Navigating the Rules For AirBnB Rentals in Sonoma County 

The growth in AirBnb rentals in Sonoma County has been driven by various factors not least the booming economy of the Bay Area and the growth in the number of people looking to purchase second homes in wine country either as an investment or as a second home. Renting the entire property out or a renting out a separate guest house can help fund the investment or at the very least, help offset the property tax.If you have an existing home that you are looking to rent out as a vacation rental, or if you are looking to purchase a home and use vacation rentals as a way to earn income, you will probably already know that the rules are both complex and are constantly changing. 

Vacation rental vs. Hosted Rental

Firstly, it is important to define what we mean by vacation rental. In Sonoma County, as with Marin County, a vacation rental is defined as “rental of a private residence for periods of 30 days or less”. There is an important distinction between renting out the entire house and renting out a room within a house with the owners present. A vacation rental refers to renting the entire house whereas a hosted rental refers to renting one part of a house (either a room or a separate guest house). 

Zoning Requirements for Vacation Rentals and Hosted Rentals

Any property that is within the city limits of Sonoma, Healdsburg or Santa Rosa is not permitted to be operated as a vacation rental if it does not already have a permit. If you are thinking of buying a property within these city limits, then you do need to find out if the permit can be transferred with the property once it is sold.

Outside of the city limits, as long as you get a valid rental permit, single family residences that are in the following residential zoning districts: Agricultural Residential (AR); Rural Residential (RR); Low density residential (R1) are allowed to be rented as a vacation rental or hosted rental (as long as they are not in a special exclusion zone – see below).  Properties that are in agricultural districts Land Extensive Agricultural (LEA), Diverse Agricultural (DA) and Resources and Rural Development (RRD) are also permitted to be used as either hosted or vacation rentals. However, any agricultural properties that are zoned within an agricultural preserve that is subject to the Williamson Act are not permitted to have any vacation or hosted rentals. Up until January 7th 2019, properties in an LIA zoning district could not operate as a hosted rental, however this has now changed to bring LIA zoned properties into line with other agricultural zoning codes. Properties that are in Land Intensive Agricultural (LIA) zoning districts, which are not currently operating as a vacation rental, will not be permitted. However, as of July 2018, properties that were operating as a vacation rental at that time could apply for a minor use permit to continue operating as a vacation rental. If this permit was granted then it  runs with the land to allow for the transfer or sale of the use. However, vacation rentals that did not apply for the use permit will be able to continue operating under their zoning permit but it will expire upon sale or transfer of the property.  In addition, homes that are in higher-density residential districts such as R2 and R3 are not permitted to operate as either a vacation rental or hosted rental. Full details of which zones allow vacation rentals can be found here on the Sonoma County Planning website . If your property is in a permitted zone, is not in an exclusion zone, and does not have more than 5 guest rooms, then you can apply for a permit and pay the fee of approximately $1,000. 

Vacation Rental Exclusion Zones For Specific Neighborhoods

While the above zoning designations indicate whether or not a hosted or vacation rental would be allowed based on the zoning, there is an additional level of complexity. Any property within an AH (Affordable housing) Combining Zone is not permitted to operate as a vacation rental. In January of 2016 Sonoma county introduced a special zone called the Vacation Rental Exclusion Combining Zone (X) which was designed to exclude certain parcels (regardless of zoning) from operating as vacation rentals.

By using the interactive zoning map here, you can select “vacation rental zoning” as a layer a see the specific areas impacted by the Exclusion Combining Zone. Using the same map, you can put in the parcel number for any address and see if it is in the Zone. Parcel numbers for an address can be found here  on the PRMD Sonoma County site.

Below are some of the specific communities impacted by the Vacation Rental Exclusion Combining Zone (X):

Kenwood and Glen Ellen:

All R1 Low Density Single Family Residential and RR Rural Residential zoned properties within the communities of Boyes Hot Springs, Fetters Hot Springs, El Verano, Agua Caliente, Glen Ellen and Kenwood; 

 

Sonoma and Sonoma Valley:

All of the parcels within the private residential communities of Diamond A, Foothill Ranch, Agua Caliente Knolls, Sobre Vista, Palomino Lakes, and the Vineyards subdivisionThe residential properties in the Nut Tree/Apple Tree neighborhood and those bordering Winter Creek Road in the Sonoma Valley;

Healdsburg:

The Fitch Mountain area, bordered by Healdsburg city limits on the west and by the Russian River on the north, east and south.

Properties that had a vacation rental permit within these zones prior to the implementation of this new exclusion zoning are allowed to continue until sale or transfer of the property but no new properties will be issued with a vacation rental permit. At the time of sale or transfer the permit will automatically expire. 

Using Second Dwellings For Vacation or Hosted RentalsIf you want to generate additional income but you don’t have enough room in your home to rent out a room or you don’t like the idea of a stranger being in your house then one solution could be to put a small permanent home, an Accessory Dwelling Unit (ADU) in the back yard which is separate from the main dwelling. In Sonoma County, most properties in residential zones (R1, R2, R3, RR and AR) and in agricultural zones (LIA, LEA, DA and RRD) can be permitted to include an ADU (the exception is if there is what is called a Z overlay). The size of an ADU can be up to 1,200 sq ft as long as the property is 2 acres or more. If the property is between greater than an acre but smaller than 2 acres, a unit is still allowed but it needs to be less than 640 sq ft. Unfortunately while the rules for building an ADU are fairly flexible in Sonoma County, the current code does not permit an ADU to be used as either a vacation rental or hosted rental. However, this does not rule out the option to rent a second dwelling on a more permanent basis for more than 30 days. While many people would not want to share their primary dwelling with a house guest, putting a second unit onto the property and renting it out for periods of greater than 30 days could generate significant income with minimal intrusion. When you couple this the fact that you could put a second dwelling onto your home for less than $120,000 from a company such as Sonderpods (a company for which I am an adviser), the economics begin to make a lot of sense. 

Summary

While the rules and regulations are complex and ever changing, if you are looking at ways that you can earn additional income as part of either an investment strategy or offsetting the costs of your dream second home in Sonoma county, it is worth spending some time understanding the possibilities. Not only will it give you some useful knowledge as part of looking for and purchasing a property, but if you are selling a property, understanding and quantifying the potential income from the property will make a big different to both the sale price and the potential buyers for the property.

This content is not the product of the National Association of REALTORS®, and may not reflect NAR's viewpoint or position on these topics and NAR does not verify the accuracy of the content.