Airbnb: Here Be (Some) Dragons

Photograph by Kai Nedden/laif/Redux

The four of us decided to leave New Jersey on Sunday afternoon. Sandy hadn’t hit yet, but we had the chance to stay at my cousin’s in Manhattan and figured it would be better to get there pre-end times than be possibly trapped in a powerless house.

My cousin’s place was great (man, I love a prewar apartment!), and she and her two sons couldn’t have been nicer, but things were getting tight—there were seven of us there and, well, that’s a lot of people. By Tuesday, we realized we needed to stop imposing on her and find other accommodations. An out-of-state relative had a place on the East Side that was not being used, so we headed there, but then he welshed on the offer after the first night—a stepson needed a place to stay, so we were shown the door. No Christmas card for him.

One of my colleagues suggested, quite brilliantly, that I check out Airbnb for a one-week apartment rental. If you’ve never used Airbnb before, it’s a site that allows people who have spare rooms, apartments, or houses to rent them directly to guests who may need a place for a day, a week, or a month. You find a listing on the site, and then contact the landlord via Airbnb to confirm the deal. Airbnb facilitates the transaction and takes a commission. It can be a great way to find a less-expensive lodging option when you’re traveling.

I was certainly familiar with the site, but had never used it. (I like hotels. I like lobbies, bathrobes, and overpriced Diet Cokes.) Because Manhattan was cut off from the rest of the city and half of it was without power, my options were limited as far as neighborhoods were concerned. And I needed an entire apartment for a week (I have two little kids, so sharing space with other people just seemed too weird). But as I started looking, I was enthused: There were several properties that appeared perfect for us.

Sadly, I wound up renting none of them. Not because I didn’t want to, but because none of them actually existed as advertised.

Among the seven places I identified as suitable, I never heard back from a company that was renting two apartments, while two others were already occupied despite appearing on Airbnb as if they were available. That didn’t bother me much—it’s not Airbnb’s job to make people respond to me and since they don’t have exclusive rights to each property, some places may have been rented outside of Airbnb and the landlords just hadn’t updated their pages. Annoying, sure, but not rage-inducing.

But my experience with the three other properties left me feeling like the anti-Johnny Gill: They did not rub me the right way. One landlord, who was advertising two choice pads on the Upper West Side, wrote me back on Airbnb to tell me that neither was available, but wouldn’t I be interested in these smaller, dingier properties? This wasn’t some individual who forgot to update a page; this was a small business that specialized in short-term rentals. They couldn’t keep their inventory current? Maybe not, but I felt like I was getting the bait-and-switch in a shady electronics store.

The last place, another West Side two-bedroom, was the one that got me all Bruce Banner, though. When I contacted the owner to set up the rental, he informed me that the price had gone up—to the tune of twice what was listed on the site. This was on Wednesday, well in the midst of the general chaos that Sandy had wrought. I told him I wasn’t really interested in the place if its price was twice what was listed and we parted ways. Price gouging? Probably. I mean, it is also simple supply and demand. And we’re not talking about baby formula or bottled water here—no one has to rent a two-bedroom on the Upper West Side. But it does make you feel like you got rooked.

Airbnb does try to deal with this kind of chicanery—users can flag a property so that the site’s Trust & Safety Team can investigate. I asked them to comment on this, and a representative said, “At its core, Airbnb is a marketplace and hosts [have the] freedom to set their own price.” To its credit, the site has now begun a post-Sandy campaign in which it is waiving fees it usually charges to landlords and renters in Sandy-affected areas. It’s encouraging landlords to lower their rates and will promote those who do. That’s to be applauded, but Airbnb’s good intentions are not always reflected in its wide-open marketplace.