This week on the podcast, Jasper has a conversation with Brian Chen, lead consumer technology writer for the New York Times and Airbnb Superhost. Brian’s cabin in northern California has been a lucrative business investment, though he has had some surprising experiences with Airbnb guests – and not in a good way.
Brian shares a few horror stories about guests who engaged in illegal activity and how Airbnb responded through the dispute resolution process. Listen to find out what lessons Brian has learned from his negative hosting experiences!
Brian’s Wedding Guests
The lessons Brian learned from hosting ‘bad eggs’
The Cocaine Story
The shortcomings of the Airbnb dispute resolution process
This episode is sponsored by Hostfully.com where you can create a custom digital guidebook for your guests!
Complete Transcript for Get Paid for Your Pad Episode 133
Welcome to Get Paid For Your Pad, the definitive show on Airbnb hosting, featuring the best advice on how to maximize profits from your Airbnb listing, as well as real-life experiences from Airbnb hosts all over the world. Welcome.
Jasper: This episode is brought to you by Hostfully, a company that helps you make beautiful guidebooks for your listing. Make your own at hostfully.com/pad, and a special for Get Paid For Your Pad listeners, you’ll get a free guidebook consultation after you make your guidebook.
Hey, what’s up, everybody? Welcome back to another episode of Get Paid For Your Pad, and today I have Brian Chen on the show, who is a writer for The New York Times. So, Brian, welcome to the show.
Brian: Hey, thanks for having me.
Jasper: Yeah, it’s a pleasure. I guess we swapped roles. A while ago, you interviewed me for an article that you wrote in The New York Times about being a Superhost. And an interesting part of this article, which I’ve actually referred to in one of my other podcast episodes, is how you describe how your house, or your cabin, in northern California was being used as a place to have a wedding.
Brian: An illegal wedding.
Jasper: An illegal wedding, right. And I thought that would be an interesting story to share with our listeners.
Brian: Yeah, it’s a good story to talk about the dispute resolution process. But, yeah, I’ll start from the beginning.
So, last October, this guy named Jose, he booked my house and he said it was a group of eight people. He wanted to host a family get-together for a small getaway in the mountains. And, you know, this guy had no reviews, but he looked like a nice guy. He was being polite with me in the conversations, so I figured, everybody has to start somewhere. Just because he has no reviews, I’m not going to write him off, so I’ll give him a chance, and I booked him, thinking nothing was going to go wrong.
And a month later, when he checks in, in November, the first problem was, his group was extremely loud at 4:00 in the morning outside my house, and my neighbors complained. So, that was problem number one.
And then, problem number two, I wouldn’t have even anticipated, but in the afternoon, some caterers started showing up to the house and they were carrying these white pillars, they were carrying food into the house, and then chairs and all this stuff, and flowers and everything. And my neighbors are taking pictures and sending them to me, and saying, “These guys are about to throw a wedding in your house.” And I thought, “Wow, you’re kidding me! That’s kind of remarkable because if you wanted to host a wedding somewhere, wouldn’t you want to see the venue before you throw the wedding?” So, it was a little bit sad to me.
So, it was the afternoon, and I was just assessing what to do exactly. I decided to let them carry out the ceremony because, who wants to ruin a wedding? And my neighbors keep taking pictures, and they finished the ceremony. And then, I contact the guy through the messaging app. I like to contact people through the messaging app just so Airbnb has documentation of what they’re saying.
So, I messaged him and I said, “Hey, Jose, now that the wedding’s over, I’m respectfully asking you to leave because you’ve broken all my house rules, and this isn’t cool. There’s 30 to 50 people there, and the agreement was that we’re hosting a group of 8. And we also don’t do big parties. It’s all in the house rules, so you’ve got to go.” And he responds, he’s like, “Oh, there’s no wedding going on here.” He says, “It’s just a group of 10 people and we’re just here having dinner.” And I was like, “Come on, dude.”
And I called Airbnb, and Airbnb called him, asking him to leave again, and he repeated again, “Oh, I’m just having a group dinner here. It’s no big deal.” And Airbnb said, “No, they have pictures of the wedding and it looks like a wedding, so you have to go, and if you don’t check out, then you’re going to be charged an extra night because we’re cancelling the reservation.” So, that was how Airbnb was able to force them out.
