If you think too hard about the sharing economy, things get weird. We’re perfectly willing to get in a stranger’s car (Uber) or stay in a stranger’s home (Airbnb) — both of which we can arrange via smartphone app. These services offer certain trust markers, such as verification and user reviews, but that doesn’t guarantee a positive, or even a safe, experience, as two guests at a Los Angeles Airbnb discovered recently.
According to a story in The Boston Globe, Jaleesa Jackson and Chiedozie Uwandu’s so-called “superhost” JJ woke them up at 5:30AM by shouting and banging on the door. The next night, he jumped through the bedroom window while they were sleeping, shattering the glass, and then ran away, only to be found and handcuffed by police.
It turned out that JJ was renting the property and wasn’t actually allowed to rent it to others. The couple asked Airbnb for $US5000 ($7060) in compensation for new accommodations (expenses totalled $US2300 [$3248]) and general terror, but the company offered them just $US2500 ($3530) plus five therapy sessions.
Another case in point: My boyfriend’s father recently came to visit, and because we live in a small apartment, he booked a room in an Airbnb a few kilometres away. The listing, which had several positive reviews, included pictures of a furnished bedroom and one bed under provided sleeping arrangements.
When he checked in, however, he found a mattress on the floor and a bed frame leaning against the wall. Due to his arthritis, getting up and down from the floor wasn’t a viable option for three nights.
When he contacted the host about the misrepresentation, she became hostile, pointed to her positive reviews, and told him he could leave if he wanted. We were able to find other accommodations after the first night, and when my boyfriend and his dad went back to collect his belongings, there was a notice threatening eviction on the apartment door — turns out the property forbade tenants from running Airbnbs.
Airbnb does offer refunds in certain cases so guests aren’t out hundreds of dollars on bookings that aren’t as expected due to hosts who aren’t upfront. The company considers disputes if a host doesn’t offer “reasonable access” to the listing; if the online listing misrepresents reality (as in our case); or if the listing is dirty, unsafe, or has an undisclosed animal living there.
How to request a refund
- First, attempt to resolve the issue with your host using Airbnb’s messaging feature. The company will verify this conversation and your effort if you go on to make a claim.
- Take pictures or otherwise document your concerns.
- Contact Airbnb by phone or messenger. You must reach out within 24 hours if you notice problems at check-in or immediately if the issue happens during your stay.
- From there, expect a back-and-forth with Airbnb to explain and resolve the situation. If the reservation wasn’t made through your account, the person who actually booked the listing will likely have to get involved as well.
However, Airbnb still doesn’t guarantee a full refund, noting that the amount depends on “the nature of the travel issue” — in our case, they only refunded two of the three nights booked. They may offer instead to find and book a similar listing for the remainder of your stay, and they also won’t do much if they determine that you, as a guest, indirectly or directly caused the issue.
According to Airbnb’s refund policy, the host is responsible for reimbursing Airbnb up to the refund amount or relocation cost within 30 days — so in theory, shady hosts don’t actually profit from misleading guests.
Of course, a full or partial refund doesn’t fix the stress or frustration of dealing with terrible hosts, compromising your safety, or having to find a new place to sleep on short notice. Positive reviews and “superhost” status, as in JJ’s case, also don’t guarantee a comfortable stay. (Superhost is Airbnb’s highest designation for hosts that go above and beyond for their guests — it’s automatically awarded to those who meet certain criteria.)
Before you dive too deep into the sharing economy, you should at least know what recourse you have for negative experiences — it likely won’t be much.