Decoding Your Airbnb: Adventures in Voyeurism

With Airbnb came a revolution of sorts — in the world of vacation travel and, in many ways, in the author’s own life and writing career.

Comments: 44

  1. I'll never stay in an Airbnb for the same reason I'll never take an Uber. They destroy the known economy without replacing it with something better. Full time neighbours hate the noise, disrespect and partying of Airbnbs in sought after cities. Taxi owners who paid huge amounts for their licences with the expectation of making a living aren't being compensated. I'd be interested in the Ethicist's take on this. Is it morally ok to save my money at someone else's expense.

  2. @P Grey: Yes it is okay. It’s called capitalism.

  3. Taxis are a bit of a different story than accommodations. It’s an age old industry that eventually needed a change. I think there can be a balance somehow, but I don’t have a solution to offer in this post. Every Uber car I have been in (for the most part) is clean and odor free, and the cars/ SUVs have sometimes been “wow”. Cabs? Not so much. And you can’t schedule cabs. Big difference when you need to have *mostly* guaranteed pickup and arrival times. Many times cabs are dirty and not clean smelling, and the seats are worn out and the drivers are sometimes completely disconnected from passengers by talking on phones etc. As for the owner investments into medallions? I don’t think anyone saw Uber coming, but that seems like a lot to pay for a medallion either way.

  4. There is good and bad about it, just like most things in life. For the guest it often makes for a more enjoyable and relaxing experience. I love lounging in the living room, outside on the porch or cooking in the kitchen. In the wealthy San Francisco suburb we stayed in last year we stayed in an in-law suite. This probably made the million- dollar mortgage affordable in the overpriced San Francisco market. I would say that partying is involved very infrequently, even though the host often gifts a bottle of wine. Guests, as are hosts, are subject to ratings. If you are labeled a partier or slum lord, this will be noted. Yes, I acknowledge all of what you noted about neighborhoods. On the other hand, if the locals own a house in one of those neighborhoods the sale of the house may fund their retirement pretty good. (BF of LG)

  5. We run a five star air bnb, the only exotic item is my splendorous quiche. Go figure.

  6. So glad you are contributing to the increased anonymity in airbnb by renting out several places--and not living in one. Airbnb was interesting when the owner was present and you actually met them and got to talk, ask questions, find out about the locale etc

  7. @stefanie Actually, I think what Stephen Mccauley is doing is against Airbnb's policies and has increased the animosity toward Airbnb. That is, having and renting out several properties and not living in any of them. He is, essentially, running a hotel or hostel. Having "boarders" is as old as Shakespeare. Remember It's A Wonderful Life? Women became widows and took in boarders. It helps pay the rent. Buying a bunch of properties and renting them out makes you a business.

  8. Lucky you--my Airbnb experience involved me being harassed, and the company adding insult to injury by not remedying the situation, costing me a great deal of money, and ending with support representatives essentially taunting me. During the whole experience, hotels (surprise!) treated me very well. I will never use Airbnb again.

  9. my pleasure working selling real estate was visiting people's homes and seeing how they lived - home is the hearth - the emotional centre of the household - so straight away you could see what those people held dear - it was all on display in their home. as for decoding photos of airbnb - when I see multiple shots of a bottle of shampoo, a hair dryer or such, I know the place is gonna be unattractive - as otherwise they'd be showcasing the layout, furniture and views. If there are almost no photos of those, that's a clue that those things are not good.

  10. "Long-term occupants of a building can be inconvenienced by the comings and goings of short-term tenants who are sometimes less respectful about noise and less invested in the upkeep of common spaces. A 2016 report by Harvard professors showed that people with traditionally African-American names had a more difficult time renting through Airbnb, and the hashtag #Airbnbwhileblack was established." The writer may have, at least partially and inadverently, hit the nail on the head. In my experience, and that of most people I have spoken with, African-Americans are less likely to be respectful of the needs of others for quiet. Compared to the general population, they speak more loudly and are more tolerant of behavior that would be considered disruptive or unruly. Not all, but enough so that an airbnb owner might rightly wonder whether his neighbors would be bothered by loud conversations (booming voices, screaming laughter...). This may be a cultural reality that is swept under the rug in the discussion.

