A short-term rental host’s worst fears are that guests will rob them blind, trash their home or turn it into a party pad, or even refuse to leave. I’ll be frank: Those kinds of nightmare guests do exist. But fortunately, they’re rare, and good communication and screening can go a long way towards avoiding them.
But there are other kinds of terrible short-term rental guests. They’re the people who drive you crazy by complaining about everything, from the quality of the towels to the hum of the air conditioner.
Nothing you say or do seems to matter: they call or text constantly, often several times a day (or night), always with a new complaint. They move all your furniture around and don’t think to move it back. They can’t get the heater or the TV or the washer to work even though you’ve left step-by-step instructions. They leave windows open even when it rains.
My friend Andrea had one of those terrible guests last year. She used Airbnb to rent her Brooklyn apartment to a woman who found fault with everything…and then threatened to sue. Here’s what she had to say and what she might have done about her terrible guests.
Andrea’s story: “A very nice woman”
I knew very little about these guests ahead of time. In fact, I had a misconception about who they were. The initial inquiry asked if the apartment was appropriate for a mother and daughter. From her email, I got the impression of a pleasant, friendly person, a very nice woman who assured me that “we will treat your home as our own.”
Her photo made her look like a young mother, so I responded with lists of playgrounds and children’s activities nearby. She never corrected me, and when I accepted the booking, I thought I was renting to a woman and her young child. It wasn’t until later that I found out the daughter was a young woman who had just graduated from high school and the photo on Airbnb was hers.
First sign of trouble
The booking was for one month, while I was away on a meditation retreat. A day or two after they arrived, they sent a text: There were ants in the apartment. I apologized and offered an exterminator but they did not want one.
Things went downhill from there.
It wasn’t long before the mother started texting me obsessively about everything that was—or she imagined was—wrong: the air conditioner was spewing black mold (that had never happened to me), my pillows were disgusting and stained with drool (they weren’t new, but they certainly were not stained).
Her texts became more and more irrational, even threatening. She said I was ruining their lives. I offered to refund what they’d paid if they wanted to leave early but they refused.
Threats and personal attacks
Then they—the mother, I think—started sending me hateful e-mails. She threatened to sue, ridiculing my profile and more. The attacks became very personal. They kept saying they were leaving, then accused me of making them “homeless.”
These terrible guests finally left two and a half weeks into their stay, after I agreed to refund their money and pay the equivalent of another week’s rent. I had to pay extra beyond the Airbnb agreement just to get them to go.
But the hellish behavior didn’t stop after they left. The mother cyberstalked me. She somehow tracked me down on Facebook messenger, where she insulted me and threatened to get me fired from my teaching job. She left a horrible review, which Airbnb refused to take down despite huge amounts of evidence that she had malicious intent.
A learning experience
Having terrible short-term rental guests was a horrible experience. But I learned a lot about what and what not to do if I ever decided to be a short-term rental host again. I would certainly ask more questions and be much more cautious about accepting guests. My home needs to be a safe sanctuary for me. I love it and was excited to share it with others. But those guests left me feeling as if my personal space had been desecrated.
What Andrea could have done about her terrible short-term rental guests
The best way to deal with these kinds of guests is not to accept them in the first place. But that’s not always easy to do. Andrea says that her email and text interactions with the guests before they arrived were pleasant and friendly. Looking back, she can’t think of any clues she might have missed that they might be trouble.
But…and this is a big BUT… Andrea had communicated with the guests only through Airbnb’s email and texting system. Like VRBO and many other listing sites, Airbnb blocks direct pre-booking communication and encourages hosts and guests to communicate only through the site even after guests arrive.
Communicate directly with guests
There was something missing from Andrea’s interactions with these guests: direct communication. Talking with the guests well before handing over the key to her beloved apartment might have alerted her to signs of possible trouble.
Why talk directly? It’s very different asking questions on the phone than via email or text. You can learn a lot from someone’s tone of voice, the pauses in their conversation, the questions they ask, and the way they answer—or don’t answer—your questions.
