How best to use Airbnb as a host?
July 7, 2012 3:07 PM   Subscribe

I finally got my act together and put my Brooklyn apartment up on Airbnb this morning. I'm a little surprised to be already receiving inquiries, and I realize now I really don't know how to vet these potential renters. For those who have hosted through the site before, what criteria do you use? Is no photo a red flag or is that normal? Is it suspicious or ordinary for them not to have much of a profile filled out? Are there specific questions I should be asking in my initial reply? (Will it make them suspicious if I ask for identifying information?) Are there scams to watch out for? Is there anything you'd add to a listing to head off potential trouble?

We don't have any recommendations yet and we haven't hooked our profile up to any social networking sites for authentication, so I wasn't expecting any interest right away. (How do they know to trust us?) In case it affects the advice, the listing is for the entire apartment, not for just one room, and the prices we set are roughly average for the neighborhood (i.e., it's likely not jumping out as an outrageous bargain).
posted by nobody to Travel & Transportation (11 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
I've spent most of the last year living in places I got through Airbnb, though I've never hosted.

I'm sure there are plenty of honest people with no profile filled out, but I bet the dishonest ones are 10x more likely to have little or nothing there. So no profile doesn't have to be a huge minus, but having stuff there is a plus. Same with photo.

If there is anything unusual at all about your listing, ask in your reply if they have read it and are ok with it. (Unusual = cancellation policy, rules about additional people, cleaning fees, etc.) Clarify the number of their party. Remember, you're not a commercial business. You can discriminate. If a group of college students looking to party it up contacts you one day, and an older couple on a quiet vacation contacts you the next, there's no ethical imperative that you give it to the people who asked first. Also, be wary of people who ask you to reserve the place without making an official reservation.

I think of Airbnb as being somewhere between a hotel and couchsurfing. You don't have to be a host in the sense of having be-social obligations, but there is an interpersonal trust function built in. So if they don't volunteer the information, it's reasonable to ask a casual, general question about why they will be in your city. I would feel weird though if a host asked really specific information about me.

If someone asks to pay through any means other than the site, be on your guard. The way people trust each other is that Airbnb is the guarantee-er, and if either side has a grievance they go through Airbnb. Since you as host have a lot more to lose, potentially, you have zero reason to accept going through a means other than Airbnb, especially since it deprives Airbnb of their rightful and reasonable commission.

They don't know to trust you, but going through Airbnb is reassuring. For me the single most reassuring thing was a listing with a lot of clear photos and a paragraph or two of information. No matter how bad my need I always completely ignored a listing with only one picture and/or with really blurry cell phone pictures. So if you filled your listing out well, that jumps out just as much as having a few good reviews, especially if it makes you seem like a normal person and the place seem pleasant.
posted by pdq at 3:45 PM on July 7, 2012 [2 favorites]

Here's how I would do it if I were feeling most picky (which I might). Right off the bat I'd filter for:
  • Detailed profile with real pictures
  • Positive reviews
  • Verified phone number
After that if someone looks possible, ask them a few questions (a host once asked me for a little more information about me and my trip, which seemed reasonable). Use your instincts, and don't be afraid to turn folks down -- it's your place.
posted by feckless at 3:54 PM on July 7, 2012

I think I'd want to meet anyone who was staying in my house/apartment before trusting them with the keys, and to look at their identification (driver's license, passport if possible) to ensure they were who they said they were.

I'm assuming you've seen this from a little less than a year ago? (If not, check out all the links.) While it does sound as if the crimes described in that article may have been committed by the same group of people in and around San Francisco, a couple of things jumped out at me: for example, the purported customer in the most appalling case spelled her name wrong in her user profile (Dj Pattrson), and looking back, the unfortunate host noticed that there was something a little "off" about their initial email exchange.

You might be writing this from a position of knowing all about what happened and AirBnB's subsequent efforts to beef up their vetting system, but I just want to make sure this story is mentioned, just in case.
posted by tully_monster at 3:58 PM on July 7, 2012

It doesn't surprise me that you've had several inquiries already. I tried to book a place in NYC/Brooklyn last fall and 90% of the people for whom I sent in a request never even responded. I think it was because I was a new user without any positive reviews (although I did have a picture, verified phone number and a link to a social media site). One guy did respond that his place was not available. When I thanked him for responding and mentioned that no one else bothered, he apologized and replied that Airbnb had gotten crazy and that he got several (I think he said something like 10-20) requests a day for his place (he had numerous positive reviews). I did try again and this time sent requests to several airbnb hosts and got a response and it all worked out brilliantly. So I guess the answer is you can afford to be picky using whatever criteria you choose. You may be getting a larger majority of new people without any reviews because you are new and don't have any either; they might think that they have a better shot with you. It's likely they've not gotten responses or been turned down by other hosts.

As a potential guest and a single woman, I tend to prefer places hosted by single women or couples and at least some positive reviews. I would not be offended if a potential host requested more information about me or what I planned to do during the visit; although I agree with pdq that the questions shouldn't be too personal or invasive.

I think that they trust you because the affiliation with Airbnb offers you some legitimacy. Other than that one case in California where the host had their apartment trashed and some stuff stolen, it appears that there have been remarkably few problems, at least serious ones, for either hosts or guests. Also since it is an entire apartment, there is less concern about personal safety in that they won't be sharing the living space with a complete stranger, they'll just be paying them (in this case you) to use it.

But keeping that one case in California in mind, I would not leave anything with personal identifying information (credit cards, social security card, tax forms, passports, etc) in the apartment.

