The Summer of ’18 was a distressing one for many AirBnB property owners in Newport, Rhode Island. Property owners across the city opened notices from the Building Inspector’s office telling them they were not approved for registration as a short term rental. The reason?

My clients asked for clarification and received an email with this explanation:

Be advised that unless you live within the dwelling unit while the renters are there it is considered a “change of use” under RI Building Code and therefore becomes subject to code upgrades equal to a hotel (R-1) including: but not limited to:

Fire sprinkler system

Upgraded fire alarm system

Accessibility requirements

Means of egress requirements

Only by seeking variance relief through the RI Building Board of Appeals or RI Rehab Code Board of Appeals can this allowed without full code upgrades.


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What DOES that mean?

City of Newport Building Inspector Bill Hanley took the time to sit with us and to answer our questions and explain what was happening.

Zoning Requirement

My clients have a single family home in downtown Newport in an area zoned WB (Waterfront Business).

Properties that are located in certain zones (WB, GB, LB and Commericial) can operate a business by right with the appropriate registration and inspections. “By Right” doesn’t mean they can do whatever they want with any kind of business they want. “By Right” in this case means the property is zoned to allow certain business activities and no further zoning approval is required.

“By Right” does not mean that no further approvals are required. Businesses are required to register with the city and to get the appropriate licensing and inspections.

My clients’ property is in a zone that allows business activity so they required no zoning approval.  The property is registered with the city under the Guest House rules, they pay property taxes on the business and they comply with the inspection requirements for fire and habitability.

Being located in the right zone is just one of several hurdles AirBnB properties have to manage.

Change of Use:

The “change of use” refers specifically to the fire code.

The City of Newport determined sometime in 2018 that using a property for short term rentals changed the property from a Residential property to an “R1” under the fire code.

Fire safety requirements for properties designated “R1” are more involved and stringent than those for residential properties.  In the email quoted above the property owners were notified they would have to comply with requirements for:

Fire sprinkler system

Upgraded fire alarm system

Accessibility requirements

Means of egress requirements

The dreaded Sprinkler requirement

Sprinkler systems often require a separate, independent water line coming in from the street. This is because most single family, mixed use and multifamily buildings in Newport are served by a 1″ or 1 1/4″ water line from the street. This size water line doesn’t provide enough flow or pressure to drive a sprinkler system.

My clients learned that adding a new water line would begin with a hefty $12,000!! bill just for digging up the street. That’s before the sprinkler contracter started installation.

In addition to sprinkler systems “R1” ratings mean properties have to upgraded with things like burn rated separations between units, self closing doors with their own burn ratings, Fire Extinguishers, specified numbers and types of egress and for those properties with 4 or more units even hardwired smoke and co detection units requiring installation of fire panels and horns.

In short, a lot of expensive work.

Getting Professional Help

I introduced my clients to local Building and Fire Codes Consultant, Ray Gomes. Ray was working with a large number of property owners who had received the same notice and represented a group of those owners in a variance hearing in front of the state fire board.

In a great result for my clients the State board issued a blanket variance for all single family and two family homes.

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So what does THAT mean?!

Variance Defined

A variance is a request to deviate from current zoning requirements. If granted, it permits the owner to use his land in a way that is ordinarily not permitted by the zoning ordinance.

According to Ray Gomes the state board has said that for single family and two family homes in Newport there is no “change of use” when they operate as short term rentals. These types of properties have a “blanket variance” from this R1 regulation and do not have to update their fire systems from those required for their existing type.

A single family or two family DOES have to pass other inspections for their type of property which do include basic smoke/CO inspections as an example.

3+ Family Homes or Mixed Use:

The blanket variance does not apply to 3+ family homes or mixed use properties which will need to get variances on a individual case by case basis.

Gimme the bottom line…

If you own an AirBnB that is

  • In a zone where it is permitted by right or by variance and;
  • Your property is a single family or two family structure
  • and you received a notice that you had a “change of use” regarding fire safety requirement

You are probably in the clear.

If you don’t meet all of the above you may still have some work to do. 

For professional help and consultations with your Rental Property, whether short term or long term, call for a consultation today at 401-662-7204.