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Vacation Rentals and Building Codes: What Actually Applies

By Zoe Gaik,

Architectural Forensic Associate

RGA Design Forensics

I’m sure you’ve heard of this dilemma before—what building code

actually applies to vacation rental homes like those on Airbnb and VRBO? This

argument is very much still up in the air, but yet litigation against vacation

rentals is more than common these days. So, what are these lawyers basing

their arguments on...? Commercial codes. But, do these even apply?

As an Architectural Forensic Associate for RGA Design, I work closely

with Airbnb on the defense for many of their cases in Florida. What I have

learned is that every municipality deals with vacation rentals differently, and

some don’t deal with them at all. Some municipalities such as Marathon, FL,

require vacation rentals to meet certain life safety and fire code criteria, such

as requiring a fire extinguisher in the unit, and requiring an audible chime on

all exterior doors. But almost all other municipalities, including Tampa where

I’m located, do not provide a checklist of provisions that vacation rentals must

abide by. Which, leads to confusion if/when something happens to a guest

within the unit, such as a trip and fall.

I can understand why some lawyers assume that vacation rentals are

governed by commercial codes. They are very similar to hotels, which are

governed by the Florida Building Code (FBC), the National Fire Protection

Association (NFPA) 101: Life Safety Code, and the Americans with Disabilities

Act (ADA) Standards for Accessible Design. Commercial structures like hotels

are required to abide by these codes and standards at the time of their

construction. However, residential structures such as single-family homes are

not required to abide by any of these codes at the time of their construction,

but rather are required to abide by the Residential edition of the Florida

Building Code (which provides different requirements than the generic Florida

Building Code).

Most single-family homes were constructed with a residential occupancy

classification and were constructed on a residentially-zoned parcel of property

that does not allow commercial structures to exist there. Meaning, if Airbnb

and VRBO homes were considered of a commercial use, almost every Airbnb or

VRBO home would be operating illegally. The occupancy cannot change from

residential to commercial, due to zoning restrictions.

In my opinion, renting out a room in your house should not be

equivalent to changing the occupancy classification from residential to

commercial. Renting a room to a long-term tenant (roommate) should be no

different than renting a room to a short-term tenant (tourist).

In addition, in my experience people are well-aware that when they rent

through Airbnb or VRBO, they are renting a home, not a hotel room. Homes are

not required to meet commercial codes, and hotel rooms are not required to

meet residential codes. Due to the reasons discussed above, it is my opinion

that commercial codes do not apply to vacation rental homes, unless your

specific municipality enacts laws about them.


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