Finally there are so many airbnb hosts in your area. Perhaps you could contact some of them and see how they've handled these issues?
posted by kaybdc at 4:21 PM on July 7, 2012

Response by poster: Thanks for these great replies. This information puts us at ease a bunch. My girlfriend and I are both indicated by the user name (and in the photo), so that might explain some of the comfort-level from these strangers.

I do, however, have a followup situation that is raising partial red-flags:

We've had a few back-and-forths with a woman who says she's a lawyer coming to town alone for a month and a half to study for and take the bar exam (starting next week, sticking around for a vacation afterwards).

There was a bit of a mix-up regarding how the site displayed long-term pricing. (Apparently they show a "monthly rate with fees" instead of totaling up the full amount; likewise they only initially bill for the first month. For short term stays I guess they don't add the guest fee percentage in until the actual billing stage.) We more or less got that sorted out.

The sort of bizarre part is that she then passed us off to a male friend (writing from her same account) to handle the actual finalizing of money details. This friend doesn't write as well as she does and in addition to conveying some of her follow-up questions about the bathroom and closet, mentioned that they would be setting up multiple secure payments with the site because they have a 1400 transaction-limit on their credit card.

This raised a red flag (he used the sketchier phrase "secure payment links"), and as part of our follow-up reply we mentioned that we in no way can accept payment outside of the site, and asked them to clarify.

The clarification came back saying that indeed it would all be handled through the site -- that they or their friends have done this before -- and that what he meant was that they'd have to call airbnb customer service to set up the payments, but everything would look normal on our end. (He also clarified that the only reason he brought it up was because he wanted to explain why they would have to wait until Monday to finalize the booking).

We've since also received a follow-up from the woman herself asking one or two more questions about amenities and asking us to consider if it might be possible to lower the price a touch when making the actual offer through the site's "special offer" mechanism.

These questions of course make it seem more legit, but I imagine good scammers would be smart enough to do the same. (I'm not sure what the scam could be here, however, if the payment really is properly going through the site.)

Lastly, I did a reverse image search on the woman's user-profile picture, and it came up with this one result (though the cropping is tighter on airbnb). Searching for the username attached to that picture on that other site revealed a some accounts (including youtube) that clearly aren't the same person.

So now we're not sure how to proceed. The long-term sublet would be great (so much less of a hassle), and apart from these details the messages back and forth with this user have been totally legit-seeming. If it's a scam, any idea what the scam could be? If I make the "special offer" and they accept (with proper payment), then they'll be able to see the full address and one of our cellphone numbers, but I've removed the exact apartment number just in case. Are we being too paranoid?
posted by nobody at 7:53 AM on July 8, 2012

If you have any reservations, why consider granting this person access? Sounds like Brooklyn is a popular spot. You have a lot of inquiries. It's your home. Personally, I'd beg off from a person if I felt the least bit odd, but I admit I'm toeing the paranoid line here.
posted by tcv at 9:32 AM on July 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

Yeah, one thing I've learned from hosting guests is don't let anyone pressure you into accommodating them.

You can turn this guest down. Do you really want a 6 week guest in your apartment first up anyway? I'm sure the money is attractive but if it feels uncomfortable I say go with your gut.

The scam could be in what they plan to do with the apartment after you let it to them.
posted by Kerasia at 3:26 PM on July 8, 2012

one thing I've learned from hosting guests is don't let anyone pressure you into accommodating them.

I don't normally do the "QFT" thing, but this bears repeating. If you have any any reason that you don't want to have a transaction or hosting experience with someone, just say no. The "Unfortunately, it just won't be possible" excuse will get rid of all but the most clueless. It does not require you to give any reason and does not express any regret that can be applied to built you (note the choice of "unfortunately" instead of "I'm sorry).

Me, I would say no to the people you are describing. Even if airbnb does allow such type of payments (you, too, can call customer service and ask), I would then start to wonder if the card numbers were stolen among other possibilities. One of those others being what Kerasia is probably alluding to, that they will rent your apartment for a time, put it up for rent on craigslist, and collect a whole bunch of security+first+last month checks for it and then disappear.
posted by whatzit at 3:42 AM on July 10, 2012

Ugh. Regret that can be applied to GUILT you.
posted by whatzit at 3:43 AM on July 10, 2012

Response by poster: Follow-up: We ended up accepting the traveler's offer (on Monday, before seeing these last two replies), since the site reported their payment as having successfully gone through and because at that point -- presented with the choice of accepting or declining -- it displayed her full name and contact info, which seemed to check out upon googling. We had also previously sent a query to the "safety" subsection of the airbnb help desk asking for confirmation that at least the payment side of things was legit, and they replied affirmatively (though not until today "due to a high volume of" etc.).

Obviously if the person who shows up doesn't match the photos (and, now, Facebook page, etc. etc.) then we won't let them through the front gate, but after speaking with her on the phone now, I'd guess that'll be extremely unlikely.

Thanks again for all your helpful answers. Hopefully it won't prove to be a bitter double-reverse irony when I say I'll report back in a month or so with a question about how to rebuild our shattered lives.
posted by nobody at 10:38 PM on July 10, 2012

Response by poster: Follow-up: Everything turned out great. The lawyer was a real person who was extremely nice and even brought us candies. And she left the apartment nicer than when she arrived. Just in case, we had removed anything we'd possibly regret losing (including old tax records, etc.), but it turned out to be unnecessary (so far). Our second set of guests arrive today.

Thanks again for all the advice.
posted by nobody at 7:13 AM on September 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

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