So, thankfully, the group left, and thankfully, they didn’t trash the house, because I thought they were going to. But, it’s funny. I was really upset because, for one thing, like I said, weddings in vacation rentals are illegal in this city and he kind of jeopardized my business like that. He put me at risk of getting caught because the neighbors were about to call the cops and everything. So, I wasn’t happy about it. Plus, in my house rules it says if you exceed the maximum occupancy of eight people, then you have to pay $100 per person, per day. And so, I was asking him for $3,000 more because he brought in something like 30 to 50 people. My neighbors counted 50.
So, I call Airbnb and they tell me to file a dispute in the resolution center, and I say fine, and I had to file all this documentation, including photos and telling them to look at the transcript. And I argued. I thought this was a pretty cut-and-dried argument where, you know, this guy is a well documented liar, and I have all these photos, and there’s a wedding here, and it’s all illegal, and I’m asking for this money. And so, Airbnb has to mediate because Jose, of course, he disagreed and didn’t want to pay the money, and he said that I broke the contract. He said that I threw him out of the house and I broke the contract, which was what I would call gaslighting, by the way.
So, Airbnb takes about two weeks to mediate, and then, ultimately, they decide that they are only going to charge him half of the amount of money I asked for because my neighbors were only able to photograph 25 people out of the 50 they claimed. So, it kind of went in his favor, largely, I think, because they were giving him the benefit of the doubt, even though the guy had no reviews, no credibility, constantly lying.
So, that was kind of like, the moral of the story is that I don’t really feel like Airbnb’s on a host’s side very often. They have to be very measured and very equal, which is understandable, but it was kind of a sour and bitter story in my history of hosting on Airbnb.
Jasper: Right. So, you weren’t very happy with the way that Airbnb handled the situation.
Brian: Yeah. Not only did I think that it was unfair… I left out one thing.
So, I found a chip in the countertop in the kitchen, and I sent the photo to Airbnb and I said, “This wasn’t here before.” And so, I was asking for maybe $200 to fix the chip in the counter because that’s how much somebody quoted me for it to cost. So, Airbnb took all of this into account, and one thing they said was, “Well, there’s no way to know if they caused the chip in the countertop or if that was there before.” And at that point, I thought, “Well, this is kind of ridiculous. So, do I have to take a picture of every single inch of every single thing I own in the house and show the before and after photo?”
You know, it just seemed kind of unreasonable. Why would you give this guy the benefit of the doubt when you guys caught him lying, too, and he’s been proven to be committing illegal activity in the house? So, it just seemed kind of disproportionately favoring the guest. Well, what do you think?
Jasper: Yeah, no, absolutely, because the thing is, I mean, you don’t really want this person to rent other people’s homes, right. So, if I were Airbnb, I would totally side with the host and I would make sure that that person never gets to rent a place on Airbnb anymore because, you know, these are the kind of things that give Airbnb a bad name, a bad reputation.
Jasper: I mean, if you Google Airbnb, then a disproportionate amount of horror stories show up because, you know, those are newsworthy stories, right?
Jasper: So, if something goes terribly wrong, then it often makes the news, but then, 99.9% of the cases where it doesn’t go wrong, you don’t hear that much about that. So, if I were Airbnb, I would put in a lot of effort to make sure that, if it does go wrong, that the hosts are happy because you don’t want to have a host complaining about Airbnb when something goes wrong.
Brian: So, I think a dirty secret, too, with Airbnb is that they have very, very high turnover when it comes to both hosts and guests. So, if either of us has a bad experience, then we’re probably going to stop using Airbnb, so I can understand why they try so hard to, you know, be very, very fair and show some favoritism toward Jose, in this instance, but it just seemed like the wrong call, in my opinion.
One thing I’ll say, that my takeaway was to have really, really strict house rules when people are planning Airbnbs or hosting Airbnbs, because not only do you want to scare off the guests who might be doing wrong activity, but you want to protect yourself in case somebody does something. Like, in my case, I had the $100 per extra guest rule and was able to collect some of that money at some point.
Jasper: Right. You were able to collect for 25 people?
Brian: So, 17 people because 8 was the maximum.
Jasper: Oh, right, right.
Brian: So, that was like $1,700 or something. Am I getting the math right?
Brian: Yeah, $1,700. I mean, and that’s a really cheap wedding, right?
Jasper: Yeah, I know.
