After court appearances, phone calls, and printer cartidges, the ink is dry on a settlement that has me vacating my apartment in 10 days, all because I turned to Airbnb instead of Craigslist to find roommates--and a chunk of income in the process. Given that Airbnb announced today that it had surpassed 10 million bookings, I'm hardly alone in my thinking. Nevertheless, here's what I learned from being pushed out of my apartment for being an Airbnb host.
Go Big Or Go Home
None of my landlord's complaints had anything to do with how frequently I hosted, or even how much money I was making. Nor did the fact that I lived in the apartment with my guests mitigate his outrage. In fact, his counsel’s biggest point of contention was that I hadn’t sought permission for any of these roommates, something my lease requires me to do.
If you do get permission and plunge in, don’t half-ass it. Like an online dating site, your listing floats to the top of search as you become more active on the site, which in turn boosts your visibility to guests. Bringing in more reservation requests makes it easier to find guests that fit, which is more important than you’d think; I quickly learned, for example, that I couldn’t book couples for weekend stays, because they resented my building’s late-night party noise. (Lone guests stayed out later with friends, or went to join the ruckus.)
Imagine The Misinterpretations
Imagine your landlord or neighbors have no idea what Airbnb does or how it works--then imagine they find your listing. How would it come off? My landlord thought I was running an actual bed-and-breakfast business, and suspected I was making far more money than I actually was. In fact I was using Airbnb to find short-term roommates, in lieu of using Craigslist, where anonymity and bad UI make this a huge hassle. To him, my little scheme looked too much like ... a big scheme. (Check out the sidebar to see my actual profit and loss by the numbers.)
Have An Explanation
My landlord never contacted me before I was served with a restraining order. If he had, I would have explained that an actual “bed and breakfast” serves you food, does your laundry, and cleans your room--all things I didn’t do as a host since I never would have as a roommate. Airbnb gives you payment infrastructure and protection that Craigslist doesn’t, but if you don’t have a succinct way of explaining that to nosy landlords and curious neighbors, then you should. If you’re new at Airbnb, approach the relevant people and explain your rationale before you dive in and become a super-host.
Get To Know Other Hosts
Other tentants in my building were pushed out for Airbnb hosting before I was, but I didn't find out until it was too late. Still, that's the least of the reasons to go to Airbnb meetups; attending them can teach you invaluable lessons about your own hospitality skills. Spitballing about prices, mishaps, and weird guests with other hosts in Greenpoint, I began to get a sense of how my apartment's vibe appeared to strangers, which let me rarify my listing and fix things that came off as unappealing. Since Airbnb properties can be so unique, referrals are vital, and learning where you fit in your niche helps you really harness all that social commerce to get more (and more interesting) guests.
In his legal action, my landlord complained about the sundry "security risks" my guests posed to other tenants. I never learned how my landlord found my Airbnb listing, but the frequency of luggage-wielding European tourists getting lost in the halls was probably a tip-off that something was afoot. If you're worried about attracting heat, pick guests you'd choose as roommates--they won’t seem (or, for that matter, feel) wildly out of place as any old tourist. Because new guests require various levels of ice-breaking and orientation, I eventually sought to book repeat guests who I already knew and liked. Unless you’re in it for the money, think of Airbnb guests as a rotating cast of roommates and less like a series of profitable one-night stands.
Be Careful When You Add Value
I thought I’d earn more business by making my place look as fly as possible, and Airbnb’s pro photographers made sure my listing shone. In retrospect, I probably also succeeded in convincing my landlord he had undervalued my place by a huge margin, which I was now apparently taking. In growing cities like Brooklyn, prudent landlords like to turn over tenants every couple of years so they can raise rent. Making them feel foolish for charging you so little will only add to the incentive.
If Something Happens, Don't Be Scared
Got a litigious landlord and an ironclad lease? Fear not. When you get served, the papers will be legible and the ideas comprehensible. Read what's actually being charged before you respond or take action. My order had language in it that sought to kick out anyone staying with me, effective immediately. The judge had crossed out this section, presumably until he could hear the case, but I had Airbnb’s staff cancel my remaining reservations anyway, thinking somehow it might help. Due to clerical errors, my case wasn’t heard by a judge until 10 days later, meaning I could have kept my promises to several guests (and kept money coming in) until I figured things out.
In the blogosphere, news of my eviction has been greatly exaggerated. My restraining order only sought to force me to stop using the service to rent rooms, so if you’re a host, don’t fret you’ll find an eviction notice on your door tomorrow.
If you’ve never been served with court papers, it’s like stepping into your own real-life rage comic--but remember that you can write the ending if you don’t flip out. “Ya know, Christopher, I read your article,” were the first words from the opposing counsel during my settlement, as he considered outloud suing me for the $20,000 I said I had made. His heart wasn’t in the threat, and it won’t come to that. But flaming his client on the web, yelling at the building staff, or making threats of my own might have furnished him with more zeal. I spent two absurd, boring days in a courtroom while lawyers scrutinized the language of my Airbnb reviews, and I must say: You do not want to get sucked into all that.
The Landlord Keeps His Property, But You Keep Your Friends
If you live in someone else's building, you may win Airbnb battles, but you will never win the war. Even had I dug into legal action, my lease would still expire naturally in August, and my landlord could choose not to renew it. Lots of friends have reached out to say they’re sorry I’m losing the place--but there are a far-flung handful who I never would have met otherwise.
[Image: Flickr user: philcampbell]