During the past three years, I have lived on both sides of the home-sharing economy, renting my Brooklyn, New York townhouse and spending several months at a time in France. In the process I’ve had a lot of practice being an Airbnb renter, or “guest,” in the parlance of this online platform. Somewhat less as a landlord, or so-called “host.” In this respect, I’m still learning and still making mistakes.
The latest involved a guest whose initial inquiry noted that he and his wife have two children under the age of two. “Our youngest isn’t crawling yet, but we have a 17-month-old who is very much on the move. I wanted to double-check whether you are o.k. with young children,” he wrote. With just a few weeks to go before his arrival in New York, he indicated that he was in a hurry to book.
I replied, “We raised a child (now in college) in this house, but it is no longer baby-proof, and seeing to the safety of your children is your responsibility.” When a week passed without any further word, I assumed that he had made other arrangements.
Then, one beautiful September day, my husband and I were hiking in the Vosges Mountains of northeast France when I got an automated text message from Airbnb signaling that the Judo Wrestler, as I will call him, since that’s the pose he struck in his Airbnb photo, wanted to rent our house for more than a month.
I wasn’t comfortable with the picture, which made him look like someone I wouldn’t want to meet in a dark alley. And I suspected that, digitally speaking, the Judo Wrestler had already knocked on other doors. (Why else the one-week delay after he said it was a rush?) But, at least for starters, I give each potential renter the benefit of the doubt. Plus, the money would have been enough to cover our lodgings for the three months that we planned to be in France. So that was nothing to take lightly.
Given the sequence of events, and the anonymity that Airbnb affords, though, I knew absolutely nothing about the Judo Wrestler or his family. Unlike other potential guests, he hadn’t sent a message with his request to book. And I won’t rent to anyone without knowing their last name and seeing their LinkedIn or similar profile. (Airbnb doesn’t provide this information or guarantee a user’s identity.)
In this case that first stage of vetting offered some reassurance. The Judo Wrestler, whether or not he actually was one, was also worldly, well educated and a successful entrepreneur. His LinkedIn profile included a professional headshot, which only remotely resembled what seemed to be a gag photo on Airbnb.
However, other details made me think he wasn’t being completely forthcoming. His first message referred to his wife and two children. Yet the automated request to book indicated there would now be three guests and two infants. Who was the third guest who mysteriously appeared?
Only after I asked did he disclose that their nanny would be accompanying them, and staying with them in our house for the first three weeks. The plan was for her to take care of the children all day, while the Judo Wrestler and his wife were conducting business in New York.
Further exchanges revealed that the younger child, who, according to the first message, “isn’t crawling yet,” was much further from that stage than the Judo Wrestler had led me to believe. In fact, she was only seven weeks old. Why not say this upfront? I assume that the Judo Wrestler had already been turned down by other potential hosts. Ultimately, he wrote, “We don’t have too many options, and time is running out.”
By that point we had already walked away from the deal. We did not want to inflict the inevitable noise, including a baby who wasn’t likely to sleep through the night, on our two sets of party-wall neighbors, both of whom are empty nesters. Nor was the layout of our four-story historic home, which does not have a powder room on the first floor, suitable for the child-care arrangement the Judo Wrestler was contemplating: blocking off the stairs with a baby gate and having the two kids and the nanny spend the day on the first floor. Another part of his plan was to use four large suitcases to create a protective barrier on that level for our custom-made dining room china cabinets.
Most importantly – though the Judo Wrestler had favorable reviews from other Airbnb hosts – by not fully disclosing his situation, he hadn’t been honest with us. That left us wondering what he might conceal while living in our home – for example, leaving us to discover any damage or losses, rather than assuming responsibility for them. In our experience, that has been an issue even with Airbnb guests who made a better first impression. No matter how well you vet a guest, you don’t know whom you’re dealing with until push comes to shove.
In this case, however, we put the initial emphasis in the wrong place – focusing on the Judo Wrestler’s professional background, rather than on the family issue he initially raised. We could have saved ourselves some time and trouble if we had used that as a springboard to ask: What brings you to New York? What are the exact ages of each of your children? How many adults will be accompanying you, and who are they? Disaster averted. Lesson learned.
Deborah L. Jacobs is the author most recently of the five-time award winning book, Four Seasons in a Day: Travel, Transitions and Letting Go of the Place We Call Home, about her adventures — and misadventures — living in France. 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.