  11. Wow! People you have talked to... that sounds legit! The nosiest people on my recent vacation certainly didn’t fit your description. But, keep up the generalizations.

  12. @ DC, taken lots of polls, I see. "In my experience, and that of most people ..." "Compared to the general population ..."

  13. @DC - No, the cultural reality that is swept under the rug is that racists resort to old racist ad hominems like "black people are louder and more disruptive" to cover for the fact that they just don't want black people in their homes. As has been documented in video after video, the mere presence of black people prompts some white people to call the cops. Surely the stress from anxiously honing in on black vacationers just because they are present, while looking for any infraction, will definitely lead you to believe they are "disruptive and unruly."

  14. Stephen... I agree that airbnb has changed dramatically over the years and in many cases, especially in larger cities, the costs are as high as a hotel or B&B. If you travel long term and need to stay in somewhere in a place to have all to yourself that is peaceful so you can work, consider house sitting. My husband and I are retired on a fixed income and travel about 4 months out of the year. We have found that a housesitting arrangement is a great solution for us. we get free accommodation in exchange for taking care of someone's home and pet(s) while they are on vacation. We have had house sitting arrangements all over the world, and repeat customers in many lovely homes with wonderful pets! we house sat for a lovely family for 5 consecutive years for a month every August in a luxurious home in North London. There are some great websites that link homeowners with housesitters like trustedhousesitters.com If you like pets, this is a great alternative to airbnb!

  15. I just stayed in an Airbnb that had a Smart TV on its list of amenities. Was I wrong to assume that I’d be able to settle in to watch network TV as well as at least some basic cable channels? It had access to none of that; you could only watch Hulu which was not my desire that evening. I complained and found out cable couldn’t come through the concrete walls of the apartment. Turns out, “cable” is an amenity that will be listed and you can’t assume a TV has it. Airbnb did end up refunding half of my fee back to me, which was great since I had really wanted to watch tv that night and it was already late and dark outside so I didn’t want to change accommodations. They were responsive to my feedback, and now I know to look for “cable”’if I want to watch it!

  16. As a frequent user of AirBnB (I'm sitting in one in the Mile-End quarter of Montreal, sweating as I write, as most private residences here do not have AC) who uses the service when I need to be near my corporate HQ in Silicon Valley, I have a thousands of comments to add. I'll add 4. 1) They're great for a home owner to rent an unused bedroom and gain extra income, and allow a traveler to possibly be nearer to where they need to be if a hotel is not nearby. However, many are dormitories - the owner (or master tenant) does not live in the building, are never present, and you get a bedroom with a shared bathroom with strangers. Like a private room in a hostel. Yuck. 2) In Chicago, hotels are comparable or cheaper than AirBNBs. For some reason, Chicagoans think their AirBnB's are the Ritz and charge ridiculous prices. Also, taxes and fees on AirBnB in Chicago are higher than elsewhere. For a 4 night AirBnB stay, an amount equivalent to a full additional night is added for fees, taxes, and that damn cleaning charge. (Hotels don't charge extra for cleaning - why does AirBnB?) 3) AirBnB turns charming, residential neighborhoods into adult "Disneylands". Aside from rental housing being removed from the market, lowering supply and increasing prices to renters, many neighborhood shops, cafes, restaurants now pop up in these neighborhoods to serve travelers that demand them. Do these shops reflect the neighborhood's inhabitants, or the whimsical cravings of tourists?

  17. Airbnb can be a less than satisfactory experience, certainly for the first time user and a problem occurs.... I rented an apartment for six weeks in a residential area of London I know well. The Rentor seemed nice and the “flat” itself lived up to its booking. However, I was burglarized while away for two days..... AirBnB reached out to me shortly thereafter, asking in a short paragraph after my well being, then in a long one denying any responsibility nor liability. The loss was a laptop and some odds and ends, but the Rentor was not interested either in any liability nor compromise. Despite a police report stating that there was a general lapse in security both in the flat and in the specific street. When AirBnB reached out to me for a rating comment on the rental, which is standard policy, I submitted two, both of which were rejected by them. Obviously, because I raised the theft issue. MUST BE a no no in their books. Annoyed, I went to the UK small claims court and, a couple of months and a few hiccups later, was granted a hearing before a judge. I felt vindicated, but decided not to pursue my case against the owner, as the whole process was dragging on. I had already replaced my laptop and just wanted to get on with REAL things, not a courtroom hassle and more costs. The French say it best...C’est la vie! JG

