A half dozen cars line a gravel driveway in Southampton Village on a cloudless Saturday afternoon. From Hondas to Mercedes, the makes and models were as diverse as their license plates.
Two large tables were pushed together on the back deck of the three-story home as bowls of potato salad, slabs of steak and cans of beer were passed among a group of 20 men and women, ranging from college students to professionals well into their careers. Knees touched under the table. A communal cigarette traveled from one pair of lips to another. Exchanges felt more like those of old-time friends than brand-new acquaintances.
It was not MTV’s “The Real World,” or an extended family reunion. The group—many of whom had met less than 24 hours earlier—was sharing the house for an weekend thanks to Airbnb, a travel website that seems to be changing the concept of “Hamptons rental,” for better or worse.
The website allows homeowners around the world to rent a home or individual rooms for a night, weekend, month or season. Travelers can search by city, choose a desired check-in and check-out date, and browse homes in their intended destination. As with Expedia and other travel sites, customers are given a per-night rate as well as a check-in time, security deposit amount and minimum length of stay. They are also provided with a brief description of the host, who must approve the reservation based on the customer’s Facebook, LinkedIn or Airbnb profile.
For the last week in July, more than 50 homes, plus 60 private and 60 shared rooms, were listed as available in “the Hamptons” last week through Airbnb, spanning from Montauk to Shelter Island to Southampton. Prices per room were comparable to those at two- to four-star hotels in other hotspots, from $170 to upward of $500—a bargain compared to the $50,000-plus price tag attached to many season-long rentals in the Hamptons.
“We were just hoping it wasn’t going to be sketchy,” said Ryan MacInnis, a Boston resident and one of 17 people staying in the Southampton house. “I had to go through a pretty extensive background check to get approved,” the 23-year-old said. “And the pictures of the house were awful. There were, like, three of them, and I think two were of the outside.”
Mr. MacInnis said he had to pay for the stay—a total of $750 for two nights and three days—before receiving the actual address. “It was a lot of money up front for minimal information,” he said. “But we probably wouldn’t have come otherwise.”
Many visitors like Mr. MacInnis have turned to Airbnb as an affordable way to visit the Hamptons and other destinations.
“I actually like to travel this way,” said Matt Gargano, a 25-year-old Massachusetts resident also staying in the Southampton house for the weekend. “I’d used Airbnb to travel to D.C. for business once, and it was a great experience, so it’s always my preference.”
Mr. Gargano explained that the site allows visitors to get the “local side of things,” unlike a hotel, where the experience is dictated by what the hotel provides. “When you get a hotel, they give you a brochure and it’s very curtailed,” said Mr. Gargano. “This was, like, we got to interact with people who frequented the area. You get into a club that you kind of have to know someone, you meet all these people from different walks of life that you wouldn’t have otherwise met.”
An East Hampton man, who wished to remain unidentified because of the illegality of multiple short-term rentals in East Hampton Town, rents his second home in Springs through Airbnb, saying the website provides a sense of community and shared economy.
“The people who seem to really get it,” he said of the clientele, “are typically from urban environments, or from Europe, or wherever—they understand they’re coming into my home, and it’s not a hotel. Yes, you’re paying a fee, but you’re also sharing something. I want people to get the Airbnb experience. It’s this sort of understanding that we’re all in this together.”
Hyper-short-term rentals seem to be a growing trend—and a force to be reckoned with for established agencies that have traditionally been the liaison between renters and rentees for seasonal or month-long terms.
“I think that the short-term rental situation is part of a larger, macro-trend that began as long ago as a decade,” said John Gicking, vice president and brokerage manager of Sotheby’s in East Hampton. Mr. Gicking said over the past 10 years, he has seen the demand in rentals shift from seasonal—Memorial Day to Labor Day—to two-month rentals, to one-month rentals.
“So a family might come for a month or six weeks, and we started seeing more interest in shorter-term rentals,” he said. “When the economy went into a tailspin in 2008, we saw a quick switch to the advent of ‘vacation renters,’ families who would come out for a week or two. I think that trend actually started some time ago, but I do feel that the new websites, Airbnb and VRBO and the like, have made it so much easier for owners to rent their houses themselves, that they become a big factor in the market out here. I do think it goes back to a longer-term trend, and it’s really been increased by the availability of these sites.”
While Airbnb has allowed young professionals, like the number staying in Southampton, to have access to an otherwise exclusive area, the legality and the number of renters have posed an issue for code enforcement.
Southampton Town and Village, for example, restrict renting out individual rooms, stating in their codes that “the leasing, occupancy or use by a tenant of less than the entire rental property is prohibited.” It also restricts the selling of shares for less than a month, prohibits “transient rentals” and restricts the number of rentals to two turnovers when a home is being rented for less than a month.
Likewise, in East Hampton, homeowners can rent their home for less than 15 days twice in a six-month period. “If you’re renting your house out to different people every weekend throughout the summer, that’s a violation,” said Betsy Bambrick, director of East Hampton Town’s code enforcement. “You could only rent for the weekend twice in a six-month period, since the rentals would be less than 15 days,” assuming the house can legally hold the number of people staying in it.
Ms. Bambrick said many of the violations come to the Code Enforcement Department in the form of noise complaints or excessive turnover. The department also sends code enforcement officers into neighborhoods to take note of the number of cars in a driveway, and how often people are coming and going.
David Betts, East Hampton Town’s director of public safety, and Ms. Bambrick said they also monitor sites like Airbnb and VRBO as a resource to see which houses may be in violation of the code.
Short-term, shared houses also bring up the issue of overcrowding, Ms. Bambrick said, adding that houses that have three to four beds shoved into a small bedroom with minimal walking room violate local safety regulations.
While the Springs homeowner acknowledged that short-term rentals can pose problems that municipal zoning regulations are meant to address, both he and the visitors in Southampton maintained that sites like Airbnb provide an affordable and unique way to travel that trumps the concerns about excessive turnover.
“Just because we’re only here for a few days doesn’t mean we’re going to trash the place or we don’t care,” said Mr. Gargano. “It’s a new way to travel, and I think it’s refreshing to see people open their homes to perfect strangers for a weekend.”
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