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Cities take aim at couch surfers

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Kai Ryssdal: The South by Southwest festival is in its 25th year this year. By the time things wrap up on Sunday, about 200,000 people from around the world will have made their way to and through Austin, Texas. All of them, at some point, having needed a place to lay their heads. So renting out a spare room or even a couch has become sort of a springtime tradition and booming business in the Texas capital.

From KUT in Austin, Mose Buchele reports.


Mose Buchele: This week in Austin there was this...

Band music with applause

There was this...

Kenny Furr: This is where my dog sleeps, on this couch, so I want to try to remove the dog smell as much as possible.

Kenny Furr is getting his house ready for visitors. Paying visitors.

Furr: Yeah, I've had a lot of guests, but this is the first time that I'm doing it for money.

It seems like half the city is making an extra buck off a visiting Brooklyn blogger or Norwegian music writer these days. But all over the country short-term home rentals are a fast growing industry. Of course businesses are popping up to connect renters with property owners.

Carl Sheperd: HomeAway was founded six years ago in Austin, Texas.

Carl Sheperd is co-founder of HomeAway.com, which has over a half-million short-term rentals in 170 countries. Just last week the company filed for an initial stock offering for $230 million. And as this cottage industry goes mainstream, regulators are taking notice.

Sheperd: Now that people can see that this is a really large industry, there is a natural inclination on the part of every municipality I know of to want to profit from that.

A recent study found, just in Austin, the city was missing out on hundreds of thousands of dollars a year in unpaid hotel taxes.

Robert Heil is the Austin City Planner looking into new regulations.

Robert Heil: Other cities across the nation have responded in very different ways. Some actively encourage short-term residential rentals and vacation rental by owners. And then a few places simply do not allow residential leases of less than 30 days.

Another proposal: building the taxes into websites like home away. Back at his house, Kenny Furr says he'll be paying whatever gets decided.

Furr: I feel like this is maybe a once a year thing for me so if the comptroller comes knocking on my door, then I'll gladly pay the taxes.

And if all goes well this year, he might be braking out the wet vac for a new set of visitors next South by Southwest.

From Austin, I'm Mose Buchele for Marketplace.

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