Many people have turned to their spare bedrooms as source of additional income but sales tax on vacation rentals is a new fly in the ointment that renters in several states may have to deal with. Websites like Airbnb and VRBO allow anyone to list their properties for short-term rental. Travelers then book rooms through the website, which in turn deducts its fees from the money paid to the renter.
But as these services have become more popular, officials in a number of states have questioned whether sales tax should apply to these transactions. About a half dozen states currently require Airbnb and its competitors to collect local sales and hotel occupancy taxes. Just recently, Tennessee’s top law enforcement official said the Volunteer State should be one of them.
Earlier this year, a member of the Tennessee legislature asked state Attorney General Herbert H. Slatery III for an official advisory opinion to answer three questions. The first was whether Tennessee sales tax was due on “short-term rentals of homes, apartments, and rooms” arranged through websites. The second question was whether such rentals qualified as “hotels” subject to additional state and local tax on occupancy. And finally, assuming such taxes are due, who is responsible for collecting them?
On December 1, Slatery issued his opinion. Under Tennessee law, sales tax is assessed on any “sale, rental or charges” for any “accommodations” furnished to a person for less than 90 continuous days. The attorney general said the types of services offered through Airbnb and VRBO fit that description. However, Slatery also said only those “individuals who regularly or frequently rent their homes on a short-term basis” were liable for collecting sales tax. Individuals who only rent rooms through a website “infrequently or irregularly” are not subject to tax.
Slatery further determined individuals who regularly rent out rooms in their homes are effectively operating “hotels,” which are subject to varying levels of occupancy tax depending on the specific Tennessee county. By law it is the homeowners, not the third party websites, who are liable for collecting the tax since they are the “operators” of the hotel. And unlike the general sales tax, occupancy taxes must be collected even on “occasional” or “isolated” short-term rentals.
But as the attorney general noted, Airbnb and similar websites allow individual renters “to set the price of the rental and to specify any taxes that are due from guests.” Therefore he did not expect compliance with Tennessee sales and occupancy tax laws to be “overly burdensome” for people who rent rooms.
S.M. Oliva is a writer living in Charlottesville, Virginia. He edits the international legal blog PrivyCouncil.info
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