From your spare room to a seat in your car, that drill that sits in the shed waiting to be used, even the family pet…. Ordinary families across the country are discovering they can make thousands of pounds by renting out their lives on the internet.
This is the brave new world of the ‘sharing economy’ and if you aren't already participating, it sounds like you soon will be. In ten years time it's estimated this new phenomenon will be worth £9 billion to the UK economy. But what exactly is it and could there potentially be risks for those who get involved?
It's for people who own homes, own cars, it’s for people who go on holiday and do a school run. The sharing economy helps people make money and save money in their everyday lives.”
Tonight sent an expert on the sharing economy, Debbie Wosskow, to the South London home of the Matthews family, who are interested in making a bit of extra cash to top up their income. A quick tour of their house reveals there are plenty of ways they can use the sharing economy to their advantage. The summer house in the garden? With a few tweaks, Debbie thinks this could be an ideal room to rent out on an occasional basis directly to guests via peer-to-peer websites, potentially earning the family £50 per night. The empty box room? Debbie says why not rent it out for storage and earn in excess of £800 a year.
Then there are the obvious savings. Debbie recommends that the Matthews family sell one of their two cars and rent a car on an ad hoc basis through a specialist website, saving around £300 a month. For holidays, she suggests a house swap instead of the usual hotel or villa, saving the family around £2000 on accommodation costs.
So far, so promising. But here's where some of the dangers of the sharing economy start to emerge.
If you rent out items on the internet for payment, you need to make sure you’re properly insured in case something goes wrong. If you are lending a tool to a neighbour that is absolutely fine; providing no money changes hands your contents insurance, your occupier’s liability will cover that risk. However the game changer is where there is money changing hands or if you advertise it on a sharing economy website. If you are doing that, then you need to refer it to your insurance company because it massively changes the risk for them.”
And it's not just insurance problems that could trip people up. Anyone who rents out a room to paying guests through websites such as Airbnb needs to abide by fire regulations, just like any other bed and breakfast accommodation. Tonight spoke to Simon Shouler, who used to run a B&B in his 16th century home, until one day the fire service came to inspect his property and closed it down on the spot because it didn't comply with fire regulations. He was told the property needed fire doors and an interconnecting smoke alarm system.
Every day local fire authorities make similar inspections of B&Bs and guest houses. Tonight asked 14 fire authorities how many they inspected last year; the number was 507. When asked about room rental sites where fire regulations also apply, the number was zero.
I think it's a new phenomenon and I don't think it’s on their radar at all. Unless they are told about them then they do go under the radar and Fire and Rescue Services won't know about them until something happens - they get a complaint or there is a fire.”
When Tonight asked why fire services hadn't visited any Airbnb premises, the Local Government Association told us: “The number of fires in domestic properties has halved over the last decade. As these types of…rentals grow more attractive, fire services are keen to work with homeowners and renters to ensure that these risks remain at an all time low.”
But are Airbnb hosts even aware that their rented rooms fall within the regulations? Tonight visited 10 Airbnb properties across the country. Regulations say that there should be - at the very minimum - working smoking alarms on the landings. In two premises we visited that didn't appear to be the case. The regulations also say that guests must know how to exit the premises in the event of a fire. Not one of the Airbnb rooms appeared to have that information.
I have never read what to do if there was a bad situation here. I thought they just came as a guest in your home in the same way a friend or family person would.”
Airbnb said in a statement: “We require hosts to follow their local laws and we encourage all hosts to take some basic steps to keep their homes safe… and if guests alert us to a hazard or safety issue at a listing, we immediately suspend the listing and investigate."
However for many, the benefits of the sharing economy outweigh any potential pitfalls. Debbie Wosskow has a pleasant surprise for the Matthews family - she’s worked out they could make £8000 a year just from renting out items they already own, or being smarter with hiring rather than buying themselves.
But, as the name suggests, the sharing economy isn't all about making or saving a pound or two. Harnessing the power of the internet to enable people to share their time or possessions for free is also on the increase.
Jess Hope, a 24 year old teacher from North London, and Claire Newton, 91, were introduced by a website called The Casserole Club. Every week, Jess cooks a meal and takes it round to Claire’s flat, staying for a while so they can have a chat.
I look forward to Tuesday night, I really do. I look forward to going round and seeing Claire and it takes such a little part of my time- maybe half an hour… but that is half an hour she really, really enjoys and she gets to tell me about her life and how her week has been.”
The company has hundreds of volunteers across the country who regularly cook for people in their community in this new, internet-enabled take on meals-on-wheels. But it’s clear there's something more significant going on than simply providing food.
I think that the casserole is really just a side note. I think that the main thing is about company and about sharing of experiences as well as a meal.”
I really, really appreciate it and I enjoy it and I look forward to it. To see her is lovely - she has become a friend.”