  18. @J Gallagher I'm sorry you had your laptop stolen during your trip. Having also tried to be reimbursed for a loss (as a host), I can tell you for small things, Airbnb will reimburse you the replacement cost. I now recommend to all my guests to leave valuables at home. And if they bring valuables, to check with their renter's or homeowner's policy to see if it's covered. If you are the victim of theft/burglary, file a police report immediately. That's something airbnb as well as your insurance company will want. There's always a chance that the police will find your missing items. As a side note, you cannot believe what guests accidentally leave behind. Not just phone chargers (probably most common), but entire closet fuls of belongings, expensive camera and video equipment, jewelry, etc. Before you leave an airbnb or a hotel, please do a sweep of every room, closet, and drawer. One out of every four people leave something of value behind, and hosts will not return valuables without being reimbursed for packaging & postage.

  19. Airbnb is a sign of a couple of things: high hotel prices, the 'gig' economy, and travelers wanting a different travel experience. I applaud it, having stayed in a few. But like all new options, it has its downsides. I applaud the writer's spirit, and how Airbnb has infused his fiction as well as his unique travel habits. I do wish some who rent on the site were, however, less 'creative' in their descriptions. Like dating sites, one becomes cynical about actually meeting a place to stay for a day or more. It's hard to romance a lamp, a toaster, and a welcome mat -- even when the fee is enticing.

  20. Again, hotels in many locations are equal to or cheaper than an AirBNB if your booking a full apartment or condo with AirBNB. Hotels don't charge extra for cleaning (ranges between $50-$150 per AirBNB host), there's is no AirBnB platform service fee (that usually amounts to 10% of the overall gross cost) and then there's your standard city tax. All these fees add up to 25% of the net room charge. For example, a 1 bedroom condo in Santa Cruz , CA, for 2 nights over Labor Day weekend at $350/night ended up with misc fees and cleaning charges to be $1200!! At a nice hotel nearby for the same base room rate, the total was about $790....2 nights at 350 plus tax at about 10%. That's s better cost for a high-demand holiday weekend by the beach. AirBNB can be ridiculous .

  21. Thank you for satisfying my curiosity about Airbnb. I now know that I would rather stay in the most anonymous hotel room than take my chances with Airbnb. I think that even the room that Keir Dullea was confined to in 2001 Space Odyssey would be preferable.

  22. I really enjoyed this article. Thank you for making me laugh.

  23. A couple of other ways to decode: If the place has been available for a considerable length of time and has no reviews, beware! Either renters thought it was so awful that alll they wanted was to never think of it again (yes, that’s me). Or the reviews that were written were so negative that the host chose not to post them. And, yes, that just happpened to me in at a condo in Fort Collins CO where there was only half a roll of TP and the floors had not been cleaned ever. Also companies are snatching up undesirable apartments and renting them for cheap. There is no single owner to contact and there is no mention of the train that runs directly below the bedroom window from 6am to 11pm. How you can decipher that is to notice what seems like a wonderful place but is very cheap, ie the old “too good to be true.” I have enjoyed Airbnb’s all over the world, but things have gotten so bad that I have gone back to hotels.

  24. @Wolfe I've been an Airbnb host for 6 years. "The reviews were so negative that the host chose not to post them" is incorrect. The host does not "choose" which reviews to post; all reviews are posted at the end of a two week period. Only occasionally will Airbnb remove a review, if it violates some of their rules (listed on the website). I doubt they would ever remove ALL the negative reviews from a place. And if a listing gets too many negative reviews, it is removed from the platform.

  25. AirBNB - no thanks. While I appreciate people offering their homes or extra rooms for lower than hotel prices, I don’t want to share my living space with a complete stranger to save a few bucks. I’m fine with paying for a hotel. I get a guaranteed clean, non-smoking room (or I ask for another one), daily room cleaning service, I like ordering from room service, I don’t have to interact with a stranger whose home I’m staying in, I can stay up later and watch TV, come and go without having to worry about disturbing the host, and so on. You might meet genuinely nice hosts using AirBNB, and you will likely save a few bucks, but there are too many other downsides to that equation that don’t balance out for me. Plus, with tiny cameras everywhere these days, how do you know your host isn’t watching you? You don’t.

