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Airbnb—Home away from home or holidays in hell?

Created date

July 28th, 2017
Photo of a small wooden room propped among trees, reachable by a precarious swing bridge.

How about staying overnight in this Altanta, Ga., treehouse?

Thanks to cell phones, apps, and good old-fashioned ingenuity, the nation is moving from a service economy to a sharing or “gig” economy. That means instead of a taxi, people now take Uber—an app that connects riders with independent drivers. And when it comes to lodging, people are skipping the local Hilton in favor of staying in someone’s home thanks to Airbnb.

Founded in 2007, Airbnb has changed the lodging landscape around the globe. The concept is simple. People with space—be it an entire house or a solitary room—rent that space to those in need of accommodations. As the company’s website says, “Whether an apartment for a night, a castle for a week, or a villa for a month, Airbnb connects people to unique travel experiences, at any price point, in more than 65,000 cities and 191 countries.”

The phenomenal success of Airbnb (currently valued at over $30 billion) inspired other homestay startups like VRBO and HomeAway. According to the Pew Report, 11% of American adults have used a homestay service. People say they chose to stay in a private residence instead of a hotel because it offered a better value and they wanted a more authentic way to experience a new city. 

The experience

If staying in a Holiday Inn is completely predictable, a homestay is not. Renting someone’s spare bedroom means getting to know your host and perhaps sharing a bathroom. You can also rent out an entire home if you’d rather not interact with strangers, but again, the possibilities seem endless. 

Homestay experiences can be wonderful. Some people build long-lasting connections with their hosts, but the possibility of the experience turning sour or even dangerous, while slim, is well documented on websites like airbnbhell.com

Perhaps the space wasn’t exactly as it appeared on the website. Perhaps it wasn’t clean or it had a weird odor. On the other end of the spectrum, while rare, homestay guests have been robbed, assaulted, and ripped off by their hosts. 

Protect yourself

There are a few important things to consider before you book a homestay.

First and foremost, look beyond the images of the nicely decorated living space and figure out if the dwelling is safe. Does it have a smoke detector or a carbon monoxide detector? Regulations stipulate that hotels have fire escapes, smoke detectors, sprinkler systems, and secure locks. For the most part, those rules don’t apply to homestay units. Ask the host about the safety features of the property before putting down a deposit.

Liability insurance is another vague issue of homestays that you might not consider…until you need it. 

If you become injured in someone’s home, you would typically be compensated for your injury through the homeowner’s property insurance. When people rent their homes out, the terms change and if they haven’t changed their insurance, injured guests may not be able to file a claim. 

The legal issues

When you check into a hotel chain, you more or less know what to expect. That is not the case with a homestay. Keep in mind that, while Airbnb has certain standards and expectations for their “hosts,” they are suggestions, not hard and fast rules. Each host is the master of his or her domain. If you have issues, you must deal with the host. If the host fails to fix the problem, you can complain to airbnb, but empirical evidence suggests that for the most part, the company is disinclined to get involved.

Finally, if there is a big issue with your homestay experience, a dispute between you and the homeowner, beware that the agreements users agree to before booking a location usually includes language stipulating that in the event of a dispute, you and the host agree to arbitration rather than taking the matter through the courts. 

How to find a good place

While all of this might make you shy away from a homestay, the overwhelming majority of those who try this type of lodging have a wonderful experience. This reporter rented an amazing apartment on the Left Bank of Paris through a small homestay company (holidays-europe-rentals.com) and had an equally wonderful apartment in Florence, Italy, rented through booking.com.

In both cases, the hosts furnished the place with necessities such as local wine, milk, bottled water, and coffee. In Paris, they even picked us up from the airport.

One of the best indicators of what to expect from a homestay is to read the online reviews. Look for properties and hosts who have a good track record over time. It might be risky to be the first guest to stay somewhere, but if a particular property has a wealth of good reviews over a few years, the odds are in your favor.   

 

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