Brian: I think he still won, in the end.
Jasper: Well, that’s why he rented it in the first place, right. He wanted a cheap wedding.
Brian: Right, yeah. Good for him.
Jasper: What did his girlfriend say?
Jasper: What about the girl that he was marrying?
Brian: Oh, his wife?
Jasper: Yeah, she must have been… I imagine…
Brian: I can’t even imagine. I can’t even imagine. Like, what a bad way to start a marriage, right.
So, she ended up talking to Airbnb because Jose didn’t speak very much English, and at some point, she conceded and said, “Yeah, we had a wedding.” And then, she kind of begged if they could stay the night, and at that point, I just had to say no because I don’t want like 30 to 50 people staying in my house, that’s too many, and I can’t trust them at that point. And the simple answer was no. I felt bad for them, but I could only feel bad for them to a certain extent.
Oh, and here’s the kicker, Jasper. So, in the end, we cancelled the reservation and I couldn’t review this guy, and he couldn’t review me because the whole thing was voided. And so, this guy can still go around renting out on Airbnb because he has no reviews and nobody sees that I had this wedding experience with him. So, it’s kind of sad.
Jasper: Right, okay. Yeah, that’s not very good.
So, I guess there’s a bunch of learning lessons, like you said. First of all, it makes sense to have very strict house rules, or at least, mention all the different house rules that are there so that you can refer to them in case something happens.
Jasper: And the second lesson is that you want to document as much as possible.
Brian: Yeah, exactly. So, I don’t think that we should have to do before and after photos of every single inch of space that we have, but when it comes to very valuable stuff you have, like maybe a fireplace or a television, or I don’t know, let’s say, maybe your kitchen countertop, maybe your hot tub, something like that, you know, your cabinet, just stuff that you care about that would be expensive to repair, take good pictures of those because you’re going to have to show, if those are damaged, that they were perfect before.
It’s something that’s not very obvious until something happens to you, you know. I learned it the hard way, so I hope that people who listen to this learn from my horrible wedding experience.
Jasper: Hosts, I can’t emphasize how important it is to share recommendations of things to do or eat near your listing beforehand. Your guests won’t have to go through TripAdvisor, Foursquare, or Yelp. They won’t have to scratch their head and think about possible places right in the moment. I’ve been using Hostfully to create an online and printable guidebook to show my guests my favorite coffee places in Amsterdam. They use my recommendations, and I’m getting fewer questions from my guests as a result. I’ve also included screenshots of my guidebook on my Airbnb listing as a way to differentiate my listing from others. So, make your own guidebook at hostfully.com/pad.
Brian: I have another story, too, about a cocaine guest. Did I mention that to you?
Jasper: No, but let’s hear it.
Brian: So, maybe three weeks ago, it was pretty recent, it was a group that had positive reviews, or this one guest had positive reviews, who was booking. And, you know, he seemed like a nice guy. He reassured to me in the messages that he read the house rules and that he’ll tidy up before he leaves. And I thought, “Okay, well, this is usually a good sign. He’s being proactive about saying he’s going to follow the rules and be good, and everything.” So, I booked him.
And then, he checks out and it turns out he brought 11 people instead of 7, like he said he was going to. I wouldn’t really make a fuss about that, but he also broke the dishwasher, pretty much destroyed it, and I had to pay hundreds of dollars to repair that. And then, my neighbors found trash all over the ground. (My neighbor’s my cleaner, by the way.) Trash all over the ground, and cocaine on the dresser.
And this was so shortly after the Jose incident that I thought, like, “Wow, I wonder how Airbnb’s going to handle this one now,” because last time, when I told them I was writing that story, they apologized to me, and I kind of felt like they only apologized to me because I was a reporter. And I wanted to see, “So, how are they going to handle it this time?” And this time, I did a very good job in terms of documenting everything, and arguing with the guy, and being very civil in this whole conversation. And I laid out my arguments and all the documentation, and the quotes from the repair people, and I collected every dime that I asked for in that instance.
So, what’s tough is, I can’t tell if Airbnb ruled in my favor because of what happened last time or if I did this better this time in terms of presenting the argument. It’s hard to tell.
Jasper: Well, yeah. Maybe it’s a combination of the two.
But, I think you’re definitely right. I’ve noticed, as well, that when the shit hits the fan, as soon as it gets in the media, that’s when Airbnb actually starts being very proactive about helping, and giving hosts money and stuff.
