By Mark Schlueb
Jamie Barrett’s formal occupation is teacher.
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Less formally, she’s an entrepreneur making money in the “sharing economy.”
This summer, Orlando residents learned about Uber, the smartphone ride-hailing service that allowed regular Joes and Jills to earn extra cash by turning their cars into part-time taxis.
But Uber isn’t the only way people are using their personal property to supplement their income. Just ask Barrett, who estimates she made an extra $22,000 in 2014 by renting out spare bedrooms in her Audubon Park home to travelers via Airbnb.
“I tried it to see if I could make a side income while I was teaching because I had all these bedrooms I didn’t have roommates in,” Barrett said. “It’s been amazing. It has transformed my life, honestly.”
The sharing economy, sometimes called the peer-to-peer economy, uses technology to connect someone who can provide goods or services to someone who needs it, usually for a fee. Airbnb and rival services such as Homeaway are a good example: The websites don’t own any property, but they allow travelers to find people with empty homes, apartments or rooms to rent, bypassing the hotel chains of the traditional economy.
The sharing economy picked up steam during the recession, when high unemployment and stagnant wages prompted more people to view their belongings as potential sources of extra income.
Though the economy has improved, the popularity of peer-to-peer options has continued to rise. At the same time, governments are playing catch-up to make sure these startups aren’t evading the taxes, fees and regulations that traditional businesses face.
A growing number of websites try to link people with services they would otherwise get from established brick-and-mortar sources.
Spinlister lets people rent out their bicycles. On DogVacay, you can find profiles of about 150 would-be dog-sitters in the Orlando area willing to board your pet in their home. Boatbound allows boat owners to rent out that unused speedboat.
Sittercity pairs baby sitters with parents who need a night out.
Dan, who asked that his last name not be used, uses his motorcycle to commute to his job as a sous chef at a Disney resort. Much of the time, his Ford F-150 sits in his driveway, so two years ago he listed it with RelayRides, a website that lets users bypass Hertz and Avis and rent personal vehicles from people who live in whatever city they’re visiting.
“I usually only drive the truck one day a week, and it’s really not an inconvenience at all to do without it for two weeks and have it pay for itself,” said Dan, who charges renters $55 a day. Most are short-term rentals to vacationing families. One kept his truck for a month.
RelayRides lists dozens of personal vehicles in the Orlando area at both ends of the spectrum, from a $27-a-day 1999 Ford Explorer to a 2014 BMW 5-series for $150 a day. RelayRides checks out vehicle owners and renters, provides insurance and roadside assistance, and keeps 25 percent of the money.
Rentals are often cheaper on RelayRides, but not always. Some renters just prefer the personal touch, Dan said.
“I think part of it is wanting to give your money to someone on a personal level rather than a big corporation,” he said.
That’s one reason Michael Reynolds, a 26-year-old Melbourne resident, became an occasional driver for Lyft, an Uber competitor that uses a smartphone app to connect people who need a ride to someone willing to pick them up for a fee that’s usually cheaper than a taxi.
Reynolds said he enjoys getting to know his passengers, who are generally more open and engaging than they would be in a traditional taxi.
“I haven’t made much money at it because I haven’t done it very much, but it’s a really cool way to meet people,” Reynolds said.
Sharing economy sites are typically set up to put users at ease, with profiles, reviews and ratings of owners and renters.
Still, allowing a stranger to sleep in your spare room or drive away in your car can come with some trepidation.
When Barrett first opened her home to Airbnb users, she was nervous enough to have a friend around as a bodyguard. But after two months, she decided it wasn’t necessary. Barrett said she’s hosted many international visitors from Brazil, France, Germany and elsewhere, as well as Americans as varied as app developers, documentary crews, ballet dancers and a playwright.
“I have no doubts about it now,” Barrett said. “I feel very secure with the type of people that come in.”
Barrett rents out three bedrooms, one for $36 a night and the other two for $46. Guests have access to the living areas, kitchen and laundry room.
The extra income from Airbnb has allowed her to pursue her master’s degree; she recently resigned from Glenridge Middle School to travel and study abroad.
“The three bedrooms I rent out are sustaining me — it’s paying my mortgage, it’s paying my bills and it’s giving me a little extra spending money that I can use during the next two years I’m in Germany while I finish my schooling,” said Barrett, 35.
Airbnb, RelayRides, Uber, Lyft and others send owners who earn more than $600 a year 1099 tax forms to declare the income with the Internal Revenue Service.
So far, at least, most aren’t paying taxes or fees that traditional businesses pay. But it may not be long before regulators catch up.
Case in point: Orlando just passed new rules requiring Uber and Lyft vehicles to obtain the same vehicle and driver permits as taxis — regulations that the two ride-share giants are resisting.
In October, San Francisco adopted an ordinance regulating short-term rentals, including Airbnb, and enforcing the collection of tourist taxes. Other cities are expected to follow.
In Orange County, the 6 percent tax on hotel taxes translates into big money: $201.4 million for the fiscal year that ended in September. County Comptroller Martha Haynie knows there are property owners on Airbnb and rival sites who aren’t paying the tax, but at this point it’s a tiny drop in a very big bucket.
“In Orange County, we have such a concentration of huge hotels, it is a better use of my auditors’ time to make sure the huge hotels are doing what they’re supposed to be doing, and going after delinquent accounts on some of the smaller properties than it is to try to hunt down individual homes.”
Even so, Haynie and the Central Florida Hotel and Lodging Association are keeping an eye on it. The comptroller’s office has an intern from the University of Central Florida who’s been tasked with tracking down Airbnb owners and notifying them that they’re supposed to be paying hotel taxes.
“It’s a new world,” Haynie said. “It’s the way people are doing things, and we need to pay attention to it.”
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