The Problem With Airbnb

Disruption and the Internet belong together like Sarah Palin and a 3rd grade history book. You can count the trail of corpses littering the business landscape after being knifed in the back by a digital Ninja in a pair of flip-flops and a hoodie. From newspaper classifieds to DVD rentals, entire industries have been transformed during the digital revolution. And now the latest $1billion-valued upstart to kick an old-timer in the groin is Airbnb which is promising to urinate over the business models of large hotel chains. But after using Airbnb for the first time, I’m not sure whether I want this world to be disrupted or not. Here’s why.

If you enjoy taking vacations, there are two very specific things that can really scupper your plans. The first is living in America, which treats holidays in the same way Muslims treat gambling. Some will indulge in it, but it’s pretty much frowned upon. The second is having a baby. So if like myself and millions of others you happen to tick both boxes, your odds of having a satisfying vacation are about as high as Lindsay Lohan endorsing O’Doul’s

And that’s what led me to Airbnb. If I can’t spend two weeks in Jamaica bathing in rum and coconut at least I can escape with the family for a couple of days in a rental house. So we went online and browsed the properties on Airbnb and eventually decided to take two separate weekend trips for two nights.

The first trip was to Woodstock, New York and while I won’t bore you with the fascinating details of what I ate and drank it was a great trip. Airbnb made the booking process quick and easy, the owner of the cottage I rented was extremely responsive and – while I was a bit irked at having to pay a booking fee – I quickly let it slide because the overall experience was great. When we arrived in Woodstock the property was exactly as advertised, we ran into the owners (who were both extremely nice people) and apart from the near monsoon conditions we had a great time.

Next-up was New-Paltz, New York. Not too far from Woodstock and a town that I’ve been wanting to visit for a long time. So intoxicated with disruption fever I hopped back to Airbnb and quickly found a small cottage opposite a farm on the edge of New Paltz. Again the owner was responsive and the booking process painless. Then we arrived.

So now we arrive at the point of the post where I attempt to be as objective and understanding as possible. We drove-up to New Paltz on a beautiful sunny day and arrived at the cottage in good spirits. When we walked in the door the property had a very musty, old, almost damp smell to it. Almost as if no human had entered the building for 15 years. And it was also kind of dark. It reminded me a little bit of a fortune teller parlor at a state fair, and I half-expected an old woman in a hardscarf to stroll into the room and tell me something big would be happening in my career and that I’d father 7 children.

But this wasn’t a deal breaker. Despite the must and the darkness the kitchen was great, the shower worked like a charm and the bed was pretty comfortable. So despite a few comments from my wife it didn’t really dampen my spirits.

Then things took a bit of a twist. After spending our first day in New Paltz we returned home in the early evening to give our 10-month-old daughter a bath. Since she’s still tiny, we use the kitchen sink and luckily her blue plastic tub fitted the porcelain white sink easily. As I lifted her out of the tub and onto her towel my wife gave me a rather stern “Babe”. I looked across at her and she pointed to two little specks on the kitchen counter.

“Mouse droppings”

I squinted and peered and saw a couple of minute black dots which could have been anything, but after having had a mouse in our house last year we’re unfortunately more familiar than most with the bathroom antics of tiny rodents.

So while they probably **were** droppings, I shrugged it off and told my wife not to worry. When in doubt, sweep a problem underneath the carpet.

So we went to bed. Not to sleep right away, but after watching a few DVDs (catching up on Breaking Bad) we went to sleep. I thought I heard a noise but we’re in the country so it could have been anything. Could have been.

Next morning we went into the kitchen. For our trip we’d bought a couple of Zip-loc bags – one containing cereal for the baby and the other containing dried mangos for us. We left them overnight in a canvas shoulder bag on the couch in the gypsy fortune telling parlor.

As my wife reached in to get the baby’s cereal she noticed more droppings in the bag. Not just a couple this time, but it looked as if a group of political prisoner mice had staged a dirty protest.

A quick dip into the bag revealed that both Zip-loc bags had been gnawed through by something with more ferocity than Oprah chewing through a Krispy Kreme bag. These things were clearly hungry and there were clearly more than just one.

So at this point my wife was unsettled. And we still had one more night to go. She wasn’t thrilled to have mice(or rats) running around with the baby in the house and just the thought that we might not be alone made her somewhat edgy.

So after locking down the rest of the kitchen like a nuclear reactor the second night passed without incident. But the damage had already been done.

As we left to return home I started thinking about the whole concept of Airbnb while driving through the picturesque industrial wasteland of New Jersey. I tried to rationalize things in my head. It was just a mouse. Not really a big deal. People get mice all the time, and it’s in the country so there’s a bunch of animals roaming around and generally pissed about how humans have encroached on their habitat.