If you’re using Airbnb, VRBO, or another site that won’t release phone numbers before guests book, you can always set up a phone conversation right afterwards. Most guests are happy for the chance to talk. If they refuse, or something else doesn’t feel right, you can cancel the booking before they move into your home and start driving you crazy.
Do some screening
If there were any reviews of the guests on Airbnb, Andrea might have spotted clues that they were going to be difficult. She could also have done a little research on her own. Screening helps hosts like Andrea find out something about the people they plan to welcome into their home. Is the guest on Facebook? Twitter? Instagram? LinkedIn? Does what you find confirm what the guests have told you about themselves, or do you come across contradictory information?
Ask for references
You might not bother asking guests for references when they plan to stay only a few days. But getting references is a good idea for a longer rental like Andrea’s.
The best sources of information about people are the people who know them. Andrea could have asked for the names and phone numbers of former short-term rental hosts, a landlord, and/or people who know the guest well.
Make sure guests know what to expect
I’ve stayed in short-term rentals that bore only a faint resemblance to the description on the listing site and left out important details. The “large, comfortable bed” that was only a double and hard as a rock. The fully equipped kitchen that had 1 pan, 1 pot, 2 sets of chipped dishes, and some bent forks and knives. I wouldn’t have minded so much if I’d known ahead of time what the place was really like.
Make sure your home listing is accurate and up to date. But remember that not everyone reads descriptions carefully.
Head off complaints by telling your guests what to expect in your home: What’s the bed really like? Does the shower head dribble instead of spray? Are the stairs unusually steep? Is there no dishwasher, or is the washing machine out of order?
It’s better to lose a booking than to end up with a disgruntled guest who won’t leave you alone and leaves you a scathing review.
Check in with guests after they arrive
Instead of waiting for guests to come to you with their complaints, give them a call or send an email or text shortly after they’ve arrived at your home. Asking whether everything seems okay and giving them a chance to ask questions can sometimes head off a series of complaints over the course of their stay.
Address complaints right away
The luxury department store chain Nordstrom started life as a shoe store in Seattle. How did it grow to more than 379 retail stores in the U.S. and Canada? By giving customers excellent service. No matter how minor a customer’s complaint, Nordstrom staff are trained to take it seriously, listen to the customer, and resolve the complaint to the customer’s satisfaction.
Great short-term rental hosts also give their guests great customer service. Not only are they available to answer questions, they take every complaint seriously, no matter how minor it seems.
That doesn’t mean you have to resolve every issue to the guest’s satisfaction. That might be impossible, especially if you get a terrible guest like Andrea’s. But most of the time, the guest will feel better about the situation simply by knowing that you’ve heard their concern.
If guests are truly unhappy, apologize and offer them their money back
Andrea’s guests were beyond terrible and refused to be satisfied, no matter what she did. But hers was an extreme case. Most unhappy guests will accept your apology and an offer to refund their payments “so they can move to a more satisfactory place.” They might still feel disgruntled, but at least you’ll have them out of your home, and they will be less likely to write a scathing review.
Make the time to do your due diligence
I know what you’re thinking: I don’t really have time to do all that. But do you have time to deal with guests who constantly complain, or worse? Andrea’s terrible guests turned what should have been a peaceful, relaxing month into an ongoing hassle. With the benefit of hindsight, she wished she had found the time to try and spot possible problems before her terrible guests arrived.
Learn from the experience
“I learned a lot,” Andrea said. It’s the every-cloud-has-a-silver-lining story. None of us wants a terrible guest. But think about what you can take away from the experience. Maybe your home does need some repairs and upgrades. Maybe, like Andrea, you need to be more cautious about the guests you accept and communicate with them more clearly.
You’ll be glad you did.
Have you ever had a terrible short-term rental guest? Can you think of ways you might have spotted trouble before the guest arrived? Please share your thoughts with us in the Comments or on our Facebook page.