A discussion about Airbnb – the pros, the issues, and personal experience
Update May 2020: I wrote this article before COVID-19 spread across the world and a global pandemic was declared. The pandemic doesn’t change any of the specific information in the article, but it does add a new dimension to the use of Airbnb once travel restrictions ease and people gradually begin to travel again. Cleanliness and disinfecting regimes will become prime concerns for potential guests. To that end, Airbnb has introduced new expert-backed cleaning protocols. Hosts that follow those protocols will get a special call-out on the site. There will also be an option for hosts to create a 72-hour buffer between bookings so that a rental unit sits empty for a period between guests. It is too early to assess how well these measures will be implemented or how far they will go to alleviate travellers’ concerns. The health and safety concerns of travellers may also change what type of Airbnb rental units they seek out.
When people look for vacation accommodations these days, Airbnb is likely to be one of the options, if not the prime option, they consider. Airbnb has been getting a lot of bad press lately, both from the perspective of cities struggling with the impact of Airbnbs on their housing market and from the perspective of consumers with bad Airbnb experiences. Should you still consider Airbnb as an option?
What Is Airbnb?
Airbnb is an online platform for people to rent out rooms or complete properties to travellers. Part of the new “sharing economy,” it began in 2008 when two designers with space to share hosted three travellers looking for a place to stay. Today, millions of people use Airbnb.
People with space to rent list their property on the site. They are known as hosts. People looking for travel accommodations can browse available properties in that destination. The search facility allows them to narrow the list they browse based on their specific requirements. They become guests when they book a property. There is the option for communication with the host through Airbnb prior to booking to ask questions.
You need to sign up as an Airbnb member to book a property. Membership is free. Each host sets their own nightly rate often offering discounts for weekly or monthly rentals. The host may add a cleaning fee. The host may also request a security deposit which is refunded after the stay if there has been no damage. Airbnb adds a guest service fee. There may or may not be local taxes depending on the location. All payment occurs through the Airbnb platform.
You pay the rental fee upfront when the booking is confirmed. A host may offer refunds should you need to cancel before the trip. Each host sets their own cancellation terms. The amount refunded may vary depending how close to the planned arrival date the cancellation occurs. The Airbnb transaction fee is generally non-refundable. Note that each host sets their own house rules, which may include things like no smoking and quiet hours.
There are a wide range of property types available on the site, from rooms in someone’s apartment to en suite studio rooms with separate entrances to granny suites to full apartments to multi-bedroom homes. Amenities vary. Airbnb has a list of amenities hosts can check off as available allowing potential guests to quickly see what is included. (There are also descriptions and photographs.) Kitchen facilities are frequently one of my requirements. Good wifi is always important.
Why Use Airbnb?
Airbnb properties can often, although not always, be a cheaper alternative to hotels. They may be found in locations without many hotel options or in more residential neighbourhoods. The range of types of properties provides a lot of choice, offering more space to families, cooking facilities, or more of a feeling of “home.” The amount of interaction a guest has with a host varies. Hosts with local knowledge can provide additional insight and tips to enhance your experiences in their cities.
On the flip side, there is no 24-hour concierge, room service, and daily maid service.
My Airbnb Experiences
Although my Airbnb experience is not as extensive as many others, I have used Airbnb more than a handful of times. All of my experience has been in North America.
Most of the time my husband and I are looking for a separate, self-contained suite. We aren’t particularly interested in a room in someone’s house, but our first booking, in West Seattle, was just that and we enjoyed it. In this case, our room was partially private and self-contained. Maybe I should rooms, not room. The bedroom was off a small sitting room, which was reserved for our sole use. The front door of the house opened into that sitting room. My husband and I were the only ones using that door. The host used a back door and lived in the back of the house. The sitting room was open to the kitchen area used by the host. Just inside that was the bathroom reserved for guests. The host in this case did not make the kitchen area available to guests, but some hosts will share their kitchen. In our case, there was a bar fridge, microwave and coffee maker in the sitting room. We had some interaction with the host and her beautiful dogs but also a fair bit of privacy.
