TECHNOLOGY

How Airbnb Responds When Guests Have Nightmare Experiences

Travelers who find themselves staying in the Airbnb from hell often don’t realize it until it’s too late to get a refund.

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BY Sonya Mann - 03 May 2017

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

On Monday, journalist Nathaniel Friedman unleashed a tweetstorm about his girlfriend's bad experience as an Airbnb guest. She and two other friends needed a place to stay at the last minute, and all the local hotels were booked, in Friedman's retelling. Since they were desperate, they looked past the bad reviews and rented "what was supposed to be a secure trailer" for $270 per night. Upon arriving, they discovered that the amenities were even worse than they expected.

"House was meth-y as f*** with garbage and graffiti everywhere," Friedman wrote. The lock was broken, so the guests resorted to using a wrench to secure the door. There was no running water. To add insult to injury, "At 8AM, host woke them up by pounding on the door. He demanded they write a positive review NOW."

Once she got home, Friedman's girlfriend tried to get a refund. "She was told by @Airbnb that the host's strict cancellation policy prohibited one," Friedman tweeted. When she pressed the issue, Airbnb offered to refund half of the cost, then rescinded that offer. On Tuesday, the day after Friedman's initial tweetstorm, he added, "Yesterday @Airbnb indicated via Twitter that they'd be in touch. At 1AM they issued a full refund (fees & all) with no explanation."

Airbnb head of trust Nick Shapiro told Inc., "These types of [negative] experiences are extremely rare." Out of the 75% of Airbnb users who leave reviews, upwards of 90% are positive. "We've refunded the guest and removed this listing," Shapiro said. "We are very sorry this experience did not go well. We want all of our users to have positive experiences. If anyone shows up at a home and it's not as advertised, we ask that they reach out to us, and we will refund or rebook them."

An unsanitary, unsafe dwelling, a misleading listing, a dodgy host -- why isn't a refund easier to come by in such a circumstance? Airbnb's website says that in order to be eligible for a refund, you must contact the company "within 24 hours of check-in" and include photos documenting the issues.

In a direct message, Friedman explained that his girlfriend didn't get in touch with Airbnb immediately because the trailer was her only option for the night. "I get that she could've done more on her end," he said, "but there were lots of extenuating circumstances [...] and every reason to believe (based on reviews) that the place would at least be passable."

Airbnb shared snippets from a few of the listing's bad reviews:

"Pretty bad experience. Our room didn't have any lights, nor did it have a pillow on the bed. [...] The backyard was torn apart and very dirty."

"I would not stay here. Look at other places."

"A lot of information should be added [about] the amenities, or lack thereof."

Friedman told Inc., "The bottom line is that [Airbnb] allowed someone to rent an unsafe property and then per usual gave full benefit of the doubt to the host." In a public tweet, he said, "This is a friendly reminder that AirBnB wants to avoid responsibility at any cost and you can't count on them to ensure your safety."

Friedman's girlfriend isn't alone in being dissatisfied by the company's response after a terrible experience. In 2015, Zak Stone wrote about his father's accidental death at an Airbnb. "When my father decided to give [a rope swing] a try on Thanksgiving morning, the trunk it was tied to broke in half and fell on his head, immediately ending most of his brain activity." Stone said, "Hotel rooms are standardized for safety, monitored by staff, and often quite expensive. Airbnb rentals, on the other hand, are unregulated, eclectic, and affordable, and the safety standards are only slowly materializing."

He added, "Of course, were Airbnb to invest in safety requirements by offering home inspections or by analyzing photo content to target higher-risk properties and features (pools, saunas, trampolines, etc.) with site-specific safety recommendations, such a program could be far more costly, and might jeopardize Airbnb's covetable neutrality as a platform," as well as its ability to relegate legal liability to Airbnb hosts.

At least two Inc. staffers have had Airbnb experiences negative enough to seek remediation. Assistant editor Cameron Albert-Deitch stayed with a paranoid, emotionally abusive host, and wasn't able to get a refund because the host's personality wasn't evident until after the grace period ended. "Airbnb basically told me I was screwed on that count," he said. "They were great, though, when the host posted their over-the-top slanderous review of me. I reported it and they took it down pretty much instantly."

San Francisco bureau chief Jeff Bercovici stayed in a house where maggots were dropping from the ceiling of the kitchen as a result of a dead animal. While promising a refund, the host requested that Jeff not leave a negative review.

Although the request runs counter to Airbnb's policy, he granted it. "Look, if you're a host and someone puts the word 'maggot' in a review, you're done. We felt sympathy," he explained. (It goes without saying that the host who demanded Friedman's girlfriend write a glowing review was also breaking the rules.)

But the interaction illustrated how some of of the host/guest dynamics on Airbnb can result in reviews that are incomplete or misleading -- the kind of reviews that can lead to a scary night in a trailer that feels like a meth den.

"The same real-name policy that causes people to trust Airbnb's reviews in the first place is what makes people reluctant to leave a terrible review," Jeff said. Whereas the anonymity on platforms like Yelp can lead to extreme rants and axe-grinding, on Airbnb, the pattern is inverted: "Everyone is incentivized to say only nice things."

Seth Porges, a tech writer and Airbnb super-host, blogged that guests who leave negative reviews that seem unreasonable can expect to be rejected by future hosts. "Sure, the reviews left for guests by past hosts are important, but the dirty little secret is that they aren't nearly as important as the reviews you yourself have left on hosts you've stayed with. Hosts live in constant fear of the dreaded Bad Review. So you better believe we check what reviews a guest has left for previous hosts they've stayed with."

Airbnb disputes the notion that guests feel pressure to only provide positive feedback. The company says that both guests and hosts take reviews very seriously, not least because they use reviews to make their own decisions about where to stay or who to accept into their home.