Six Tips for First-Time Airbnb Renters

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Photographer: Anastassios Mentis/Getty Images

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Photographer: Anastassios Mentis/Getty Images

Airbnb's recent offer of a free night on any two-night stay, reserved for those who have never tried the service, may soon unleash a bunch of sharing-economy newbies into the apartment-rental wilds. Here's what you need to know to avoid disappointment—or worse—when renting through the service.

It's not a hotel Seems obvious, but some renters still don't get the apartment-sharing concept and expect the sort of welcome and the quality of amenities you'd find at a hotel. (It doesn't help the confusion that Airbnb allows rental-property varieties ranging from apartment to yurt.) Pay close attention to what's included—and even more attention to what's not.

Be yourself Airbnb makes a big deal out of its community, which the site says helps keep dealings honest. Creating a real profile, getting verified by adding personal info, and even getting reviews from friends who already use the service can up your chances of booking a successful stay.

Shop carefully The site's many filters make it easy to narrow down the sort of property you're interested in, whether that means a whole home, a berth on a sailboat, a place with a fully stocked kitchen, an apartment near a particular concert venue, whatever! Using filters can help turn 40,000 listings into a few, and from there a detailed study of apartment photos can give a level of detail that written descriptions might miss: Is the room bright and airy? Is that advertised balcony actually big enough to enjoy? Just how small is the shower? A close look can help weed out disappointment in the early going.

Ask questions Airbnb's built-in messaging system makes it easy to ask questions of hosts, from info on the nearest subway stop to whether or not the kitchen maker in the unit comes with coffee too. (The answer may surprise you!) These no-obligation questions are particularly useful in making a choice between similar properties once you've narrowed down your search.

Know the rules Speaking of booking, it's not just a simple click-to-book operation like you'd find at, yes, a hotel. To start a booking, potential guests pick out dates, agree to the house rules for a given rental, and then send a request through Airbnb's messaging service to potential hosts. If a host agrees to your request, Airbnb handles the payment, for a small slice of the pot, to discourage any scams as money changes hands. (A few properties do allow instant booking, for a more hotel-like experience. Those that do clearly advertise the fact.) Finally, cancellation policies vary by property, so take note of the specific terms at your rental if travel plans are still in flux.

Stay safe Airbnb horror stories in the past have raised some legitimate safety concerns, though many stays are trouble free. Since its launch, the company has added consumer and host protections and worked to make online profiles match real-life identities, under the theory that people will behave more responsibly without a digital veil of secrecy. An online FAQ about "trust and safety" explains more.

Show up with an open mind Most hosts, expert Airbnb-ers say, are used to entertaining road-weary travelers and understand that guests are interested in seeing the city, not hanging around with people they've just met from the internet. That said, a bit of conviviality goes a long way, hosts say, whether that means having a drink or just having a chat. That a local connection is one of the strongest selling points of the Airbnb experience. After that free night, of course.

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