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Hosting a paying guest? It could be illegal
Owners face fines, jail, confiscation of homes if found breaking the law
The Straits Times - May 7, 2012
By: Tessa Wong
IT SOUNDS like a winning proposition: Open up your home to paying guests for a few days, and you get to earn extra income and make new friends.
More people have been doing this in the last five years as short-term stay websites have sprouted, all seeking to match tourists with residents willing to host them for a fee. Some of these sites are Airbnb, 9flats, Wimdu and Roomorama.
Hosting has become a global phenomenon, with thousands of people from New York to Barcelona turning their apartments into ad hoc guest houses.
Singapore residents from Tampines to Marina Bay have joined in, advertising the availability of spare rooms in their condominium apartments or houses. The most popular site, Airbnb, now has more than 230 listings from here.
For as little as $40 a day for a room, a guest will have a place to sleep; some hosts throw in hotel-style services such as free toiletries, cooked breakfast and complimentary ez-link cards.
The catch? They are breaking the law.
When asked about these listings, an Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) spokesman said private residential properties can be rented out or sublet - but only for periods of six months or more.
This is because 'transient occupiers' may disturb and inconvenience other residents in the development, she said.
She said the URA will investigate such cases, including inspecting the premises to determine their use. Those caught will be issued an enforcement notice, and if they continue such unauthorised use of the property beyond the date in the notice, they stand to be fined up to $200,000, or jailed up to a year, or both.
One host, a consultant in his late 20s who said that he was unaware of the URA ruling, listed his Chinatown shophouse on Airbnb to meet new people from around the world.
He shares the apartment with another housemate. Since January, they have rented out a spare bedroom to about 10 guests, in the process earning cash that offsets nearly a third of their monthly rent.
He intends to continue doing so, despite the risk.
The consultant said his guests are generally quiet and he has not received complaints from his neighbours. He and his housemate also communicate with their guests before their arrival, to avoid ending up with unsavoury characters.
When contacted, the websites said their terms and conditions state that users must abide by local laws. Airbnb said it will continue educating its users about the importance of complying with regulations.
9flats said they would take immediate steps to ensure their website complies with all local regulations, including removing illegal listings. Similarly, Roomorama said that if notified about a listing that appears to be breaking the law, it would take steps to verify this and even remove the listing.
Some hosts are guilty of flouting not just zoning laws.
The Straits Times found at least four Singapore listings for what appeared to be Housing Board (HDB) flats; another two listings were for what appeared to be rooms in JTC-owned apartments.
Neither the HDB nor the JTC allow short-term subletting. Their spokesmen said they will investigate these cases. If caught, HDB home owners can face financial penalties and even have their flats confiscated.
Singapore is not the only place with strict rules on short-term stays.
New York legislators passed a Bill last year that outlawed the operating of residential apartments as transient hotels; short-term sub-letting is also illegal in some boroughs of London and parts of Spain.
The Singapore Hotel Association is concerned that such unregulated guest houses may fall short in safety, security and hygiene.
Its first vice-president Albert Teo said: 'As the Singapore Tourism Board's aim is to attract quality tourists to the country, we can ill afford to have adverse publicity arising from complaints from tourists about their experience in accommodations provided by operators who are unregulated.'
But the consultant who is a host argued that if done responsibly, such guest houses can benefit both hosts and guests and provide a warmer experience than hotels.
He said: 'These short-term stay websites have democratised the marketplace, and societies can benefit from it. The law should catch up with this trend.'