In search of some extra cash, Jim and Janet Dooley started renting out a spare bedroom in their Big Bear home to skiers and other outdoor enthusiasts.
“This has brought us a couple of hundred dollars a week,” said Janet Dooley, who listed the room about two years ago on the online booking platform
The Dooleys are part of a fast-growing club. Nearly 2,000 homes, apartments and spare bedrooms are listed for rent on Airbnb in and around Big Bear Lake, up from only about 400 properties listed two years ago.
For ski resort towns, the growing popularity of Airbnb, VBRO and other online booking sites has become a mixed blessing.
The sites have created additional places to spend the night, often at an affordable price, bringing more skiers to the slopes. In contrast to hotel operators in the city, ski resort owners voice a surprising lack of anti-Airbnb sentiment, noting that cabins, condos and other vacation rentals have a long history in the mountains.
The complaints come from officials at ski resort towns, who are resorting to extreme measures to collect lodging taxes from properties listed online.
In Big Bear Lake, the city council recently voted to spend $25,900 for software to identify homes and rooms that are listed for rent online but have not registered to pay the city's 8% transient occupancy tax.
"We have been trying to be proactive to keep up with this issue," said Phil Mosley, director of community services for Big Bear Lake.
For good reason. Last year, the transient occupancy tax generated nearly $4.6 million, or about 11% of Big Bear Lake's annual revenue. But city officials think the tax collected should be much higher.
A spokesman for Airbnb said the San Francisco company is willing to collect taxes from property owners on behalf of the city, but that would require city or state lawmakers to pass new legislation. Airbnb already has agreements to collect taxes in more than 200 municipalities worldwide, including Los Angeles.
"We are eager to do so in as many places as possible," Airbnb spokesman Christopher Nulty said.
The small town of Truckee, which sits a few miles north of the Alpine Meadows and Northstar resorts near Lake Tahoe, doesn't have such an agreement to let Airbnb collect taxes. That's why the city hired a consultant in June to find all the properties in town that are listed for rent on online platforms.
"They use data-mining techniques to pinpoint the houses for rent," said Truckee City Manager Tony Lashbrook, who estimates there are about 1,200 properties listed as short-term rentals in Truckee on up to 20 different online platforms.
The transient occupancy tax in Truckee generated $1.8 million in the last fiscal year, about 9% of the city's general fund revenues.
Similar efforts were launched in Mammoth Lakes, a resort town in the Eastern Sierra Mountains. Since 2010, the city has assigned three full-time employees to identify short-term rentals within the city boundaries and ensure that they are paying the city's transient occupancy tax.
Property owners who fail to register with the city and pay their taxes can face fines of up to $1,000 a day.
In the first fiscal year after the crackdown was launched, the city collected an extra $500,000 in new revenue, said Cyndi Myrold, finance manager and treasurer for Mammoth Lakes.
For ski resort operators, the growing popularity of Airbnb and other online booking sites has contributed to an increase in ski visitors. And even though several ski resort companies also own vacation lodging properties and hotels, they say the overall impact is positive.
"Ski areas across North America, particularly those in Lake Tahoe and Mammoth, we benefit from Airbnb and VBRO," said Andrew Wirth, president and chief executive of Squaw Valley Ski Holdings, parent company of Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows ski resort.
A study by AirDNA, which collects data on Airbnb, found nearly 1,000 homes and properties in Mammoth Lakes are listed for rent on Airbnb, up from about 200 units in December 2014.
Mammoth Resorts, which owns and operates Mammoth and June Mountain resorts in the Eastern Sierra Mountains as well as Bear Mountain and Snow Summit in the San Bernardino Mountains, also owns and operates four lodges and inns at the base of Mammoth Mountain.
Despite the proliferation of short-term rentals, Mammoth Resorts' rental properties haven't lost business, Mammoth Resorts spokeswoman Lauren Burke said.
"We have not seen a negative effect on bookings in our lodging properties due in part to the variety of amenities that short-term rentals do not offer," she said. "Our hotels are some of the only ski-in, ski-out properties in town and our guests continue to seek the premium experience with all our services and slope-side locations."
Some ski resort operators worry that the growing popularity of Airbnb and other sites means that properties in ski resort towns that would otherwise be available as affordable housing for resort workers are instead listed for vacationers.
"We do feel like the expansion of [rentals by owners] has taken affordable units out of the market that could be there for employees of our resorts," Robert Katz, chairman and chief executive officer of Vail Resorts, said during a December earnings report conference call. Vail operates nine mountain resorts worldwide, including Kirkwood, Northstar and Heavenly in California.
Vail Resorts is working on a project to add affordable housing near the Keystone ski resort in Colorado, Katz said.
Still, he added: "We think that's a trend that's certainly helpful to bringing more guests to the resorts."
Back on the shores of Big Bear Lake, the Dooleys say they rent their second-floor spare bedroom for only $75 a night. But Janet Dooley said they don't pay a nightly transient occupancy tax because they live outside the city limits in the unincorporated community of Fawnskin.
If San Bernardino County were to come calling to collect a bed tax, Janet Dooley said she wasn't sure it would be worth the hassle to continue renting out the spare bedroom.
"We'll see," she said.