Jasper: But, as long as nobody knows about it, it seems like they don’t really care that much.
Brian: Yeah, and what’s kind of disturbing to me is, they don’t seem to have a great recourse for illegal activity in the home. So, you know, two times for me, it’s like, okay, there’s cocaine on the dresser and there’s also the wedding, and there’s this complete lack of urgency.
So, the one with the cocaine guest took about a week to resolve the whole dispute, and the wedding one took about two weeks, and it’s kind of disturbing to me because, I mean, it’s not like a level of these people are making a mess or something in my house, but it’s illegal stuff no matter what, and stuff that could get us all in trouble as hosts, so I guess I would expect them to move a bit faster. But, surprisingly, it’s bureaucratic, this dispute resolution process. It’s almost like insurance.
Jasper: Right, yeah, it is.
Brian: You’ve never had any instances in your place, right, because it’s just couples, mostly?
Jasper: Yeah, so that’s why I always find it interesting to listen to stories where things go wrong and the Airbnb resolution process comes into play because I don’t have any experience with it, myself.
Brian: Yeah, you’re lucky.
Jasper: This is a good thing, yeah.
Brian: You know, on the plus side, I feel like, I want to say, maybe only 10% to 15% of guests are bad eggs, and for the most part, it’s pretty easy. Like, most people are reasonable human beings. I think you wrote this in your book, too, that most people are good people, and you should just give people the benefit of the doubt. For me, I do that, too. I just, I’m getting a little bit more hesitant about people who don’t have reviews. I know that everybody deserves a first chance, they have to start somewhere, but I’m not really sure that I’m the person who has to give it to them anymore, just because, you know, some bad eggs just ruined it for me.
But, on the other hand, people with positive reviews are occasionally bad eggs, too, like the cocaine guy. So, at the end of the day, I feel like our filtering process, or our screening process, can only go so far because some people are going to slip through anyway.
Jasper: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, there’s no guarantee. There’s never a guarantee. You can do the due diligence process and, you know, what I do sometimes is, if I don’t feel super-comfortable, I ask some questions about what are people looking to do, and I get an idea, sort of, where they come from and their age, and stuff like that. But, at the end of the day, you never know.
But, they might also be location-dependent, but it’s interesting because I’m in Amsterdam. You know, what do people come to Amsterdam for, right?
Brian: Yeah, right.
Jasper: So, I’m actually kind of a little bit surprised that after hosting, I think, over 350 groups, I’ve yet to receive a single complaint from a neighbor.
Brian: Yeah, but from guests, in terms of people who are kind of assholes, though, right?
Jasper: Only a few times, you know, not too often.
Jasper: Yeah, but there were a few that, I think, were a little bit unreasonable in terms of expectations. You know, for example, there’s my fridge, it has a wire that goes through a socket, which is like three feet from the fridge, and then somebody calls that a ‘dangerous loose wire’, you know, like stuff like that.
Brian: Yeah, yeah. That’s a little bit high maintenance people, yeah. I mean, yeah, I can deal with jerks, you get them every now and then, but when it comes to people breaking the rules and obstructing the neighborhood, that’s when I get a little bit more pissy.
Oh, I had a jerk last week. This guy, his name is Moy or something, and he was an Airbnb host, as well, so I thought, “Okay, this guy has empathy and he has a lot of good reviews, I’m going to book him.” And I booked him, and then he messaged me a few days later and he said he wanted to change the reservation to add an extra day. And I’m like, “Okay, that means more money, I’m happy to do that.”
And so, I sent him a change request, and it’s an extra $500 because he’s adding a Friday, which is like the most expensive day of my week because, you know, the prices change on the weekends, and then he comes back to me and says, “Why on Earth is this an extra $500?” And I said, “Because you’re adding an extra day and it’s Friday, and that’s how much the day costs on my calendar, and it was automatically set by a tool called Beyond Pricing.” And he didn’t take that very well.
And then, he started criticizing other parts of my listing. He said, “Well, your $2,000 security deposit’s a lot. That seems unreasonable.” And he said, “My place was bigger and I had a $500 security deposit.” At this point, I also said, “You already booked the place and you already read about the security deposit. Why are you criticizing it now?” You know, I’m not saying it in this tone or this language to him, but I just said to him, “Look, if you disagree with the security deposit, please cancel the reservation. If you’re unhappy with it, if you’re unhappy with the price of the security deposit, please cancel the reservation.” But, he wouldn’t cancel it.