But at the same time I imagined what would happen if this had been a hotel? Hotels can clearly get mice and I’m sure they do, but if that happens I can call a stressed-out 19-year-old at the front desk and get an upgrade and maybe a free bottle of wine. I have some level of recourse and guarantee that problems will get fixed promptly.

Then I thought what if this hadn’t just been a mouse? What if there was some shady electrical wiring in the house, or if there was a cockroach problem, or the toilet overflowed. Again, hotels aren’t immune to these problems but they usually have a surly dude in a brown shirt who’ll come up and fix it within an hour.

Now I understand that Airbnb is often cheaper than hotels (although in the case of our New Paltz trip it certainly wasn’t a bargain basement price). And I also understand that I could have complained or called the owner and told her what was going on (I actually did email her after the fact, and just got a “well at least they weren’t rats” response. I didn’t ask for any kind of refund because I’m English and genetically pre-disposed to avoid conflicts whenever possible). But it didn’t make things any easier to swallow.

What’s clear to me is that “disruption” is often a synonym for “removing any regulations”. And maybe it’s because I’m getting old, but regulations can actually be a good way to protect ordinary people. So while I’m certainly not suggesting that anybody should be regulating Airbnb, it does make me wonder whether some industries need to be disrupted. Rats all folks.



  1. Your thoughtful comments are appreciated and shared by others like me who are skeptical of
    Read here for a real-life horror story:

  2. Sorry to hear about your story – it sounds horrible judging from your blog post. Unfortunately disruption is often a willing bed-fellow of de-regulation and despite what the ardent neo-liberals would have us believe, regulations are how ordinary people are protected from being ripped-off

  3. It’s understandable that you have very specific needs – especially with a new born baby.  However, your basic premise is uneven;you’re comparing a hotel with it’s infrastructure, services, full bevy of staff and years of customer relations and comparing that with a private individual’s unused extra home.  What are you expecting?  

     I own an old house in the country and mice are ‘guaranteed’ in the winter – it’s basically a game of chase-mousie  from Oct-May and the place requires an extra  thorough cleaning before every client comes through the door.  I still rent during those periods and am extra vigilant. My 2 bed cottage gets 4-6 hours cleaning before every rental.  For all that, I still warn potential clients that they are staying in an old house – not Motel 6 with fake shabby chique curtains — the real thing. If you stay in a private home, it will have quirks just like your own home. 
    The best advise I can give is to have a conversation with the owner before you rent and explain that you have a small child/grandparent/whatever and be clear about expectations.  

  4. I had a similar experience that involved bedbugs at an Airbnb “Hip Studio” in the San Francisco Tenderloin. (It was a lot rougher than I hoped for, but the bugs were the deal breaker.) After I got a partial refund from Airbnb, I posted a review. That’s when I got a message from the host to f— off. I’ve stayed at private rentals before, and I recommend Home Away. After 30 years of buying lodging, this is first time I’ve been cursed at the end of a stay.

  5. Canadian Wayfarer

    Air-BNB   mmmm..well I have used them about 5 times in 3 countries in Europe.  Happy 2 times. Okay 2 and a desperate half times.
    Dirty filthy lying hosts not at all verified by Air-BNB (who by the to boast about TRANSPARENCY)  Air-BNB photographers must have the shiny clean no mold or filth button pushed on edit before they post up the “professional” photos done by “Air-BNB” “GRAFT”.
    Now it’s 2013, where in Europe on a 800 euro rental you will in FACT pay about 93 euro FEE to Air-BNB for their ‘services’.  Really ? …say …it   “RIP OFF”.
    Have a problem and contact air-BNB’s 24 / 7 hotline… hahahahahah…no..wait…say it…hahahahaha  or in espanol  “jajajajajaja”.   Liars. Unprofessional. Disgusting.   They will tell you ‘oh sorry we had an usual situation with our customer service and normally get back to people BEFORE the 24 hour refund period. This is a FLAT OUT LIE.
    AirBNB is SHIT.  You may get lucky and have a couple of decent/bareable experiences..but don’t expect transparency, service or truth from air-BNB.    Air-BNB are lying thieves who run a shoddy internet business and provide little to no customer support.  
    When I wrote an HONEST and modest review of a filthy PARIS flat….air-BNB contacted me and said they wouldn’t put the 2 star rating up for lack of cleanliness.  Why cuz, they would lose a comission on future rentals. 
    Air-BNB is the WORST business model ever run by lousy humans.  They only want the fee….and lots of user fees before the whole thing collapses…and they have millions in the bank..for doing…NOTHING bust hosting a website. Beyond that….there is no face…no help…nothing.
    Air-BNB  should be shut down.  The end.

  6. I wonder– did the listing say it was appropriate for children?

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