The accidental landlord: short-term lets for tourists could run the risk of hefty fines

Renting your apartment out to tourists can be a great way of making money, but it doesn't come without risk...

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Making a bit of extra money by offering your home for short lets to tourists is fine — I have done it once or twice myself. But a serious accident at an Airbnb property in Brighton has highlighted some of the risks.

Four people were badly injured when an outside balcony at the first-floor flat collapsed and they crashed into the basement below. It seems the balcony was ornamental and not designed for standing on.

There’s nothing to suggest that the owner of the flat, who had put the property on Airbnb, had done anything wrong, but the accident shows that there are many things home owners need to consider before taking in paying guests.

When you let your home, even for just a night or two, you are a “landlord” in the eyes of the law so you are responsible for your guests’ health and safety. However, as there is no legal requirement to have a professional inspection of your property, it is down to you to spot any potential hazards.

If there are risks to health and safety you need to remove them — or, if this isn’t possible, you must alert your guests to the danger. You can’t remove a balcony, but you can stick up a notice warning that it is unsafe to stand on.

Some hazards might not be obvious, especially to someone who isn’t used to health and safety assessments. I once found out that my tenants were climbing out of the first-floor living room window and sitting on the sill, which could easily have crumbled under their weight.

It hadn’t occurred to me that anyone would do something so idiotic, but now I warn tenants not to clamber out of the window.

All landlords ought to be aware of recent legislation that requires them to have at least one working smoke alarm on every floor; carbon monoxide detectors in rooms with solid fuel-burning appliances, and to make certain that all soft furniture is fire retardant.

Home owners who take the odd paying guest must follow the same rules. Like landlords offering permanent accommodation, Airbnb-style hosts must also inspect fixed wiring and all electrical appliances to make sure they are safe.

Airbnb advises its hosts to make sure they are complying with local health and safety laws, but as it is only a marketing platform, it doesn’t have an obligation to give any further advice or to make sure that properties on its website are legally compliant.

It does advise hosts to install smoke alarms. Home owners — and landlords who switch from taking long-term tenants on minimum six-month assured shorthold tenancy agreements to short-term holiday lets — should also check that their insurance is still valid for holiday lets. My guess is that it probably won’t be.

The largest website used by landlords and home owners to find short-term tenants, Airbnb provides “host protection insurance”, which should cover up to £600,000 of damage or injury to a guest, but it advises hosts to have their own insurance, too.

Also, it is important to check that your mortgage lender, freeholder, head landlord and your local council don’t prohibit short lets because if they do and there is an accident on your property, you might find your insurer uses the fact that you’ve let a property without permission as an excuse not to pay out.

Several London councils don’t allow holiday lets for more than 90 days a year. Even outside the capital, if you let a property as a holiday home you might need planning permission for change of use. If in doubt, check with your council, or you risk a hefty fine.

• Victoria Whitlock lets four properties in south London. To contact Victoria with your ideas and views, tweet @vicwhitlock

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