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My Airbnb Catastrophe: A Cautionary Tale

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Who’s the asshole, me or the guy I’ll call Pooper? You tell me.

I’d never done Airbnb before; the process was new to me. I’d been looking for a place to stay since early December. Following the death of my dog, Gus, I’d decided to have my place remodeled. I needed to move out for three weeks in February, while they did the work. At first, I thought about the Palm Springs area. I’d never been there, and it seemed like a good alternative just as Northern California is entering its coldest, wettest months. 

But then, in mid-December, the pandemic took a violent turn for the worse in California, and it no longer made sense to travel. I certainly didn’t want to fly: too risky. Besides, all the restaurants and bars would be closed, even for outdoors. I’d have to eat in my room, in front of the T.V. Hell, I thought, I can do that in Oakland; what’s the point of going to Palm Springs?

I decided to stay someplace closer to home. I’ve always liked the Berkeley Hills: Strawberry Canyon, Tilden Regional Park, those beautiful places. I could rent a car and be able to drive down the hill to Berkeley, where at least I could have coffee, buy food in the supermarket to prepare in my rented home, browse bookstores and take long walks. I’d prepared a list of things I wanted in a rental: TV, wifi, a full kitchen, a quiet neighborhood, parking, cell phone coverage, and plenty of hot water for long showers. At Airbnb I found a place that seemed pretty good. It listed the amenities, but not in detail. I wanted to talk directly to the owner, to ask some questions. For example, it said “parking” was available, but what did that mean? Off-street? On-street? If the latter, was it subject to two-hour restrictions? Would I be circling the neighborhood, looking for a spot? Was the place quiet, or on a noisy street, with noisy neighbors? I didn’t want to rent blind, only to find out, when I moved in, it wasn’t working for me.

So I contacted the owner through the Airbnb app and asked her to call or email me. But then I got an email from Airbnb: they’d sent my email to the owner, but deleted my phone number and email address. That was weird: how was I supposed to talk to the owner? She got back to me through the app and explained the situation. Airbnb doesn’t want people to be able to communicate outside their app. Evidently, that prevents people from striking separate deals, cutting Airbnb out of the equation. I replied that I wanted to be able to talk to her directly, not go back and forth endlessly through emails. As an old reporter, I know how important it is to be able to ask followup questions as they occur to me.

The lady emailed me back and spelled out her phone number in code, something like “Five 1 oh niner 4 sicks seven hundred 2.” It was right out of a spy story. Airbnb’s AI apparently wouldn’t be able to figure that out. So I called the lady, and based on our conversation I ascertained that her place wasn’t right for me. I went to look for someplace else.

That’s when I found Pooper’s cottage. It was way up in the hills, with a beautiful view. The price–$74 a night—was right. It had all the amenities I wanted, except for T.V. (Look, I spend a lot of time watching T.V. and won’t apologize for it. I did before the pandemic; I do even more now.) So I emailed Pooper, again through Airbnb’s app, and spelled out my phone number in the same weird code as the lady had used. I explained how much easier it would be if we could chat live on the phone, where I could get my questions answered.

Pooper never called me. But he did respond to my email through the app. He said he didn’t have a T.V. in the cottage, but he did have a flat-screen T.V. he wasn’t using, and if I could access T.V. on my MacBook Air, he could probably connect the two. That sounded great. I told him it was a deal if he could do the T.V. thing.

Yesterday morning, Pooper emailed me and said he’d figured out how to do it. He told me to rebook. I emailed him back, and told him that I’d decided to rent his cottage for only one week, not three: I wanted to see if it was working out before committing myself to a lengthy stay. I added that I fully understood if this was a deal-breaker.

Pooper replied that renting for one week was fine with him. So I went back to the Airbnb website, pulled up the ad for his cottage, and attempted to rebook. That’s what I got two shocks. First, the price had risen to $105 a night, far in excess of the $74 we’d agreed to for weeks. Second, when I plugged in the dates—Feb. 1 through Feb. 7—the Airbnb app told me I had to rent the cottage for a minimum of two weeks. Surprised, and by this time a little frustrated, I emailed Pooper and asked if he could clarify the situation.

Pooper made it sound like there had been some kind of technical error. But all of a sudden, I got an email from Airbnb. Pooper had rejected my offer! He would no longer rent his cottage to me. No explanation why. Just a big “NO.”

I guess you could say I was angry. We’d been going back and forth for weeks. I’d based my remodeling plans on renting the cottage. At the last minute, Pooper had not only changed the nightly price, but the minimum stay. I wrote him a rather intemperate email, in which I called him an asshole. He replied and said that he and his wife had decided to cancel me because I was “needy” and an “ungrateful asshole.” He also said he’d been turned off by the fact that I’d sent him my phone number in code. That was against Airbnb’s rules, he said. Well, I’d never used Airbnb before. The rules were strange to me. The woman I’d first contacted had sent me her phone number in code. If she, a lister, had done it, I assumed, perhaps naively, that it was okay.

But that was that. I didn’t get the cottage. And I’ll never use Airbnb again. Hello, Vrbo.

So who was the asshole? Was I “needy” because I “needed” a T.V.? Was I “needy” because I “needed” Pooper to keep the terms of our original agreement: $74 a night for one week? Was I “needy” because I wanted to be able to talk with him on the phone? Or was Pooper an asshole because he behaved in a thoroughly unprofessional manner, stringing me along for most of December, then unceremoniously dumping me at the last minute, throwing a great big monkey wrench into my plans?

You tell me.

  1. I think that you were both partly at fault. Either that, or neither of you were at fault. I’ve used AirBnB many times, in the US, Canada, France, and Switzerland. I’ve never had a problem, but I do know many people have had issues with AirBnB, both owners and renters. A couple of friends rent out space on AirBnB, and I’ve heard some of the criticisms of AirBnB from them. I did learn about the “no direct contact” principle from my first rental. As far as changing the pricing, one of my friends told me how that works, but I didn’t fully understand. I’m pretty certain that the price can’t change once you’ve confirmed, unless you cancel and want to make a new reservation.

  2. Thanks Bill. I was shocked and appalled that the owner changed the price and the minimum stay, after several weeks of agreeing to a deal.

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