Airbnb Impossible

I’ve been homeless for the last few months. On sabbatical, I ditched my laptop and started weaving my way through the country. Tired of the hotel scene, I’m exploring a variety of spots available through Airbnb* for temporary housing.

A major appeal of Airbnb is getting to choose amenities easily – assuming the owner is honest on the state of said luxuries. More on that later. Some travelers love meeting new folks through a rental, and the cheaper price of a room in a shared home is appealing enough to offset privacy concerns. That traveler is not me and I’m ok with that. I only book private homes with real beds and internet access. This narrows my search reasonably, especially when many of my reservations are made last minute.

Amenities I prefer include a kitchen for cooking, a real bathtub or hot tub, laundry and nice outdoor space. I am drawn to photos of rentals with a bit of charm, often highlighting whatever is rad about that area, like mountain views in Montana or large saguaro cacti in Arizona. The “list by map” is useful for selecting a location with history, close to interesting sights or a little bit out of town when I’m going for a retreat.

There are nuances to Airbnb that go beyond the specific mechanics of the appplication and booking processes. I refer to this as Airbnb Karma – necessary as a renter and host to book listings quickly. Keeping good Airbnb Karma makes me feel like a better person, too. I’m in someone’s personal space and they are just as weary of me as I am about them trying to axe murder me in my sleep. More on that later.

Proactively commuicating eases tension and avoids the owner feeling like they’re nagging. On the day before or day of your rental, contact the owner before arrival and let them know what time you’re getting in and how. They usually know better than you do how long it takes from the airport or highway at that time of day and can give useful travel information. They’re also probably waiting around for you and it helps them schedule their day. Let them know when you’re checking out for the same reason. They’ll also feel better about you in their space, leaving you alone during the stay which is really what we all want.

I’ve learned the hard way to reach out to the host prior to booking. Sometimes a host doesn’t keep the calendar updated. Sometimes they need more than a day notice to set up even if the room says it is available. Hosts have 24 hours to accept or decline a booking, and that window is best used reaching out to multiple hosts in parallel rather than committing to each serially.

Being verified is another way to boost your Karma and gives the host a sense of comfort about your reliability. It also means a quick response and approval – they want to rent as much as you do. However, it requires giving a fair amount of sensitive information about yourself to Airbnb. Be as careful here as you would any other time a website is asking for your driver’s license.

If I had to guess, most owners are doing their own cleaning (or paying someone very cheaply) and pocketing whatever cleaning fee is tacked on to the rental. Some might argue that the cleaning fee means not having to pick up after yourself. Here’s what I say about that: you aren’t hurting the owner, you’re hurting the next renter. I always do the following when leaving a unit: Strip linens and put together with towels for easy wash, wash all dishes or leave in dishwasher, take out the trash, turn off any extra lights. Read the check-out instructions for anything more specific – these are usually minimal. Think of it like staying with a friend for a weekend and you’ll get your Karma. Generally, I’ve been in clean spots. There was one place left cleaner than when I arrived.

There are a few things I’ve noticed about the types of spots I keep renting. First is what I’ll call the “placement of unwanted items in the second home” syndrome. This is where you’ll find everything you never needed in your rental – a bed skirt, a garlic press, out of date political books, an old espresso machine, 7 non-stick pans with peeling coating – but not a good version of the stuff you’d use every day. My wish is for every kitchenette to include a sharp chef’s knife, recent tupperware, appliances that work and a broom. 

I continue to rent from divorced women who have kept the house or property and are working to make the space lucrative. I’m not sure if this is due to my search criteria or bias as a divorced woman myself, or the prevalance of these women on Airbnb. The result of this well-loved space is a nicely decorated and clean home that lacks efficiencies you’d otherwise expect in a traveler spot. Useful items in a temporary housing environment include: hooks, shelves, drawers and a good coat rack. Items that make no sense in a temporary rental include throw pillows, knick-knacks and pictures of you and your family on otherwise useful shelving. Anything difficult or expensive to clean like nice rugs, dry-clean-only linens, expensive tile and white carpet makes no sense in a rental. It looks lovely but gives us both anxiety.

Something not clear to me is how we, as consumers, demand accountability from our hosts or from Airbnb. Hotels have typically operated for years under regulation, the BBB and online reviews. While I enjoy the competitive pressure on hotels from services like Airbnb, I look forward to better consumer features and safety regulation to make the overall stay more consistent and safe.

There’s no great way to indicate outside of a text review whether or not wifi, for example, is reliable, fast or available. Apply this to everything else expected from a rental: clean sheets, safe electrical configuration, air conditioning, proper plumbing, etc. How far do we have to go in our research about a place to determine whether or not it’s fit? I want the ability to rate and review other ratings for each of the listed amenities. Let’s keep the host honest and give travelers a better picture of how an amenity rates for reliability and efficiency. Sometimes I care more about the quality of the kitchen over wifi. I’d like to know this without having to read all the reviews.

While nice to have recourse for a poor stay in the form of reviews, I’m more concerned about my personal safey. To whom would I complain if water made me sick, an electrical socket shocked me, or a poisonous insect bit me?

Once, I stayed at a farm house with a bull camped out on the driveway for a few days. The owner, a generous and trusting soul, left us alone without any instruction about what to do in case of bull. I ran through a field full of alpacas to get away from the bull. While funny in retrospect, this city slicker would have appreciated some animal tips or better fences. 

I like to assume someone won’t enter while I’m sleeping, no hidden cameras, shelving is installed properly and random objects won’t fall on me. There is nothing that I know of in my agreement with Airbnb that gives me this assurance. While I’m wary of the less-regulated space, I’m curious about how this market will grow with some hope for improvement.

For now, I have nothing but my genuine trust in humankind and my dollars.

*If you’re thinking of booking for the first time, using this link gets you and me credit on the service.

2 responses to “Airbnb Impossible”

  1. […] the reality is, her piece is actually funny and insightful, but she was totally sick of it, maybe even unfairly critical of […]

  2. Thanks for the tips, Lisa!

    I’ve been spending every other week in Seattle the last few months and Airbnb has come up many times. Your comments on karma have made me consider how thoughtful I have been when it comes to the space of my friends on whose couches I’ve been surfing of late. Thanks for helping me to become a better person!

    Hoping to see you next week!


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