Long before the word “Airbnb” became a verb, people searching for vacation rentals relied on local real estate agents. Now some sophisticated travelers who’ve been burned in the sharing economy are going back to that approach. Fed up with amateur hoteliers who disagree about definitions of terms like “luxury” and “clean,” they no longer want to contract directly with homeowners on Airbnb or competing platforms such as HomeAway and VRBO.
Kim Hawley and her husband, Thomas van Overbeek, Chico, California-based real estate developers in their 60s, are among those who have soured on peer-to-peer transactions. After extensive correspondence with the owner – a wealthy senior executive at a Munich, Germany tech company whom they found on VRBO – the couple rented his “luxury” penthouse for the month that they would be in Munich. It looked stunning in the pictures but turned out to be filthy, from the stove, cupboards and linens, to what looked like tire marks on the walls. The balcony-veranda was deep in cigarette butts.
Finding another rental wasn’t possible. The very few two-bedroom, two-bath apartments in center city were all rented out, and they had friends joining them starting in the second week. “I spent the first four days of our vacation cleaning the apartment and procuring things to make it livable,” Hawley says. (The owner reimbursed these expenses.)
Since then, Hawley has rented other homes, but only when a property manager has been part of the mix. In cities, where restrictions on homesharing deter such enterprises, she has discovered the virtues of urban apartment complexes with short-term rentals. They may be more sterile than someone’s home, says Hawley, but “at least you can expect that they are clean and most things work.”
The goal, for Hawley and others, is not to achieve hotel-like perfection but something resembling quality control. Vacasa, for example, a company that manages 7,000 vacation properties around the world and markets them across online platforms, vets homes and homeowners before it will represent them. “We want to provide peace of mind and a guarantee that you’re going to have a great experience,” says Clifford Johnson, the company’s co-founder. The list of required kitchen equipment in the Vacasa Owner’s Handbook reads like a wedding registry.
Though the Airbnb website offers advice about best practices, it doesn’t prescreen accommodations. Nor would that be consistent with the company’s democratic spirit. In oft-told lore, Airbnb started in 2007 when founders Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia, reacting to a shortage of hotel rooms in San Francisco during a conference, let paying guests sleep on air mattresses in their apartment. Today anyone with a cell phone can photograph their home and offer it for rent on various sharing economy sites.
No matter how carefully travelers vet the listings, there are times when it feels like one is playing Airbnb roulette. And when living conditions don’t conform to website descriptions, baby boomers may suffer more than members of other generations. Not inclined to be out touring all day and partying all night, they want a comfortable place to call home as they savor local life, prepare their own meals and perhaps work remotely.
“Once you pass 50, you’re going to need a bed that’s supportive,” says Eugenie Brown, 59, a retired sales rep based in southern California. Brown and her husband, Michael, 63, who have decades of experience renting vacation homes during foreign travel, were excited when companies like Airbnb, HomeAway and VRBO came on the scene. “We thought this was going to make things easier for us, but the opposite turned out to be true,” she says. “They raised prices without adding value.”
During a six-month European sojourn that began in 2016, the Browns canceled two Airbnb reservations because the premises were unacceptable. One was a London apartment advertised as a two-bedroom, in which the second bedroom was filled with the owner’s possessions, locked and off-limits. Brown now gathers leads for future trips from online groups and newsletters.
Brown would still rent through sharing economy platforms, so long as the place is handled by a property manager. On HomeAway and VRBO, travelers can make this one of the criteria by which they filter homes.
On Airbnb, distinguishing the amateurs from the pros requires a bit of surfing and sleuthing. One starts by clicking the host’s photograph on the page describing the home. A new Web page opens headlined, “Hey, I’m [and the name of a person – not an agency].” It shows the listings. When there are many, you can assume that the individual represents a property management firm.
One advantage of renting through Airbnb is that you can avoid having to pay a security deposit up front, as many property managers require you to do. With Airbnb, your credit card is authorized for the deposit, but no funds are disbursed unless the host makes a claim. This protects you from having to hold your breath as owners drag their feet (even when there’s no damage) about returning the deposit. Prices for properties are roughly the same no matter which platform you use to book them.
Of the more than two dozen homes that my husband, Ken, and I have reserved online, only a handful have been professionally managed. One, via HomeAway, was an adorable apartment in the Normandy fishing village of Port-en-Bessin. It was owned by La Maison Matelot, a small company that has artfully renovated other similar properties and rents them to tourists.
In the Dordogne region of France, we rented two different houses on Airbnb that were managed by Sabine and Christophe Grossemy. Their company, En Toutes Saisons, a local caretaker for the owners of vacation homes, is also a rich source for rentals in the area; most are cross-listed on sharing economy sites.
But while a property manager can arrange to have the lawn mowed or the house cleaned, they can’t compel homeowners to make costly improvements. When the washing machine in our Paris apartment malfunctioned during a one-week stay, the agent brought in a handyman, who said he had fixed it. Only he hadn’t. Comments in the guest book from those who’d been there before us suggested that they had the same problem – clothes came out soapy and had to be rinsed by hand, in the sink.
As for kitchens, it’s a rare one, in our experience, that has a decent knife or frying pan, and some owners cut corners by not installing a traditional oven. (If the listing doesn’t show one or describe it in the amenities, ask whether it exists.)
When she needs something that isn’t provided, Brown fills in with inexpensive purchases that she either leaves for future guests or takes home as souvenirs. One host told her that the assortment of coffee makers in his vacation rental had been contributed by previous tenants.
Though we’ve had enough Airbnb horror stories to prefer booking through agents, most of our experiences with owners have been satisfactory. And several have been outstanding. Having rented our Brooklyn, New York townhouse during long stints overseas, we also know how hard it is to be a host. Fielding inquiries, preparing for renters and making repairs after they leave is time-consuming – and sometimes aggravating. Amateur hosts give the rest of us a bad rap.
While guests can reduce the number of unpleasant surprises by relying on property managers, in the process they may miss out on experiences that are a cherished part of travel. One place we rented directly from the owner was an exquisitely furnished triplex apartment in Sare, a tiny village in southwest France. It was part of a 17th-century mansion that once belonged to Basque shipbuilders, and our landlords lived on the other side of the house. While we resided there for six weeks during the autumn of 2015, they invited us to dinner, and several weeks later we reciprocated. It was, to quote a classic movie line from Casablanca, “the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”
Deborah L. Jacobs, a lawyer and journalist, is the author of Four Seasons in a Day: Travel, Transitions and Letting Go of the Place We Call Home. For the past three years she has divided her time between New York and France, living on both sides of the sharing economy. Follow her on Twitter at @djworking and join her on Facebook here. You can subscribe to future blog posts by using the sign-up box on her website’s homepage.