Summer rentals to pay off the mortgage: the village changed by Airbnb

Woolacombe used to be a place of old-fashioned bed and breakfasts and a handful of hotels for those wanting a little more luxury. Now it is the land of Airbnb.

There is a dizzying selection of properties on offer, ranging from single rooms in locals’ houses to snazzy beachside apartments with hot tubs.

You can rent a hut aimed at the budget surfer, a yurt with a compost toilet or a £1m house with stunning views of the waves crashing on to miles and miles of north Devon beaches.

“I think it’s a good thing,” said Emma Ward, who works for Gulfstream Surfboards in the village. “We rely on tourism in this area. Anything that gives more people the chance to come here has to be good for the area.”

When Ward packs up her board and wetsuit and heads for warmer climes she sometimes rents her home out through Airbnb – and finds a place to stay through the site at the other end. “It helps me fund trips and find good places to stay,” she said.

In years gone by, Woolacombe would have been pretty much deserted in the winter. Many of the B&Bs and hotels would have been closed and the restaurants and cafes shuttered.

This February half-term, however, it has been busy. The Red Barn, which looks out over the crashing waves, has been heaving with surfers and families. The cafes and fast-food restaurants have done good business.

It’s down, partly, to the fact that modern winter wetsuits allow surfing all year round. But most agree it’s also down to the likes of Airbnb, which provides flexible, affordable accommodation.

Steve Woodman, who runs the Londis store and sits on the parish council, said there were positives and negatives of Airnbnb.

“It’s good for the businesses that we have people coming here all year and it’s very good for those people who make money out of Airbnb. There are some locals here who rent their homes out for a few weeks in the summer and make enough to pay off that year’s mortgage.”

But houses and flats that might have made homes for locals are being snapped up by investors who can make a profit by renting them out via Airbnb and other sites.

“That means there are fewer places for local people to live,” said Woodman. “Property prices are extraordinary.” Houses on the esplanade with the finest views go for £1m or more. A tiny two-bedroom flat goes for around £200,000.

Woodman’s son, Andrew, let a room out in his home via Airbnb until he had children. “It went really well,” he said. “It was nice to have a bit of extra money. In the winter the locals used to have the place to ourselves. Now people come all year, which is good for the village.”

Others are more sceptical.

Debbie Hollin said she had used Airbnb for trips but did not think it was good for Woolacombe and the surrounding villages. “The community is dying because so many properties are holiday homes. The houses around me are all deserted for weeks on end. This used to be a lovely community but you don’t see that many local children around now.”

The spec in some of the Airbnb listings appears faultless. The feedback for an Airbnb in the Byron complex, for example, includes praise for the welcoming concierge team. Some Airbnbs in the Narracott block are advertised by a business based in Chelsea.

Malcolm Wilkinson, the lead member for coastal communities on North Devon council and a Woolacombe resident, said the face of tourism in the village had changed dramatically in the last 10 to 15 years.

“We have around 1,400 to 1,500 residents. In the summer that population swells to around 15,000.” He likes the concept of Airbnb. “Traditional B&Bs have just about died here. Airbnb fills that niche.”

But he is sad it makes it harder for local people to stay in the village. “If you have a flat you don’t let it out to a local person earning £10 an hour – you rent it out for £1,000 a week.”

The council is trying to help. The developers of Byron provided a pot of money for affordable houses – but so far no plot of land has been found to build those homes on.

It is not just down to Airbnb but Wilkinson regrets that the nature of the community has changed. For many years there was a sporting competition between Woolacombe and a neighbouring village. Residents competed at basketball, golf, swimming, surfing. “Now it’s hard to get a skittles team of six together,” said Wilkinson. “That is a shame.”

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