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Airbnb may offer a cheaper alternative to hotels, as well as the chance to live like a local, but thousands of people may be breaking planning rules in their bid to rent out their homes or rooms. The website started up as an idea to help homeowners make a bit of money from their spare rooms, but now it has been hijacked by people who are making a fair income from the phenomena.

A Sunday Times report shows a London shed has been turned into a studio, although it has been deemed to be unsuitable for accommodation by the local council. This has not stopped the owner listing it on Airbnb along with other holiday rentals in the same house. The so-called ‘owner’ is not a resident Airbnb host, but an employee at a short-let management company offering dozens of listings at a time. Many of these are for far longer periods than the 90 days a year which are allowed by law. It also means people are effectively changing the use of their properties from family homes to commercial use without planning permission and, therefore, presumably without the proper insurance and legal redress for any of the tenants.

This is not good news for people living in areas of high demand, such as London, as more houses and apartments are being let through Airbnb and are, therefore, not available for sale or long-term rent in an already squeezed market. Duncan McCann of the New Economics Foundation argues that this rise in short-term letting leads to higher rents and higher purchase costs, because it reduces the number of properties for long-term tenants or buyers.

If landlords are caught abusing the regulations for short-term lets, then they can be issued with enforcement notices, but this does not seem to be happening too often. Legal experts are also warning Airbnb hosts, who are taking advantage of the system, that they could be in breach of their leasehold agreement on a flat or mortgage agreement. Many leases on apartments will state it can only be used as a private residence and so cannot be short-let. The buildings cover could also be invalidated should there be a flood or fire which would leave the owner with nothing if the house burnt down.

Companies like Airbnb have stumbled on to a good thing, but the widespread abuse of the system needs to be thwarted, as it is damaging to legitimate landlords and tenants alike.