wonderful for tourists and homeowners at least. Renters? Not so much

Did you spend Canada Day relaxing on the shores of your favourite Yukon lake, or fixing up your spare room for a killer profile photo on Airbnb?

While Yukon News journalists have dutifully covered the thrust and parry of zoning debates at city council in recent years, a parallel but quiet revolution in the Whitehorse tourist accommodation scene has been underway.

Dozens of wonderfully diverse short-term rental properties have popped up downtown, in the suburbs and in off-grid nooks and crannies outside city limits. Many of the owners have achieved “superhost” status on Airbnb and have dozens of positive reviews.

There are slick downtown penthouses worthy of design magazines on the market for $200 per night. Several have five-star reviews based on dozens of reviewers, some of whom rave about stylish furnishings and proximity to downtown cafés and shopping.

If you want to get away from the urban bustle of the downtown business district, you can also stay in a Mongolian yurt or a stylishly fixed up shipping container (both around $100 per night and with five-star ratings).

Or you can stay in the upstairs of a suburban family’s home for around $60 per night. One property with 4 and half stars boasts a master bedroom and a single bed in the living room, with full kitchen and bathroom. Many of the hosts offer visitors local advice and the use of personal items to make their trips a bit easier or memorable, ranging from bicycles to bear spray (or parkas depending on the season).

Airbnb’s search engine says there are over 200 properties for rent in the greater Whitehorse area, with a third offered by Airbnb superhosts. Whitehorse properties have received 4,300 guest reviews and an average of 4.8 out of five stars. That’s a better average rating than Vancouver properties, for example.

The superhosts have put lots of effort and creativity into their properties and photos they post. With 66 properties showing up on the Whitehorse search page, you need a nicely composed and well-lit photo to lure the prospective renter to click to find out more. Lame beige walls, dirty boots or too many weeds out the back window can cost you real money.

Two enterprising superhosts seems to have used a drone to get an eye-catching aerial shot of their cabin.

The properties present so well on the internet, I suspect someone could launch a fun television show profiling them.

Some of the superhosts also appear to be making real money. Public data isn’t available on how many nights a year each host earns money, or on how much they had to invest fixing up their place. But a suburban superhost offering a spare bedroom with private bath and private entrance (about $70 per night, five stars), has almost 150 reviews over the last three years. If we guess that only half of guests leave reviews, and the average stay is two nights, then that represents almost $40,000 in revenue over the period.

While perhaps not enough to quit the day job, over $10,000 per year definitely helps to pay the bills. When I visited Airbnb’s website, an improbably precise popup window enthused that I could “earn up to $2,503 CAD a month hosting in Whitehorse.”

Of course, renting out your property on Airbnb is more costly and complicated than just logging in to watch the electronic payments arrive. It takes time and money to prepare the property (and a stylish profile photo), stock it with bedding and supplies, deal with renters, clean the unit between stays and fix the wear and tear.

There is also the risk. Renters can be angels or eccentrically needy, and occasionally destructive. A Calgary couple made headlines around the world when they returned from a weekend away to find their Airbnb renters and over 100 party guests had trashed their home in what police described as a “drug-induced orgy.”

Airbnb insurance helped the owners repair the damage, but they will probably never forget the police telling them that a hazmat team would have to assess the situation before they could enter their house due to presence of bodily fluids.

Airbnb and its renters have also ended up in regulatory tussles with local municipalities, after complaints that some Airbnb properties were not respecting zoning bylaws, following landlord-tenant laws or paying hotel taxes. Income tax authorities have also taken a keen interest in hosts who don’t report their rental income at tax time. Hotel owners perceive unfair competition from less regulated hosts. Some housing officials also fear that owners will remove units from the long-term rental market to make money with Airbnb, reducing the housing options for local renters.

While some cities are allowing renters and homeowners to run with the Airbnb idea, our friends in Vancouver passed tough new short-term rental regulations. Earlier this year, Vancouver became the first Canadian city to sign an MOU with Airbnb. Hosts in Vancouver will need to show a short-term rental business license, and the platform will share host data with city enforcement officials. The new system in Vancouver allows short-term rentals of less than 30 days, but only in a principal residence where the host resides for more than 180 days per year. Commercial operators and individual hosts that don’t comply will be fined up to $1,000 per day.

As with Vancouver’s status as one of North America’s few major cities without Uber, residents and visitors can debate who benefits and who loses from the city’s tough regulatory stance.

In the meantime, as Vancouver cracks down, Whitehorse homeowners can make a few bucks towards the mortgage and visitors can enjoy an impressively diverse set of rental choices with lots of local colour.

Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the MacBride Museum’s Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels. He is a Ma Murray award-winner for best columnist.

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