(First published in the Manawatu Standard and Nelson Mail, February 21.)
I used Airbnb for the first time during the summer holidays. It wasn’t an experience I’m in any hurry to repeat.
I had booked the house several months in advance. Our son and his family were coming from overseas and we were looking forward to spending some time with them.
The property wasn’t ideal, but accommodation in the area we wanted was already getting tight and I was worried that if we waited for something better to come up, we might miss out altogether.
The house boasted five-star reviews, but no photos of the interior – in hindsight, a warning sign. Instead, the listing emphasised the lovely view (true enough) and the appealing location.
Alarm bells started ringing when the owner told me, after I had booked, that Airbnb had made a mistake with the listing by understating the rental fee.
Call me naive, but I agreed to pay the extra amount she requested. The advertised fee did seem modest compared with other houses we’d seen listed, but it occurred to me that she might have deliberately pitched it low to attract business in the hope she could then talk the renter into paying more.
My suspicions about the owner’s modus operandi were heightened when the time came to pay the extra money and she asked me to transfer the amount to her bank account, rather than pay through the Airbnb site. By doing this, she presumably avoided paying a share of the fee to Airbnb.
She also asked me to label the payment in such a way that it wouldn’t look like income. Why do that unless it was to avoid paying tax?
I should have questioned this dodgy-looking arrangement, but by this time we were in the house and I didn’t want to spoil our holiday, which was brief anyway, by getting into a potentially unpleasant dispute with the owner. In any case, I was philosophical about the sum of money involved. It bought us precious whanau time.
Later, when the owner came up with a far-fetched justification for claiming still more dosh, I politely but firmly declined.
Now, the property. The owner lived there herself and had vacated it for our stay.
We arrived in the early evening – too late to make alternative arrangements when we saw the state the house was in. It was a matter of making the best of a bad job.
The fridge was filthy and half-full of the owner’s own food, much of it looking well past its use-by date. The oven, one element of which had burned out, was in a similarly disgusting state. The first hour of our stay was spent getting the two appliances clean.
The dishwasher, which still had some of the owner’s soiled dishes in it, was even more vile. Its interior was coated with a layer of scum. We bought some dishwasher cleaning fluid the next day and ran a two-hour cleaning cycle.
The cutlery drawer, too, was thick with grime. We removed as much cutlery as we needed, thoroughly cleaned it and kept it separate for the duration of our stay.
There were bins full of rubbish, the bed linen was tired, and when my wife mopped the bathroom floor it turned out to not be the colour we thought it was.
Half the light bulbs in the house didn’t function and the two gas bottles for the barbecue were empty. (After I had confirmed with the owner that there was a barbecue available, my wife asked me whether I’d established that full gas bottles were supplied. “Of course they will be,” said I. “If there’s a barbecue, there’ll be gas bottles.” Ha! More fool me.)
We couldn’t believe anyone could live in such conditions, let alone have the nerve to charge others for the pleasure, but perhaps it just doesn’t occur to some people that their houses are a mess.
I should also mention that there were the owner’s two cats to be fed and a couple of sheep in a neighbouring paddock that needed to be kept supplied with water. We were basically house-sitters, paying to look after the place while the owner enjoyed a holiday. The grandkids did, however, love the sheep – a rare sight where they come from.
The crowning indignity – which now seems almost comical in retrospect – came early one morning when, padding down the darkened hallway in bare feet, I stepped in something slimy and repulsive. Close investigation revealed the disembowelled remains of a small furry animal, obviously brought in by one of the cats, and next to it a pile of cat excrement, which is what I trod in. You've gotta laugh, as they say.
I know from talking to friends who have used Airbnb that our experience was atypical, but I’ll need some persuasion before I risk it again. I pulled no punches in the review I wrote for the Airbnb site and wasn’t surprised to note later that the property was no longer listed.
The remarkable thing is that we managed to have a good time. Some readers will no doubt think we were mugs for putting up with the conditions, but we’re a resilient lot, and our time together was too short to ruin it by being miserable or waging war with the owner.
Oh, and did I mention the cockroaches?