Local Airbnb rentals draw NASCAR fans, mountain bikers

Phillip Tutor, The Anniston Star, Ala.
·6 min read

Apr. 22—Though a realtor by trade, Tan Akles-Fitch's expectations for becoming a Calhoun County Airbnb host were a bit rudimentary. She harbored no grandiose revenue projections. All she was doing was "testing the waters," a toe dipped into an unfamiliar pond.

Then she listed her property: a 4-bedroom, 2 1/2 -bath home in Anniston.

Grandiosity suddenly became appropriate.

"I had two bookings within 24 hours and four within 48 hours," Akles-Fitch said. Her first tenants — NASCAR fans arriving for the race at Talladega Superspeedway — check in this weekend.

She's still a bit astonished by the swiftness, if not the simplicity. "I just listed mine last week, so I'm very fresh at this," she said. "But the rest of my weeks are filling up."

Short-term rental companies like Airbnb and Vrbo aren't new ventures. San Francisco-based Airbnb is 12 years old; Vrbo, headquartered in Austin, Texas, dates to 1995. Similar to Uber's impact on the taxi and rental-car industries, the proliferation of short-term rental companies in larger cities and vacation hotspots has created a dynamic cheered by proponents and decried by critics.

For now, though, the short-term rental business is seemingly carefree and mostly welcomed in Calhoun County, where property listings are rising and municipal regulations are minimal, a fact local Airbnb hosts overwhelmingly cheer.

"I didn't plan to do this," Akles-Fitch said, "but now that I am into it, it's better than renting."

This week, a Calhoun County search of Airbnb lodgings returned 87 offerings, a fair number of which were properties in neighboring counties. Of the 40 properties inside Calhoun County, 28 were in Anniston, with Oxford (five), Jacksonville (four) and Piedmont (three) briefly mentioned.

Like Chevrolets, the properties vary in size. There are large homes that can accommodate families or groups. Some hosts list rooms of the same property separately. A few require minimum-length stays.

And prices widely vary: $49 a night for an Anniston cottage; $100 a night for a house in Piedmont; $231 a night for an Oxford guesthouse; $18 a night for a camping plot in Anniston.

Property owners — "hosts," in Airbnb parlance — and their motivations vary, as well. Desires for profit are ubiquitous, though there are hosts who rent spare bedrooms and enjoy meeting guests as much as they do the revenue.

And then, there's Preston York.

His Airbnb introduction came on business trips throughout the South. York's company builds mountain-bike trails, such as those at Coldwater Mountain and Fort McClellan. Because of his bikes and his work gear, he preferred staying in Airbnb properties instead of hotels because of the convenience.

Once the Coldwater Mountain trails opened, he bought an adjacent 3-bedroom, 1 1/2 -bathroom house and decided to become an Airbnb host.

Initially, the plan was to cater to out-of-town cyclists who'd appreciate the house's location and outdoor space, which includes a screened porch, a fire pit, a deck with a grill and a fenced-in back yard that's pet-friendly. "Literally, you're right off the deck and you are on a trail that connects you to 40 miles of Coldwater Mountain trails," York said.

Six years later, York's Airbnb side gig is flourishing with multiple Calhoun County properties that no longer depend on mountain-bikers as clients. He still gets a share of those tenants, but family-related travelers are now his constant clients.

They come to Anniston, he said, for reunions, graduations, weddings and funerals. Business travelers aren't uncommon. He's even noticed a burgeoning market of local residents who have quickly sold their homes and haven't had time to close on their new abodes.

For a fee, his Airbnb accommodations provide a bridge between their old and new homes.

"I have had almost a dozen families with that exact situation," he said.

Lack of hotel space in Anniston

York, who lives in Choccolocco, views short-term rentals as a needed option for Anniston because of the city's lack of hotel space. Though there are a number of lower-budget hotels along the city's fringes, the Hotel Finial on Quintard Avenue is its only hotel of note, and the bed-and-breakfast offerings, while attractive, aren't numerous. Unfinished, too, is the city's ongoing attempt to build a hotel on Noble Street.

Ecotourism — mountain biking, professional cycling races, the Chief Ladiga Trail — is an established draw for Anniston, not to mention the twice-a-year swarm of NASCAR fans. But York's multiple properties, most of which are within the city limits, lure travelers for a multitude of what he describes as "under the radar" events: the canine biathlon at McClellan, the Cheaha Challenge, the Coldwater Mountain Fat Tire Festival, and college, high school and youth sporting events at Choccolocco Park and Jacksonville State University.

"So those are recurring, and I've got clients who stay every year for the last six years," York said. "People book literally a year in advance or even longer."

Thus far, the staunchest critics of short-term rentals haven't created a significant stir among Calhoun County city councils. Nationally, though, those critics are adamant that companies like Airbnb and Vrbo devalue properties and create potential security risks. Through strict regulations, a small number of Alabama cities have tried to lessen those complaints, though regulations in Calhoun County haven't reached that level of concern.

Anniston does not have a specific policy regarding zoning ordinances for Airbnb properties, said Toby Bennington, the city's director of planning and economic development, though there are differences regarding single- and multi-family homes, and properties must meet code requirements.

Oxford "follows the regulations set up by Airbnb," city spokeswoman Taylor Sloan said, though Councilwoman Charlotte Hubbard said the council was "continuing to tweak" its short-term rental guidelines and has had "some discussions with a couple of our people who have Airbnbs here."

As an Anniston-based Airbnb host, York blanches at the thought of a steep increase in short-term rental regulations. "Over-regulation is always a concern," he said. "To regulate in excess would be counterproductive. Certain regulations are needed and required, and a lot of that is handled through Airbnb already."

York's fear is that strict regulations like those in some university cities and coastal vacation spots would tamp down Airbnb listings in Anniston, which in turn would siphon off the rentals' economic benefit.

"The reason that I'm here in Anniston is to help promote my city and community," he said, adding that "it's important we don't give up on communities that are struggling. If the good people leave because of bad situations, then it will continue to get worse, and the reason good people leave sometimes is over regulations."

For cities, the balance between rental-property hosts and local residents requires maintenance — or tweaks, as Hubbard described in Oxford. "When we talk about regulations, we're not talking about making it difficult or punitive," Anniston's Bennington said. "It's about protecting the owner of the property, the visitor to the property, and about making sure the requirements are all there."

Though early into her side gig as an Airbnb host, Akles-Fitch, the Anniston realtor, is sold on the idea. She needs no convincing. As proof, she's put in offers on four more houses she plans to renovate for Airbnb use.

"It has just opened up so many opportunities that I wouldn't have expected it to open up," she said.

Phillip Tutor — ptutor@annistonstar.com — is a Star columnist. Follow him at Twitter.com/PTutor_Star.