The One Question You Should Ask Before Booking an Airbnb

Airbnb is a great service, but all sorts of things can go wrong if you don’t know the exact situation you’re getting yourself into. This one simple question can help mitigate potential problems.

The Question: Are you renting me an apartment you own, and if not has your landlord explicitly allowed you to sublet through Airbnb?

While Airbnb offers lots of great places to stay, sometimes the people looking to make an extra buck off their apartment aren’t legally allowed to do so.  One of my neighbors appears to be doing this and I recently stayed in a place in San Francisco where I forgot to ask and ended up staying somewhere I technically wasn’t allowed—at least according to the friend of the guy renting the place to me.  This kind of illegal (or at least somewhat unethical) behavior doesn’t always result in dire consequences, but it can.

In San Francisco I had a car and cellphone service so if an issue had occurred it would’ve been easy to deal with.  I had neither of these things when I was staying in Montreal a few years back.  After a couple of days I was forced to leave the place I rented because the landlord found out.  She flew into town with her mother (they were in another country at the time) just to evict the tenant who rented to me.  Naturally, she wanted me to leave but gave me adequate time to make new arrangements.  I was fortunately able to pick up some Wi-Fi and contact Airbnb via Skype.  It took a couple of hours, but they refunded the days I couldn’t stay and got me into a new place as quickly as possible.  I think I should’ve been fully refunded or gotten the entire trip for free, but instead they put me in a more expensive place without air conditioning (in a very hot summer) that cost more money.  They didn’t cover the difference.

Worse things have happened—in general and to me, personally.  That said, it’s a scary situation when you have no ability to contact anyone and you suddenly find out you’re homeless.  While Airbnb resolved that immediate issue, that’s pretty much all they did.  Save yourself the headache of dealing with them and ending up temporarily homeless by asking the person renting to you if they own the place or at least have the right to sublet in this capacity.  You can’t be sure they’ll answer honestly, but you’ll increase your odds of a safe trip.

For more about this experience and other tips on avoiding Airbnb problems, check out this post I did for Lifehacker right after this situation occurred.