  26. @Left Coast Man There are so many different types of homes on Airbnb that you can chose one where you have the whole place to yourself, you will be alone in the house. You can also chose to rent part of a home where you can watch tv at all hours and have a private entrance, kitchen bathroom etc. I rent out 100sqm of space in a 16th century watermill. There is a modern spa bathroom, lounge , dining room, kitchenette etc in a 20 acre garden for 64€ the night. We have no cameras but for off site hosts who do, Airbnb oblige you to explain this and if you donot you have a week to comply or you are delisted. The problems arise when guests don't read all the listing and are then disappointed. Super Hosts never cancel or they loose their status so if this is a concern then guests need to chose SH with excellent reviews and five stars in all categories. Not everyone looks for budget rooms, some prefer an historical or unique building. Guests need to be vigilent, wheither it's for one day or two weeks, ensure you know exactly what is offered. Hope you give Airbnb a chance, there are many wonderful places and hosts all over the world. Regards, Elaine B.

  27. I have only used Airbnb twice - once on MV and once in the UK. Both were okay and less inexpensive. Both required a little walking from public transportation. I would do it again. Both were part of the homes that working people live in and were clean and accommodating. Both had private bathrooms with good supplies. I did meet the owners and they were fine from the brief encounter of exchanging info and keys. Why not try it. It is quite nice really.

  28. The method of property advertisement matter-of-factly described in this piece deserves attention and correction. While not quite false advertising, it contains elements of deception. Prospective renters of properties deserve a higher level of disclosure. But effective regualit

  29. My one and only experience in ANN AirBnB was when the ad said, amongst other things, “chef’s kitchen,” and what I found was rusted posts and pans, a broken oven, no blender, and a leaking sink.

  30. We have stayed at AirBnBs in Toronto, Torino, Trieste, Milano - all were as advertised and the hosts were invaluable in suggesting restaurants, sightseeing opportunities, etc. Like any purchase, you need to read the reviews by other travelers. We have had excellent results and are using this service for our next vacation in Rome in January.

  31. We bought a detached house nextdoor and put our small bungalow detached home on Airbnb. Even though we have a smart lock and our guests can check themselves in, we always make sure we are present when they arrive, show them around and answer any questions they may have. We enjoy these brief encounters because they often reassure us that the guests are really who they said they are and this, for a host, makes you more confortable that your home is in good hands since you’re not going to be there 24/7. Guests can always reach us and know that we will address any issues right away. There are many concerns raised in this piece and in previous comments that cought my attention: 1. Cleaning fees Yes hotels may not add fee but of course we all know that our bill includes the fee. I have friends who worked as housekeepers in hotels, they are underpaid and overworked, thus, the cost of cleaning your room at the hotel is significantly lower because it’s shared between 15-20 rooms. I am open with my guests about the cleaning fee. They understand that we are cleaning an entire house not just a bedroom and a bathroom. 2. Noise and nuisance Airbnb hosts set rules for ther homes just like we do in ours. Those who allow parties in residential neighborhoods are, in my opinion, inconsiderate to their neighbors. We have strict rules and have refused booking requests for this reason. Airnbnb can work in a residential neighborhood as long as hosts are respectiful of their neighbors.

  32. To those who "will never try" an AirBnB- well that's always your choice. If you think hotels are perfect, well I have some stories...But as a regular user of this type of stay across the country, I've found some amazing places with a flavor of life you will never get in a hotel. It opens you up to more of a local's experience. Maybe I've been lucky, but more likely this has been by design as I'm highly selective in my choices. I read others' reviews, view the images and more recently am renting from super hosts- who seem to have a solid track record to their renters. I like having options such as this. Our world is getting smaller with more and more trying to find the ideal getaway. AirBnB fits my need. Try it, you may like it too.

