Why a verbal contract is worthless on Airbnb


Andrew Laughlin’s circumstances are unfortunate. First, he lost his home to a hurricane this summer. Then he needed to spend three months in Houston for cancer treatment.

And then, Airbnb kicked him out of his rental.

At least that’s how he sees it.

That’s not how Airbnb sees it, though. In its estimation, it did exactly what it was supposed to do in its contract. Laughlin’s case illustrates the importance of getting any contract in writing. Talk is cheap — and ultimately, it’s meaningless.

Laughlin found the rental he wanted in Houston and contacted the owner.

“I told him I needed the three months, but was unable to get Airbnb on the phone,” he explained. “I asked him if he was able to book me through Airbnb for that time. He responded back to me these exact words: ‘Just leave reservation as is and I will block the dates for 60 days out and you can tell me 30 days in advance when you want to leave. No worries.’”

But he should have worried.

Shortly after he moved in, Airbnb notified him that he had to be out within a few days because the unit had been booked. That’s not exactly the kind of news you want, especially if you’re undergoing cancer treatment.

He asked Airbnb for help and it agreed to contact the owner.

“Airbnb called me back and told me somehow it had been booked because I had not responded to an email I never received,” he recalls. “I was told, don’t worry about it, it has been taken care of. ”

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A senior case manager told Laughlin to book another place and promised Airbnb would take care of any extra costs he incurred.

And you can probably guess the rest? It didn’t, despite repeated requests from him to save his stay.


Indeed, Airbnb is clear about what it will — and won’t — do on its site. It basically comes down to this: The company is under no obligation to replace his rental and cover the extra expenses. The written contract on its site trumps anything a representative may say on the phone. Case closed.

Well, not exactly.

Our advocacy team thought there might be something he missed. So we reviewed his paper trail, which was not very thorough. It seems like, in his rage, Laughlin had sent messages to Airbnb that made him a difficult customer. We couldn’t find anything that would have allowed us to go back and ask for a review.

Unfortunately, despite numerous appeals, Airbnb stuck to his contract, forcing him to find a new rental on his own.

But his loss is your gain. And there are a number of teachable moments. First, to check your email and to whitelist any messages from a company you’re working with, like Airbnb. Download the company app, which also lets you receive messages. Companies don’t care if a missive went to your spam folder. If you don’t answer, they’ll make assumptions about you that may be unfavorable.

Second, mind your manners no matter what your circumstances are. I think Laughlin’s case might have turned out differently if he’d been a little friendlier.

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And finally, get everything in writing. That means signing a contract to begin with that reflects what the owner said (Laughlin apparently didn’t). And that’s especially true if a representative makes you a promise like the one made by phone. I mean, it was awfully generous to subsidize a customer’s rent for more than two months. But where’s the contract?


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.

  • Alan Gore

    AirBNB is set up for short-term rental stays. If you need a home for three months, contact a real estate agent in the area.

  • Kerr

    So many questions: Why didn’t the initial rental go for the full 30 days? What did the OP actually book? Was changing after 30 days that big of an inconvenience? What price differential was involved? etc., etc.

  • MarkKelling

    If he was undergoing cancer treatment as stated, then yes moving after 30 days is a really big deal. Just ask anyone who has had cancer treatment and they can tell you the last thing they feel like doing is packing up and moving while the treatment is going on.

    And since the hurricane was mentioned, I am willing to bet the owner got a much higher price for the rental for the remainder of the time frame due to the hurricane that hit Houston leaving many people without a house.

  • Kerr

    I live in the Houston region, so yes I am aware of the Medical Center area.

    “Shortly after he moved in, Airbnb notified him that he had to be out within a few days because the unit had been booked.” So did he get 30 days or not? Owners can’t cancel a rental in the middle of the period without consequences.

  • Chris_In_NC

    Just curious but what was the ORIGINAL booking? How long was it for?
    If he was at the end of his contracted booking term, then they did not kick him out.

  • BubbaJoe123

    As a wise man once said, “a verbal contract is worth the paper it’s printed on.”

  • MarkKelling

    Yes, lots of unanswered questions.

  • John McIntosh

    It never fails to amaze me how quickly people fall into invective and threats with disputes. I had a problem with Amazon last year over a Prime day purchase. I started with CS drones who followed their script and wouldn’t budge. But I kept everything polite and using this site’s contact info moved up the food chain until I got satisfaction. I never resorted to name calling or threats of litigation and the responses I got back even the refusals were always polite and professional. Remember more flys with honey.

  • Marc

    I wouldn’t agree with that. My other half is using AirBNB for her stay while she is in grad school. She just finished a 4 month stay and is about to begin an 8 month stay. She has 3 other housemates who are also doing similar stays. What difference is there if you book a 3 day stay or a 3 month stay, as long as you book through AirBNB to ensure everything is in writing?

  • LonnieC

    As an old, retired, commercial law (i.e., contract) attorney, I’ll say it again: “If it isn’t in writing, it doesn’t exist.” And a corrolary: “The big print giveth, and the small print taketh away.” There. My bill’s in the mail….

  • cscasi

    The real issue I see is that he had nothing in writing guaranteeing him anything. He says, the landlord said, “‘Just leave reservation as is and I will block the dates for 60 days out and you can tell me 30 days in advance when you want to leave. No worries.” How does one then prove it if something adverse happens?
    Could it be that AIRbnb really controls the rental property because of a contract the landlord agreed to when he went and listed on AIRbnb? AIRbnb may not want landlords to rent their properties on their own when they are listed with AIRbnb. However, I have never used them, so I am not sure what if any restrictions there may be.

  • disqus_wK5MCy17IP

    This story, or maybe the LW’s understanding of the platform seems to confuse the host and AirBnB itself. You can’t book over the phone directly with AirBnB. I suppose one could reach out to a host directly and book with them, but then you’re circumventing AirBnB, so are can they help you if there’s a dispute later? If one wants to book over the phone, use a hotel or short term housing that accepts phone bookings.

    Why does it seem like this site is going after AirBnB lately? It’s a two sided platform where AirBnB connects a host and a guest. I can’t think of a single case you’ve written about where the guest attempted to go through AirBnB’s published resolution procedures. When you’re dealing with a company that has two customers in a transaction (guest and host), you can’t just plow through, not give the host the opportunities your rental agreement agrees to give them to remedy a situation and expect compensation for the full amount or above from the company that also represents the host. I don’t think you should advocate these cases unless the guests attempted some resolution through AirBnB and it’s AirBnB that actually failed to deliver, not the host.

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