So, I called Airbnb and said, “Look at this transcript. Like, this guy is being a total jerk. Maybe he’s drunk or something. What do you want to do?” And they said that they would cancel it penalty-free because it seems like neither of us are happy with each other, and they cancelled it. So, you know, fortunately, Airbnb helped out there and it was fine.
Oh, and by the way, so this guy sent me a message a day later, after I cancelled it, saying that he was going to sue me for causing him unnecessary stress. And I just laughed at that because he didn’t lose any money and he lost maybe two minutes of time by having to book another place, you know.
Jasper: Oh my God.
Brian: And I didn’t buy it at all. I was like, “Oh no, this is just some intimidation negotiation, which doesn’t work.” You know? And, by the way, so I have tools to look at people’s records because I’m a journalist, and I was just curious, like who this guy is. I mean, they’re public records, you know. It’s nothing like too sneaky or anything. But, I saw that he had debt collectors come after him multiple times, and he owed. Something like $50,000 was collected from him through the courts. So, that kind of gave me the context of why he was getting so uptight about an extra $500 and my security deposit, and all that stuff. So, that kind of concluded it for me.
Jasper: Right. Yeah, it’s interesting, the type of threats that you get from guests who are angry, sometimes. Like, I had one person who thought that my apartment was completely unreasonable, and he wrote me an email threatening me that if I wasn’t to refund his money, he was going to send Airbnb a letter that they should cancel my listing, which I thought was interesting. I was like, “Okay, I’m a Superhost with God knows how many super-positive reviews, and there’s one guy who says I suck, and Airbnb’s just going to close my listing?” I mean, how realistic is that?
Brian: Good luck, buddy. And, I mean, it just goes to show how different people are, right. You know, like I can’t believe that people can even drive on a highway together. Like, everybody’s so different, and people have different tolerances for different things, and ways that they try to rectify their frustrations, you know. But, because we’re hosting people from all over the world, we’re going to run into some really strange people, or people who are strange to us, at least.
Jasper: Right. But, let’s end this podcast on a positive note, because I also read in the article that, financially, it’s been a big success for you, right. And can you provide some more details about where your cabin is located and what type of property it is?
Brian: Yeah. Yeah, yeah. It’s in South Lake Tahoe in California. And my girlfriend at the time and I bought it, about a year and a half ago. It did have an issue where there was a flooding because of a broken pipe, a frozen pipe even, and we were off the market for maybe five months because of the frozen pipe and the flood, but despite that, we were back on the market, and within seven months, we were able to earn a profit. And by profit, I mean, you know, the mortgage is paid for and we’re making money on top of that.
So, you know, despite having some negative experiences, starting the Airbnb at the house was the correct business investment. And, for the most part, it’s butter. Most people are good people. You just have to pray that you’re not going to get the rotten eggs because your screening process isn’t always going to work. But, that said, you know, like I mentioned earlier, have strict house rules, try to be diligent about screening, as diligent as you can, and document everything because, I mean, that’s what you have to do to protect yourself.
Jasper: Yeah, definitely, those are good lessons. And, just to be clear, when you say that you covered your mortgage, do you mean the monthly payments, or are you saying that you’ve already completely paid off your mortgage?
Brian: Oh, no, no. I meant like my monthly payment. So, you know, for each month, including the five months that we were off-market, we’re making a profit after the mortgage is taken away from the revenue.
Jasper: Right, okay.
Jasper: I was going to say, I mean, if you were able to pay off the entire mortgage, then you did pretty well.
Brian: No, no. That would be amazing. That would be the success story of the century, yeah.
Jasper: Exactly, yeah. Awesome.
Brian: I’ve still got my job.
Jasper: Awesome, man. Well, thanks for taking the time to come to the show. I think there’s definitely some good learning lessons for other people, and hopefully, a lot of listeners, like me, have never experienced anything like this. So, I think it’s definitely really interesting to hear.
Brian: Yeah, I love the show, so I’m really happy to be on here. So, thank you so much.
Jasper: Absolutely. And for the listeners out there, thanks for listening, and of course, next Monday there’ll be another interview, so we’ll see you then.