  33. Red Flags: no bathroom photos, the lead photo is an exterior Last summer the airbnb we’d carefully selected was subpar on many levels. In rural Massachusetts with few options, the listing’s “tell” was the absence of bathroom photos. I asked the host to post them before I committed, but he ignored that request. BIG Red Flag. The 2 bathrooms had no shower heads, only a very old spigot in each that produced a narrow frizzle of water. Even skinny kids couldn’t get wet under the spitting spigot. I wrote a negative review including hairs found on the sheets in two bedrooms, filthy coffeepot, non-working dishwasher. The host replied on the airbnb site that I was crazy. Right. It was pointless to complain to airbnb. We were Super Hosts until airbnb betrayed hosts who’d made the site a fabulously valued unicorn. The greed of the VCs superseded the humanist values of the two original founders (RISD grads). The third founder is the algorithm guy (monetize, dehumanize). NYC is cracking down on airbnb et al because they failed to self police. They applied the tech bro mantra: do what you want; don't ask permission. Nefarious landlords converted thousands of apartments and operated freely on the airbnb site until challenged by the City (due to an investigation funded by the hotel industry & union). Brian, Joe and Nat pocketed the money while affordable housing dwindled.

  34. I have stayed in airbnbs often, sometimes as a less expensive lodging on vacation, and more often because I wanted a furnished place with cooking facilities while abroad for work for 2 weeks to 2 months. A few observations: - When traveling on vacation I stayed with others in their homes and always felt a bit uncomfortable. Most hosts did not really want to interact with guests. They were courteous and helpful but preferred to be left alone. - I stayed in perhaps ten different furnished apartments in Beirut when working there intermittently. That was great. It let me live like a normal working person - buy my groceries, cook my meals, pack lunches to bring to work, and generally feel at home in a way I never would have felt in a hotel. - I got to know many different neighborhoods of Beirut as a result, which was fascinating. I love Beirut, perhaps as a result of having this opportunity to get to know the city by living in it in this way. - It was obvious which apartments were actually lived in (but the owner away and renting it out) and which were not. Those that were lived in were cluttered, idiosyncratic, and equipped for normal life. Those that were not, however, were typically poorly equipped with kitchen items, bedding and towels, cleaning supplies, and sometimes furniture. When asked, owners were usually willing to purchase or provide what was missing, but I always had to ask.

  35. Our one experience with Airbnb was extremely disappointing. We booked 4 nights in what was described as a large house in Quebec on Lake Champlain and paid in full. Two weeks before our travel date, the owner cancelled without explanation. We had made non-refundable bookings for motels en route. It was August. Finding an alternative place to stay in the same area (NOT through Airbnb) was not easy. We'll never give Airbnb a second try. We have used HomeAway many times and always been satisfied.

  36. We have a "townhouse" that we let short term (we live in the other townhouse".. it is quite large so attractive to families that would require more than one hotel room... we also attract longer term holiday people from around the world..... we stay out of the way unless needed ...mostly for wireless help especially if coming from abroad... they are welcome in the garden to use the grill and to be left alone... no services are shared not even laundry ...it just takes all sorts I suppose

  37. I have not stayed in a short term rental, STR. My time for traveling is limited. But the town I live in is currently working on zoning language to protect its housing stock from the negative impacts STRs can cause in a residential neighborhood, both in the cost and availability of affordable rental units, and the potential negative impacts a transient visitor population can create in single family housing neighborhoods.

  38. Excuse me: "two confessions of bisexuality" hints at the writer's judgements of bisexuality - as in, "confessions of meddling in the American elections..." As far as the charm of airbnbs, airbnb investment is driving up property values in place like Joshua Tree, Marfa and other affluent hipster destinations, pricing the average homebuyer out of the market: http://www.slate.com/articles/business/moneybox/2014/02/airbnb_gentrific... Educate yourselves

  39. I have been a long time user of Airbnb as a traveler and have stayed in some fantastic places, but saw a different side of things earlier this year when I listed my newly renovated home in Austin...I am reading a lot of complaints about the accommodations and hosts, but what about the guests...I listed my place with accurate and attractive photos, I provided a very clean and beautiful entire home and even had a house manual with local recommendations with a free coffee at the local excellent coffee spot...of the 11 guests I hosted, 8 of them ranged from disrespectful to downright abusive and I had to file damages...I had come home to find my own bed had been vomited in and left and the sisal rug under the bed had also been vomited on and left...and the sheets were also discolored by a bleach product...and these "guests" denied everything but were charged for everything...this has been my experience as a host and my listing is "snoozed" until further assessment...I put in so much time, effort and not to mention money making my place a great stay and have achieved Super Host status...I live there much of the year so all of my personal belongings are listed as part of the accommodations...I could not believe the level of disrespect for my home and my things I found...so if you are a guest in Airbnb, be aware if you are in someone's personal home and treat the place with respect...

