I wanted to love Airbnb. Travel is expensive, especially when you’re headed to cities where real estate is at a premium and friends don’t have guest rooms. Besides, the opportunity to stay in someone’s charming home feels like a more authentic way to experience a new city, as opposed to checking in to a cookie-cutter chain hotel. The first time my husband and I used the site, we stayed in San Francisco with a warm family of German transplants who owned a Victorian townhouse steps away from Golden Gate Park.
The next time, planning a trip to Los Angeles, I found a private studio in Silver Lake — with parking! — for the price of a roadside motel. When we arrived, we dropped our bags and did a superficial once-over. The room looked clean. Later, when we returned from dinner and drinks at a friend’s place, we fell almost immediately into jet-lagged sleep.
That apartment that looks nice on the listing? Be careful (Photo: Getty Images)
That night, it hadn’t yet occurred to me that the transaction at the heart of the Airbnb system is quite unusual in this era of high security and low confidence in the motives of others. Maybe that’s what makes the sharing economy so appealing: At a time when headlines warn of Ebola outbreaks, terrorism, and genocide, there’s something refreshing about the notion of people willingly coming together in low-key, mutually beneficial arrangements.
Airbnb’s folksy business model is disarming; looking at the website is like scrolling through a cool worldly friend’s Instagram feed. If you don’t venture too deep, say, into the Terms of Service and the Host Guarantee, it’s easy to forget what you’re doing when you press “book”: trusting a stranger enough to make yourself vulnerable by sleeping in his or her house.
Bedbug — eek! (Photo: Getty Images)
Our host in Los Angeles had terrific reviews. He also had bedbugs. Our first morning, we woke up and saw a critter the size of an apple seed crawling on the duvet. A frantic Google image search later, we had booked a hotel, sent the host a series of as-yet unanswered messages, and abandoned the apartment.
Much has been said about benefits and drawbacks of Airbnb as a concept, especially in contested areas like New York City and San Francisco, where fair-housing advocates warn that what seems like a populist system runs the risk, counterintuitively, of further empowering cutthroat landlords. Beyond the big-picture questions, there’s a good amount of press about hosts whose properties were destroyed by nightmare guests. Airbnb’s Host Guarantee is meant to protect against this scenario with a whopping $1,000,000 umbrella coverage for theft and damage.
Airbnb covers theft and damage to the owner of the apartment, but the guest is left out in the cold (Photo: Getty Images)
But, as it turns out, guests aren’t offered the same safety net. If, for instance, the place you’ve booked has bedbugs and is therefore uninhabitable, the host is not required by Airbnb to refund your money. If he or she does the right thing and provides reimbursement anyway, the reservation shows up as canceled — meaning the guest no longer has the option to leave a review.
The host might not even be intimately acquainted with the property. In my case, the man in the photograph whom I messaged was not the owner, or even the tenant. He was a listing agent. So much for the possibility of getting a feel for your host before your visit.
Don’t let the bedbugs bite! (Photo: Getty Images)
In theory, Airbnb is a go-between that connects two people in need: One neighbor has money but no sugar for his coffee, another neighbor has sugar but needs a little extra cash. But in practice, this exchange is infinitely complicated when one party isn’t who he says he is and, afterward, the buyer of the sugar sips his morning cup and realizes he’s been given salt. Airbnb takes no responsibility for host behavior, even in an extreme situation (e.g., when the host takes it upon himself to rifle through the guest’s belongings). The Terms of Service is crystal clear: “Any bookings will be made at the guest’s own risk.”
What this means is a few things. If the apartment you book is dirty, dangerous, or otherwise misrepresented, the most Airbnb will do is mediate between you and your host, assuming you can’t resolve the problem between yourselves. Its verdict, by the way, is final — and if you don’t get the full refund you believe is your due, too bad.
You may actually be better protected against bedbugs in a motel than an Airbnb listing. (Photo: Getty Images)
It also means that while Airbnb might have the advantage over hotels when it comes to price and charm, a midrange chain hotel is clearly a better choice if you care about quality control. It’s also the safer choice: The majority of modern hotels change the room’s entry code with every turnover, whereas with Airbnb, you never know who else has keys to the accommodations. In the end, Airbnb has an accountability problem that’s troubling, given that its entire business model is built on trust. The review system is a good start and distinguishes Airbnb from older, less-glossy sites like Craigslist, but it isn’t foolproof.
Travelers should know that the affordability of Airbnb goes hand-in-hand with certain risks, not altogether different from the ones that come with a short-term Craigslist sublet. As for me, one mishandled bedbug experience is enough to put me off the site, at least until guests are assured of a corporate guarantee, too.
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