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Lessons Learned from an Airbnb Bummer

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I have been supportive of Airbnb on this Forum, partly because my wife and I are Airbnb hosts with our private guest room here in the States. In the three years we have been doing this we have had only lovely people stay with us and, with one exception in Amsterdam, had good experiences with Airbnb properties when we travel. In all fairness, however, I should tell you about the other side of the story so you can be intelligently cautious when booking with them, or other such sites.

My wife, Annette, a glass artist, recently took a week long class with Bullseye Glass in Portland, Oregon. Since she would be there alone for the week she explored the possibilities of rooms through Airbnb near the studio. There were none available for the entire time, so she booked one place for three nights and then a second for the remaining two nights. I looked at her choices, and commented that the first one looked good, but that the second one did not have many reviews. There were only two reviews for a room in a townhouse, one of which said only, Fernando (the host) “Was a nice man”.

I reminded her that it was a no-no to book places without a lot of positive reviews, but she said the profile of the host on Airbnb, Fernando, sounded OK. The profile mentioned that he rented rooms in his very nice townhouse as he was a student in an alternative medical school. It also said he was affiliated with “Christian Chiropractors for God”. Also, his email address included the words, “God Listens”. “A man like that can't be bad.”, she said.

Wrong! IME when someone makes that much of a show about his religion, one should check their wallet.

She made the five hour drive from Anacortes to Portland and found the first place to be just as advertized; clean, convenient, and with a friendly host. Just before she left home she got an email from Fernando, saying he would be traveling to Florida, but to call his cell phone when she knew when she would be arriving, and he would have the previous tenant let her in and show her around.

She made the call and arrived at the townhouse after class at 5:30, as arranged. Nobody answered the bell. There was a lock box on the door, but nobody home. She waited. She called Fernando. No answer, so she left a message. After about a half hour she called me. I said to call Airbnb. She said she would wait another hour before calling. She had a good book, and nice Fernando would come through.

After the hour was up she did call the Airbnb hotline, where she talked to a most sympathetic guy. He said the protocol was to wait for two hours from the time of the call before they would take action, and in the meantime he would try to contact the host.

After the two hours Annette called back and they said they had not been able to get hold of Fernando, so she should check into a hotel, for which Airbnb would pay the first night. She started calling hotels and motels, only to find all 15 she called in greater Portland were booked for the night.

It was now going on 9:00, and she was having visions of having to sleep in the car, when Fernando called. He was most apologetic. He said there was a mix up in communication with the person who was to let her in. He gave her the combination of the lock box, so she was able to let herself in. What she found inside was an unmade bed, filthy torn sheets, hairs on the sheets, hairs and dust in the uncleaned bathroom and shower, and general disorder.

Having little choice, she made the bed, planning on sleeping on top of the blanket, and to use the bathroom gingerly.

About this time, she heard the door open and another person come into the house. After an initial fright, Annette found out it was the actual owner of the townhouse. Fernando was merely renting a room. The owner had just found out that Fernando had registered with Airbnb as the owner of the property, and had been renting rooms without the owner's knowledge. The owner, Karen, was as horrified as was my wife at the situation, and quickly arranged with a friend for Annette to stay in a friend's spare bedroom for the night. In the end, they did not do that, but Karen brought clean sheets and helped clean the place well enough for habitation. Karen then took Annette out for a (much needed) drink (or two) that night, and to dinner and clubbing the next night. The two ended up becoming good friends.

Throughout the ordeal, the folks at Airbnb were as helpful as possible, under the circumstances. They offered to put Annette up in a hotel at their expense for the first night. They refunded the money she had paid for the two nights she ended up staying at the townhouse, and they gave her $100 credit toward future travel. They also canceled all future reservations for Fernando, They did NOT give Fernando the money, and have kicked him off the site. Karen is also going to kick him out of the townhouse!

Anyway, the lessons learned are ones we should all know and follow for not only Airbnb, but any rental site. Read the reviews carefully. Review the host's profile. If there are not a lot of positive reviews, hesitate before you book. Ask a lot of questions of the host, particularly if you have any doubts. Be suspicious if there are not a lot of clear photos of important things, like the bathroom, bed, kitchen, and living areas; pictures of flower arrangements on tables really tell you very little. Ask the host for additional pictures, and/or contact information for earlier renters if you still have qualms. If they are evasive or slow in answering – move on.

We had thought that the Airbnb practice of not handing over the money to the host for 24 hours after you check in would eliminate ugly surprises, and I'm sure it helps prevent outright scams. It is not an absolute guarantee you won't still encounter the occasional shady swine, however.

In the end things worked out, but it was an experience none of us wants to have.

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