I survived a week in this “charming” Airbnb. Here’s what I learned

It’s 2 a.m. and it’s 49 degrees in my bedroom. I wrap myself in a cover and hobble through a pitch-black living room, feel my way past the tiny kitchen, and jab the thermostat in the hallway.

50 degrees, it lights up.

I’m staying in a 100-year-old house rented through Airbnb. How do I know it’s 100 years old? Because my host keeps telling me. The fuses blow out because “it’s a 100-year-old house.” There’s no washer or dryer because it’s a “100-year-old house” and there’s nowhere to install the appliances.

I paid $1,140 for a week in this three-bedroom “private” home. I endured incessant construction noise, numerous power and internet outages, minimal privacy, a thermostat that continuously reset to 50 degrees during a cold snap, and an ill-equipped kitchen. I’ve only had one worse rental experience in my life, a VRBO apartment in Ottawa that I quickly abandoned.

But I’m not complaining, because in the end, Airbnb and my host delivered what they promised in writing, and nothing more: a house only a few blocks from downtown in a big city. My experience illustrates the promise and perils of renting a home in the sharing economy.

But back to that thermostat.

I push the “up” button repeatedly until it hits 70. The heat kicks on and for the next two hours the house returns to a livable temperature. But by the time I’m up at 5 a.m., it’s back to freezing again.

Thermostats can be set to run and then cut off in order to save energy. Did my Airbnb host do that in order to save money on energy bills or is this just user error?

A two-hour cutoff may work eight months out of the year, when conditions are relatively mild, but with the temperature outside falling below freezing, it doesn’t really work for me. My 11-year-old daughter refuses to get out of bed because “it’s too cold.”

The Airbnb listing is a little heavy on hyperbole. It offers “1920’s charm and glory…but with modern updates for comfort” in the heart of the city. “You cant [sic] get a more convenient location to downtown activities and conventions!” it says.
Also, it promises:

Original 10-foot ceilings, 3 bedrooms, 1 bath. It has been completely renovated including custom gourmet kitchen with Bosch appliances, gas stove. Comfortable great room with 4k Ultra TV.
Did I mention the water pressure?! Great water pressure and comfortable and cozy beds. I provide complimentary coffee (K cups) and tea is provided.

The description, while accurate, is somewhat misleading.

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There’s nothing “charming” about most depression-era houses. They’re usually spare and functional.

How do you define a “complete” renovation? If you mean an updated kitchen, laying down new carpet and tiles, and painting a few walls, then yes. But from the outside, this place looks like a fixer-upper.

Also, details were missed. Important details.

While there are blinds on the front windows, there are none on the side windows. From the street, you can look through our windows to see what we are doing at any time. And we see people doing it.

The gas stove doesn’t light up. You have to use matches, which can be dangerous if the burner is in the “on” position for too long. There are no handles on the new kitchen cabinets, so you have to pry them open by their sides. (All photos in this story are of the actual property.)

The kitchen is stocked with garage-sale artifacts: mismatched plates, two small pans that can’t be used for anything except a personal meal, and a Keurig coffeemaker that makes a small cup of tea or coffee. There’s no bread knife or paring knife, making meal preparation a challenge. Clearly, some of this was an afterthought, presumably by a property owner who wanted to capitalize on the sharing economy.

To call this a “gourmet” kitchen would be a stretch.

But my first 48 hours are the most eventful, so let’s scroll back. The moment I arrive, I look for the washer and dryer. After five days in Moab, Utah, we have lots of laundry caked with red dirt. I look, and I look. No appliances.

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I text my host and she calls back.

“This is a 100-year-old house,” she informs me. “There’s no place for a washer and dryer. Also, I didn’t say I had one in the listing.”

Sure enough, there’s no washer or dryer in the listing. My fault for assuming that every house has a washer and dryer, at least on Airbnb. Time to find a laundromat, which is fine.

During the day, there’s construction noise — relentless hammering above one of the bedrooms. Apparently, there’s some work going on “upstairs.” I didn’t even know the unit had an upstairs. That was also missing from the listing.

The following day, the kitchen suddenly goes dark. I call the host and ask for the location of the fuse box. She shows up two hours later. It turns out the basement, accessible only from the outside, flooded a week before. There are fans downstairs and they’re putting a strain on the electrical system. I can’t access the downstairs without a key, but she resets the fuse and leaves the basement key.

A few hours later, the fuse blows again. It’s 9 p.m. and I’m reluctant to venture outside in the dark to access the basement, so I wait until the next morning to reset the fuse. This time, I turn off a few of the fans downstairs. That seems to fix the problem.

And then there’s the Wi-Fi. A day after we check in, the signal just disappears. Instead of calling our host yet again, we decide to use our own hotspot. It’s worth the overages just to avoid another visit from our host, another empty apology, another reminder that this is a “100-year-old house.”

There’s so much more about the property that’s bothersome, from the noisy bar across the street that keeps me up until 1 a.m., to the trolley that starts running at O’dark hundred and makes a creaking, submarine-like sound as it rounds the bend at the intersection.

My kids don’t want to get out of bed in the morning. That’s because the bed is the best part of this rental, other than the home’s central location. The memory foam mattresses on the beds are really comfortable. And when it’s 49 degrees in the house, wouldn’t you want to stay in bed, too?

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Why didn’t I say something to my host or at least leave a review? Because these are little laundry-list complaint items, the kind I advise my own readers to keep out of their legitimate grievances. Maybe I was following my own advice a little too closely. Maybe I wanted to see how bad it would get. And in retrospect, it wasn’t that bad.

I’m not angry at my host or at Airbnb. I don’t want a refund. Actually, I think this is terrific — and here’s why.

Airbnb is keeping the market for accommodations competitive. Take away the sharing economy — Airbnb, HomeAway or Vacasa — and you’re suddenly much closer to an oligopoly in the lodging business. That’s where only a handful of hotel chains own or manage most of the inventory.

I love competition. Not the phony, for-show kind of competition the airline industry claims exists in the United States. I mean the real thing, where a lot of companies are vying for your business.

Will I rent from Airbnb again? Oh, absolutely. I think this was as much a confluence of unfortunate events as it was the result of misguided marketing.

My Airbnb host didn’t lie to me, but she sugarcoated a couple of important facts. The next time I see the words “charming” or “gourmet kitchen” in an Airbnb description, I’ll probably click away to the next listing. She also caught a couple of tough breaks with a flood and the construction and the cold snap. You can’t really control that.

But the nonworking stove, the poorly stocked kitchen, the missing blinds, the broken Wi-Fi, the washer and dryer — that’s something within my host’s control. You can write your way around those shortcomings in the property description, but in the end, that kind of carelessness will put you out of business.

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or check out his adventures on his family adventure travel site. Contact him at chris@elliott.org. Read more of Christopher's articles here.

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