Our second Airbnb booking was a complete apartment in North Vancouver. In this case, the host rented out her own apartment during the times she would stay at and look after her parents’ home when they travelled. This option offered us privacy, a lot of space, and full cooking facilities. There was a sense, however, of living in someone else’s home. One needs to be comfortable with that and respectful of the other person’s things.
My sister, husband, and I stayed in an Airbnb condo in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico for a month. The condo was owned by a Canadian who used it as his vacation home. Again, we were living in someone else’s space, but because it was set up as a vacation home it felt less intrusive.
The other Airbnbs we’ve stayed at have been separate, self-contained studio-type suites attached to someone’s house or a separate building on their property. The suites were used solely for Airbnb rentals.
All of our experiences to date have been very positive.
What Are The Issues With Airbnb
As Airbnb has grown, it has expanded beyond people simply sharing some of their own space. Sure, that is still there. There are still rooms in homes or single suites set up to bring in a little extra income. There are also people operating as business and offering multiple properties. The popularity of the site has attracted scammers. All of this has contributed to issues you may have read about in news stories.
One of the most commonly reported problems is a cancellation by the host before the trip occurs. This has happened to friends of mine, but, fortunately in their case, the cancellation was well ahead of their trip and they were able to book something else. Sometimes the reason for the cancellation is because a less-than-scrupulous host has been listing properties several places and was able to get a higher rental amount.
People have also reported issues with the actual properties being different than what was advertised or having the host take them to a different and less desirable property claiming there was a last-minute issue such as broken plumbing with the place they booked. Airbnb holds your payment and doesn’t forward it to the host until 24 hours after your check-in. So, presumably if the guest contacts Airbnb within that time period, the host won’t get paid, but the guest is still stuck with either bad accommodations or struggling to find somewhere else to stay on short notice in what is possibly an unfamiliar city. Guests can request refunds from Airbnb for situations like this or partial refunds when amenities advertised aren’t available, but Airbnb requires the problem to be raised with them within 24 hours. And that doesn’t necessarily mean an automatic refund. It may just be the start of a process with Airbnb. Even a full refund doesn’t erase the bad experience or give you back the impacted holiday time.
Another issue I’ve read about is scammers using the site and advertising non-existent properties. As you begin the booking process, they may direct you to another site so your payment is made outside of Airbnb. You can then be out the money and have no recourse through Airbnb.
Airbnb properties, even when things are working well for hosts and guests, pose problems in some cities. In places where housing is expensive and there is already a shortage of affordable rental properties, the proliferation of Airbnb properties exacerbates the problem.
Hotels, inns, and bed and breakfasts have to meet certain regulations to obtain a license to operate in most cities. They pay a fee for that license. The same rules do not always apply to Airbnbs. Airbnbs can therefore operate more cheaply, but they may not meet city-mandated safety standards. While it may seem unfair to expect someone letting out a room in their house to meet the same standards of a hotel, there are also hosts operating businesess with multiple Airbnb properties.
Issues with violence at Airbnb properties rented as party space have made headlines. Concerns about having a number of transients in their buildings either causing damage or making people feel less safe have resulted in many apartment and condominium complexes prohibiting the use of one of their units as a short-term rental (like Airbnb). Some of the owners still do it “on the sly.” This may be the case if, as a guest, you’re asked to use a back entrance or not mention Airbnb.
A number of cities are dealing with the Airbnb impact on its housing situation by imposing regulations. Regulations vary. An example may be that one rental unit at the same location as the homeowner is allowed, but any other units offered by the homeowner are subject to licensing requirements and fees. Unlicensed units can be shut down and eviction notices issued. Airbnb posts local regulations on its site and states that a host’s acceptance of their terms means the host agrees to comply with all local regulations. However, Airbnb does not actively police compliance.
