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Jackie Vale and Anita Kaschak were having fun cleaning Vale’s vacation rental last week.

With easy patter and quick laughter, the two women went quickly through the Broad River house, following a cleaning routine they’ve honed over time. This is the busy season for Vale, who operates Breezy Vale Vacation Rentals in Black Mountain. She advertises her short-term rentals through Airbnb and Vacation Rental By Owner (vrbo.com), two services that are bringing lots of visitors to the Swannanoa Valley this summer season.

“I’m booked solid; I wish I had five more,” she said of the handful of local properties she owns. She’s like this – rushing to properties to clean and oversee upkeep – from April to December. During slow months, traveling nurses often book her cottages and houses.

With so few hotels in the Swannanoa Valley, visitors have for more than a century found accommodations with residents who had a room or cottage to spare. That’s more the case than ever — Airbnb lists more than 300 homes and 105 private rooms in the Black Mountain-Swannanoa-East Asheville area. FlipKey, another popular online booking service, advertises 563 homes in the Black Mountain area.

“Black Mountain has historically been a town dependent on short-term rentals,” said Bob McMurray, executive director of the Black Mountain Swannanoa Chamber of Commerce. Without them, “there would not be near enough accommodations for all the visitors.”

Residents who rent out part of their homes rely on the money to pay housing costs that are higher than the state average, McMurray notes. Visitors to the Valley book private homes and rooms to attend conferences, drop children at local camps and to visit the mountains. Some use them while they look for a place to buy.

“For what people can get for a night in motels, they can get a three-bedroom, two-bath house that sleeps 12,” Vale said of short-term rentals like hers. “It’s like home – you can bring the dog, have your own kitchen and be comfortable.”

Black Mountain was the 10th highest-grossing Airbnb city in North Carolina in 2016, according to a 2017 Airbnb press release. Attracting 6,600 Airbnb guests in 2016 – the same number as Greensboro – Black Mountain hosts netted $705,000. In 2017, Black Mountain (at 13,000 guests and $1.4 million in host income) and Swannanoa (10,400 guests and $1.1 million in income) were among Airbnb’s top 15 cities and localities in the state.

Short-term rentals have been controversial in Asheville, where rentals of fewer than 30 days inside the city's residentially zoned areas are illegal and subject to $500 daily fines – unless a full-time resident stays in the home at the same time as guests (so-called “homestays”). In Black Mountain, there are no regulations regarding short-term rentals, town planning director Jessica Trotman said.

A post by The Black Mountain News on a local Facebook page generated lots of discussion about the impact short-term rentals have on the town. Some people argued that, with no regulations, Black Mountain may attract speculative property buyers who turn houses into defacto motels. Some called for the town alderman to set some policy.

Others noted that renovating houses to attract visitors maintains or increases property values. And it’s a way for homeowners to pay off their mortgages. And that it is better that the money goes to residents rather than chain motel companies. Nearly everyone who posted spoke against the type of owner who lives elsewhere and has no stake in the community, other than financial.

Amanda Riley and her husband, Mike Riley, of Black Mountain are not those kinds of people. They own the house next to them and rent it out when family isn’t using it. They’re proud that they are on-premise owners who have ties to the town and neighborhood, who make sure visitors respect the neighborhood.

“It has been great for our family overall, and we are pretty mindful about spending our money as locally as possible,” she said, “and so I like to think that a good bit of the money made is funneled back into town. We've considered switching it to a long-term rental to add to the supply of housing for families in our community,” she said, “though what we would have to charge to cover the mortgage, insurance and maintenance wouldn't necessarily be considered ‘affordable’ by everyone."

Tekla Howachyn is also happy with her experiences renting her Black Mountain property.

“We had a delightful couple stay in our Airbnb during their escape from the storm (Alberto) in Florida,” she emailed last week. “When they contacted me, I let them know we were expecting bad weather, too. They came anyhow and loved Black Mountain and were looking forward to returning. They chose Black Mountain because of its proximity to Asheville and said they actually spent more time in Black Mountain discovering places like the Dripolator and the mead and cider tasting and the brewery.”

Chip Craig, owner of Greybeard Realty and Rentals in Black Mountain, manages 80 vacation rentals in the 28711 ZIP code. None of the 80 homeowners is in the short-term rental market to make money, he said, but they all want to offset some of the ownership costs. Many are working people who are using the house they plan to retire in to help pay the mortgage. Some rent their homes while they’re away on mission trips or business assignments.

“It’s those kinds of people. Not investors,” Craig said. He doesn’t believe there is money to be made by buying a home and turning it into a short-term vacation rental.

 “We have people come to us all the time and say, I’m going to do this (buy a home for vacation rentals) and it will pay for itself. And we say, no, it won’t,” he said. “If it were an income-producing thing, I would buy a house and do that. Nobody at our agency does that. There’s just not a return on the investment. I guess (prospective home owners) hear about Airbnbs and think they’re going to make a fortune.”

It’s a misperception that short-term vacation rentals hurt the availability of affordable housing, he said.

“Are you going to go on vacation and stay in a $200,000 house? Probably not,” he said. “Turning $400,000 condos into vacation rentals is not hurting affordable housing.”

Craig had one client who bought a house with the idea of renovating the garage into a short-term rental. But the client quickly realized that it made more sense investment-wise, Craig said, to use the space as a long-term rental. Renters pay utilities and do their own cleaning. Owners don’t have to rush in every Monday to change the sheets.

Kay Wise-Denty and her husband do, but they don’t mind. They live in a 1940s cottage in Grovemont in Swannanoa and rent out a portion of their house. They make $9,000-$10,000 a year, she said. As a massage therapist of a certain age, she’d have a hard time making that much extra money plying her trade, she said.

The homestay money more than helps out, she said. “It’s paying the mortgage,” she said. She charges half to a third of what many motels cost in Asheville, so that frees up extra money for visitors to spend in the Swannanoa Valley, she believes.

Meeting her guests, she’s able to share her affection for the mountains, something they might not get at a motel. “And if I love this area so much, why wouldn’t they take that enthusiasm with them?” she said. Plus she makes killer triple ginger cookies for her guests. “I have more reviews saying you make the best ginger cookies in the world,” she said.

Mike Riley, Amanda Riley’s husband, believes the town is missing a revenue opportunity, one that could make short-term rentals safer for visitors while allowing the town to keep track of those in the city limits. He suggested the town create a paid permit and cursory inspection system that would allow inspectors to look at things like smoke alarms, fire extinguishers and exits. It would help the town keep track of who owns them, how to get in touch with them and who to contact about complaints.

“A friend in town tells us that the owners of one of the four short-term rental homes in her neighborhood rent to tenants who are consistently loud, yet she has found no one to complain to,” he said in a posted response. (Police chief Shawn Freeman said the overall short-term rental business hasn’t caused problems in Black Mountain.)

A permit/inspection system would also let the town share in the money being spent on lodging, since many owners charge visitors sales and occupancy taxes that go to the state or the Buncombe Tourism Development Authority.

“Owners like myself who are capitalizing on the influx of tourists to our area should be required to share the burden of the impact their renters have on the cost of infrastructure maintenance and improvement, and (on) town services like police, fire, or public works, who are consistently being asked to do more with less.”

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