How to use Airbnb as a guest or a host

What you need to know before committing to stay, or handing over the keys.

Home and away

Airbnb bills itself as a peer-to-peer "home sharing" service, allowing travellers to experience cities like locals and hosts to unlock extra income locked in their spare rooms. But with some cities cracking down on the service and the media highlighting horror stories about dodgy lodgings or out-of-control guests, what do you really need to know before hitting the "Book" button?

How does it work? 

Airbnb is a peer-to-peer network that links (online or through the mobile app) travellers with those who have spare rooms or homes. There are more than 2.5 million listings in 191 countries. 

Not all the accommodation is in someone's home — Airbnb also allows small bed and breakfasts, hostels, nature lodges, serviced apartments and boutique hotels with fewer than 25 rooms to use its platform to sell rooms too.

Is Airbnb legal in Australia? 

As with other companies operating in the sharing economy space, for the most part, laws have yet to catch up with technology. The rules vary, and in most states, are different depending on what local council area you live in.

Here's a breakdown of the rules state by state:

South Australia: South Australia's state government announced earlier this year that people renting out their properties for short stays were able to do so without getting additional permissions.

Queensland: The state has introduced rules that give local councils the power to require private residences that are leased for fewer than 10 days and regularly used for parties to obtain a development permit to operate lawfully.

Victoria: The state is currently in the process of implementing a "party house" law, like Queensland, to give authorities greater powers to better control problem rentals, but it has yet to pass the upper house.

Tasmania: The government has proposed a statewide rule that would allow unrestricted short-term rentals for those leasing out a portion of their homes. The proposed version of the law includes a 42-night cap per year on the length of time someone can rent out their home, after which time a permit is required.

New South Wales: In NSW, short-term holiday rentals are governed by councils, with zoning rules dictating whether you're able to lease out your place. For example, the City of Sydney, Randwick and Waverley councils have prohibited Airbnb and similar services, while Gosford, Pittwater, Shoalhaven and Kiama have okayed them.

Northern Territory, ACT and WA: Also operate on a council-by-council basis.

How much does it cost if you're a guest? 

The total price of your Airbnb accommodation will include some or all of the following charges: a nightly price for the accommodation itself set by the host; an Airbnb service fee of between 6–12%; and possibly a cleaning fee charged by some hosts. Other potential costs include a 3% currency conversion fee if you're paying in a different currency to the one used in the country where the accommodation is located, and local taxes.

With everything from beds in shared rooms to castles on offer, it's more a question of how much you're willing to pay rather than how much it costs. But when CHOICE compared the cost of hotel rooms versus accommodation booked through Airbnb in 2015, we found the peer-to-peer network was cheaper on average.

How much does it cost if you're a host?

Listing your place on Airbnb is free. You get to set your own nightly price, though Airbnb does show you what other hosts in your area charge for similar accommodation. Once your space is booked, Airbnb charges a 3% "host service fee" on each reservation.

But there may be other hidden costs involved with renting out your space on Airbnb. Getting the right insurance (see below), cleaning fees (which you can recoup from your guests), and increased wear-and-tear on your property are some of the expenses you should consider before setting your price.

What insurance do hosts need? 

Airbnb automatically provides its Australian users with a host guarantee and host protection insurance.

The host guarantee gives you $1 million in protection against property damage by guests. But it doesn't cover lost cash and securities, wear and tear, pets or shared or common areas.

The host protection insurance program is $1 million of liability protection, which should cover you if a guest is physically injured or suffers from property loss or damage while staying in your home. It may (but may not, depending on the circumstances) also cover you if a guest damages your property, including claims filed by a landlord if you're a renter yourself.

But the insurance program doesn't protect you if your liability arises from intentional harm such as assault or sexual abuse, personal and advertising injury (such as if your listing infringes on someone else's copyright or slanders a third party), harm to a guest caused by fungi or bacteria, Chinese Drywall, communicable diseases, acts of terrorism, product liability, pollution, asbestos, lead or silica. It also won't cover your lost earnings if your guest cancels or cuts short their stay.

Other insurance

To ensure you're covered for most circumstances, consider investing in some additional cover.

Home insurance will cover you in the event of damage to a building you own and contents insurance will cover loss or damage to your possessions.

But before relying on your existing cover, check your policy.

According to the Insurance Council of Australia, many standard home and contents insurance policies don't cover you if a claim arises from a "business" use of the property. While defining business use can be complicated, according to legal experts, properties listed on Airbnb or similar platforms are likely to be excluded.

Several insurers do provide special insurance policies specifically for those who rent homes on platforms like Airbnb. NRMA, for example, has a product called ShareCover that specifically covers short-term stays, so you only pay a premium when you have guests. It covers theft, damage, personal liability, identity theft and portable valuable contents.

Landlord insurance protects you if your tenant damages your home and for lost income if the property becomes uninhabitable. It's different from products such as ShareCover because it provides longer-term cover. As with home and contents insurance, your policy may not be valid in the event you're using it for a business purpose, so check with your insurance company if you're not sure.

Top tips for guests

  • Check your potential host's reviews before booking, even if they have a verified ID. That's because the ID is not "an endorsement of any host or guest, [or] a guarantee of someone's identity, or that interacting with them will be safe," according to Airbnb.
  • Check the host's cancellation policy. Hosts can choose whether to impose a "super flexible" policy with full refund (except fees) if cancelled up to one day before arriving, a "super strict" one where you only get 50% back if you cancel 60 days prior to arrival, or something in between.

Top tips for hosts

  • Check whether your local council prohibits you from hosting on sites like Airbnb. If you're allowed, then ask the council about your obligations as a host, such as providing first aid kits and fire safety devices.
  • If you're renting your property, check your lease and ask your landlord for permission before listing it, and consider notifying your neighbours so they're aware there will be new faces around the block.
  • Tell your guests about any building or strata rules — for example, rules around visitor parking spaces, smoking, laundry, noise and pets.
  • Make sure you have sufficient insurance and that it covers your property if you list it on Airbnb.