  40. @Laura I'm really sorry you had this experience. I used to rent to large groups (up to 8) and after a few bad experiences, I now cap it at 5, primarily non-leisure guests. I also vet my guests using linked in, face book, and basic internet searches before they book. If you put your property back online, I would suggest putting everything of value in a room/closet you can lock, including bank statements as well as expensive belongings. That will give you some peace of mind that guests are rooting through personals info and could break a family heirloom.

  41. I've resisted using Air-b-b because I think it is unfair and even dangerous to the neighbors of the hosts. My wife is also handicapped and hotels are more predictable re the amenities and "barrier" mitigation they offer. My family and almost everyone else I know though has generally had good results with this model... but it just ain't me.

  42. I've been an Airbnb host for nearly 10 years, a SuperHost for the last 2. There are bad actors on both sides, but in my experience constitute only a small portion. Airbnb is not for everyone, and if you stay at a Marriott and like it, I'd not recommend you switch to Airbnb. You will likely not enjoy staying at an Airbnb, particularly the ones where you share a residence w/ the host. Everyone likes articles that show the occasional salacious and outrageous nature of Airbnb. Sure, I've had some guests that were eccentric or who did some head-shaking things in a rental. These are the stories people like to hear. Hear enough of them, and people begin to think this is the kind of experience that happens every time at Airbnb. If you're considering Airbnb, read the description, the list of amenities, the guest reviews. Look at the photos and the location's listing on a map. This will give you realistic expectations of what your experience will be. Once you arrive, if anything is amiss, tell the host ASAP. If a host won't remedy the problem, call Airbnb. There are a few cities that have been overrun w/ Airbnb listings. But it is 100% not true it's happening everywhere. Again, people see it on the news and think it's happening in their city. I rent in a trendy section of Pgh, and people here say Airbnb is taking away all available housing, driving up rents. I audited how many dedicated, non owner occupied rentals there are. The number? 20 in a neighborhood of 2,500.

  43. I've used Air BnB in many countries and cities - and small villages. I will continue to do so! But it ain't perfect. The last one I was there 5 nights - the kitchen was filthy and I had to eat out each meal - not what I wanted or budgeted. On the alternative, I'm in a "hotel" in London right now. I picked it over the AirBnB choices nearby for anonimity and public spaces. It has neither - it's not a hotel, it's a guest house. I would be WAY better off in the AirBnB which was cheaper! But the web-site said HOTEL and showed spaces that don't exist. It's not just AirBnB hosts that misrepresent the location and amenities. I have lots of ammunition for when I rent a room or two on AirBnB next year, in my village. A big tourist spot. I'm going to be brutally honest (the bathroom in one room is the world's smallest bathroom, I'm sure!!) so as not to disappoint. I think new hosts on Airbnb just don't "get" that totally honest descriptions make everyone happier in the end... Susan Expat in Ireland

  44. I list my entire place on various online platforms, Airbnb, Homeaway, VRBO, but found my favorite as a host is a small homegrown site called Sabbatical Homes. The guests are mostly academics with families, who need a place for 6 months or less. I like their donation based system, and the integrity of the site users is high. My place is an entire apartment with all amenities that you would not get in a hotel. I provide free parking, laundry, kitchen, on public transportation. I also clean to a higher standard than hotels (cleaning fee), and am an honest responsible host. I look for guests who are responsive, honest, have good reviews, and reasonable expectations. Airbnb/ Homeaway can be a mixed bag, for guests and hosts. 'Superhost' is a reliable standard for Airbnb. You are given more options than when booking a hotel, and if you are not active in those decisions you will find yourself disappointed. These sites are constantly nudging hosts to lower prices, but guest beware, you get what you pay for. If you message the host and have a conversation before you book you will usually see if it's a good fit or not. If they don't respond quickly, keep looking. The tech 'middleman' economy is getting rich by basically making 'trust our platform' a 10 - 15% service charge without providing any other tangible service to hosts/guests. They are successful because when people travel, they increasingly want a unique experience that generic hotels cannot provide.