Airbnb will shut down problem or “fake” host accounts, although some may argue they aren’t proactive enough in this regard and new accounts by the same perpetrators can pop up quickly. In November 2019, in order to improve user trust, Airbnb announced it will spend the next year verifying all of the six million listings on its site are accurate and meet basic quality standards. It is also instituting changes to make reporting problems easier. How well this initiative works at dealing with the issues remains to be seen.
To Airbnb Or Not To Airbnb?
Back to the question of whether you should or shouldn’t rent vacation accommodation via Airbnb. That is a decision each individual needs to make for themselves. For myself, I will continue to use Airbnb, albeit with caution. I like the range of options it provides both in terms of price and in features, such as kitchen facilities. In some locations, other accommodations are scarce or ridiculously expensive.
While there are no 100% guarantees, there are some things people can do to protect themselves. Read the reviews. Guests leave reviews on units they’ve stayed at. Reports of cancellations or other issues should raise red flags. If the host has other properties, read the reviews for those properties too. Read about the host. Does he/she sound legitimate? Do the photos look like they might be stock pictures taken from the Internet? Do the photos of the property match the written description? It is always wise to remember that if something looks too good to be true, it likely is. (Note: In our experience to date, all of the properties we booked matched the information and photos on the website and were as good as or better than we expected.)
Is the host’s profile consistent with the type and number of properties they’ve listed? I am more cautious when I see a host who has a lot of properties listed. That doesn’t necessarily mean they are someone to be avoided, but if their profile description suggests they are someone just renting out personal space when they are obviously a business enterprise more red flags are raised. A number of years ago we rented a small house in rural Panama for a month through VRBO. The owner of the house now lists that house through Airbnb. She and her husband have a few other properties in the area and she is also listed as host on several others because she acts as their property manager. Our experience with her had been very good and I wouldn’t hesitate to rent from her, but I admit to being more wary of other hosts who have a raft of properties on the site.
Every time I’ve booked through Airbnb I’ve had at least one question I wanted clarified before deciding to book. Hosts have responded quickly. If you aren’t happy with the responses you’re getting or not getting from a host or if a host is pressuring you to book before answering your questions, you may want to walk away.
I think it is prudent to know something about the relationship between Airbnb and the city you are visiting. The Airbnb listing could be illegal if the city has regulations and bylaws the host isn’t adhering to. If so, there is the possibility it gets shut down by the city or Airbnb. In the spring of 2018, the city of Vancouver, British Columbia introduced bylaws with regard to short-term rentals. A short-term rental could be operated only from a principal residence and a licence was now required. At the time the regulations were about to be introduced, I was looking for accommodation in Vancouver for a July trip. Hotels in Vancouver are expensive. Airbnb might have been an option. However, there was a lot of confusion and “growing pains” with the introduction of the new rules. What would happen if I booked a place whose host didn’t get the licence and was subsequently shut down? This time I chose not to Airbnb. Now that the regulations have been in effect for over a year, I would consider Airbnb in Vancouver again and look to see that the host lists a licence number. (I wound up booking our July stay at the University of British Columbia. You can read about that experience here.)
All communications, booking, and payment should be done only through Airbnb. That helps to ensure the legitimacy of the booking and to provide an evidence trail should you need to complain to Airbnb later. When you’re making the payment, double check the URL in your browser to make sure you are on the Airbnb site and not a fake site that may look similar to the Airbnb site.
It may sound as if this is more work than simply booking an hotel. That may be true, but searching for an appropriate hotel in a place you’ve not travelled to before can also take time if you are looking for specific amenities at a good price and validating re Tripadvisor reviews. In some locales, the volume of Airbnb rentals available can lengthen the search time. There are some great accommodations out there and the search can be well worth it.
Despite the various issues reported with Airbnb, it is good to remember than Airbnb does millions of bookings, most leading to satisfied guests. The answer to the question about whether to Airbnb or not to Aribnb is not black and white.
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