Renting through airbnb is like getting married in Las Vegas.
It’s convenient, it’s easy, but is it really the best way to make such an intimate connection? I say this as one who has been on the demand side of the vacation rental sharing economy.
My mother is in her 80s but she doesn’t let that stop her from organizing family trips. She can usually get seven or eight of us together, with ages ranging from preteen to octogenarian.
Our first airbnb experience was an apartment in Paris. It wasn’t really big enough for me, my two sisters, four nieces and my mom, but once a few of the nieces had been persuaded to sleep on the floor, and my mother volunteered to take the couch, we all had a place to rest.
What we lacked were any kitchen cabinets, or even shelves. The owner stored all of her dishes, including pots, plates and glasses on the floor of a dark alcove next to the sink. As we made dinner each night, a niece was sent into the alcove to get plates and glasses, and after dinner another niece put the washed and dried dishes back on the alcove floor.
After a few days, we noticed that some of the dishes had cracks and chips. Slowly we discovered that the process of retrieving and replacing the dishes had not been an orderly one. About half of the plates, and most of the bowls, were broken as a result of being stepped on, stacked unwisely or otherwise jostled.
I left the country before the moment of reckoning came. I’m told the broken dishes were just one of the affronts that the owner of the apartment cited when she informed my mother that there would be no refund of the security deposit, and not only would she never rent to my mother again, but she would mention the vandalism of her apartment on the airbnb site, ensuring that my mother could never use airbnb again.
Not only was my mother able to rent from airbnb again, but the next Paris apartment she found came with its own menagerie — a horde of French-speaking mice who gamboled across the kitchen floor, stopping off at the garbage can before continuing through the dining area to the balcony via a tiny hole in the sliding glass door screen.
They were a merry tribe and seemed amused when we jumped on the dining room chairs and shrieked as they completed their dash to the balcony. The owner of this apartment sent someone over to check on the situation. She noticed an open bag of grain in the cabinet and tossed it, which did not stop, but seemed to take the edge off the mouse activity.
I know that any kind of houseguest, paying or not, can damage things, but when it’s someone you know it doesn’t seem so bad. For example, when my mom and her friend Betty stayed at my place when I was away, Betty mistook the radiator cover in the bathroom for a clothes hamper. Several weeks went by before I figured out the source of the strange, singed smell and opened the radiator cover to find three towels, a pillowcase, and a washcloth stuffed around the fins of a blazing hot radiator.
The Berlin apartment my mother found through airbnb was owned by a business professor who left town when school was out, and seven of us stayed there for a week. There were no screens in the windows (the custom in many parts of Germany) and no clothes dryer, since most Germans apparently hang their wash to dry, considering it to be more healthful and easier on the planet. But winged creatures did not fly in the windows, and we enjoyed the sight of each other’s underpants hanging like Tibetan prayer flags in every room.
The one exception to our comfort was the owner’s placement of a cactus collection on the steps leading up to a loft where four of us slept on pads and foldouts. To visit the bathroom at night, we had to descend a steep and winding open staircase, clinging to the banister. It was impossible to avoid clutching the cacti.
This resulted in intermittent yelps that woke the household.
We left the professor’s apartment more or less intact, garnering a positive airbnb review from him: “It was a nice experience with this group, well organized, clean and quiet, eager to see Berlin.”
A local carpenter told me about a lost letter, still in its envelope, that he found in the wall of an old farmhouse he was renovating. The letter dated 1890, was written by a man whose family was renting the house for the summer while he was working in Manhattan. The rent was five dollars a month.
That century-old letter reminded me that although Shelter Island residents have been renting their homes to make money for a long time, everything about that transaction has changed. Long gone are letters of introduction and visits to see the property and assess the trustworthiness of the renter. Forget about brokers, or references, and especially forget about a family with the inclination to rent for more than two weeks.
The online marketplace has made renting someone’s home in a quiet residential neighborhood as effortless and anonymous as staying at the Holiday Inn off exit 72 of the LIE. And if my neighbor’s house is listed on airbnb, I better prepare myself to hear some breaking dishes, shrieking and yelps this summer.