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Is this legal? Here is the most excessive Airbnb cleaning fee ever!

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Michelle Couch-Friedman

Consumer reporter and ombudsman

James Parker just got hit with the most excessive cleaning fee I’ve ever seen as a consumer advocate. Soon after checking out of his recent Airbnb rental, the owner sent him a $1,470 bill to clean up the mess she says his family made.

But what mess was she really cleaning up?

His experience is one that should serve as a warning to anyone considering a vacation rental. Not all Airbnb hosts are created equal. And some might even try to find questionable ways to extract extra fees from their guests after the stay is over. So it’s important to leave that rental in precisely the same condition you found it. Otherwise, you might just be leaving the door ajar to this type of outrageous cash grab.

An Airbnb host adds a $1,470 excessive cleaning fee

James and his family rented the Airbnb property outside of Washington D.C. for one week in preparation for relocation to India. From the start, the home had problems. First, the dishwasher and the microwave didn’t work. But these were just minor inconveniences to the family.

However, the most significant problem came several days into their stay. The sump pump malfunctioned and flooded the basement of the property. The house was then filled with repairmen and a clean-up crew for most of the rest of their time there.

“The owner came to the home after the basement flooded,” James recalled. “She repeatedly told us she was sorry that her basement flooded. She also apologized that the dishwasher and microwave didn’t work.”

Focused on their upcoming move in just days, the family was unfazed by all the disturbances.

“We could tell she was stressed out, and we reassured her repeatedly that it was okay,” James explained. The family completed their stay as planned and headed to the airport for their relocation across the world.

And then came the $1,470 blindside from the Airbnb host – a so-called excessive cleaning fee.

“A little while after we left, the owner requested that we pay her $1,470 for having excessive trash in the house,” James reported. “She also wanted to clean the upholstery because of cat dander and foodstuff damages.”

After spending a week being inconvenienced by all the problems with her home, this owner’s request shocked James.

“We did not have a cat at the house, and do not believe there was any damage to the upholstery,” James lamented.

Messy Airbnb guests or an unreasonable owner?

James asked the owner to provide a rationale for the $1,470 excessive cleaning fee. She responded with some photos of unopened cat food cans as proof of a feline in the home. She also sent a picture of some rolls of toilet paper in a package. The owner had no photos of the cat dander or the garbage that she claimed to have found.

This request infuriated James and his wife. Even with two young children, they say no one would consider them messy Airbnb guests. They tidied the home up before they left and put the garbage out. Since the owner already had taken a $50 cleaning fee, James believed that should have covered normal cleanup after a guest leaves.

He explained that the cat food was for their cat, which would be joining the family on the flight to India. She had been staying in their vacant home across town the entire week. At no time did the cat enter the vacation rental.

Still, trying to be reasonable and hoping to avoid further problems, James answered the request with a counteroffer of $80. And to his utter surprise, he immediately received confirmation that Airbnb charged his credit card the full $1,470 for the excessive cleaning fee.

The Airbnb resolution center

Bewildered, James then called Airbnb to report this fiasco. He assumed that the company would quickly put the kibosh on this owner’s attempts at squeezing $1,470 from his family.

The representative instructed him to file a complaint in the Airbnb resolution center.

If you use Airbnb, it’s critical to familiarize yourself with the Airbnb resolution center. The resolution center is the place where you must file all of your Airbnb rental complaints. It’s also a great way to develop a paper trail detailing your problem and your efforts to resolve it. Should you ever need to ask our advocacy team for help, that paper trail is the first thing we will request from you.

Unfortunately, we often receive pleas for help from Airbnb users who want us to advocate a case, but who have neglected to use the resolution center. That’s a big mistake since part of the terms, and conditions of Airbnb require its users to first try to resolve cases this way. And if you don’t have a paper trail, it’s impossible for our team to see an overview of the situation. The Airbnb resolution center displays all three sides of every case: Airbnb, the owner, and the guest.

Luckily, James had used the resolution center, so the evolution of his battle with this host was clear.

Following our self-advocacy guidance James first tried to resolve the problem on his own. That is to say, he was polite and kept his emails calm and factual.

But this Airbnb host dug in her heels and stopped responding to him.

Asking Airbnb for a detailed invoice for the excessive cleaning charges

James and his family flew to India with this problem weighing heavily on their minds and still unresolved. Once settled in, he escalated the complaint to a variety of Airbnb representatives. He requested a detailed invoice for the excessive cleaning charges.

“We aren’t messy Airbnb guests. Any mess we left is nothing more than would have been left by anyone with children who stayed in a hotel,” James pointed out. “That does NOT warrant a $1,400 excessive cleaning fee.”

The family began to suspect that the owner was using this as an opportunity to clean up the basement and other problems in the home. Finally, after a month of battling for a fair resolution, an Airbnb representative gave James an answer.

In regard to the payment we have spoken with the host about refunding the excessive cleaning fee. She did inform us that she wants to have the cleaning service done first and the money not used she will send back to you. I have spoken to a few people in my department to see if we will be able to cover the cost; however, I was not able to get the approval. I do want to greatly apologize.


Yes, you read that correctly. The paper trail shows that one month after the owner had extracted $1,470 from James for an excessive cleaning fee, she had not yet cleaned the home. And she had no estimate to show anyone either.

This Airbnb representative’s highly consumer-unfriendly resolution was of no help to the family. The likelihood that this owner would ever voluntarily return any of that money was apparent.

Frustrated but not defeated

Frustrated and almost defeated, James wrote a final email to the Airbnb representative:

Now, you write that she is going to have a cleaning company come out to clean the house one month after we stayed there. How can we be responsible for whatever mess is in the home one month after we stayed there? We are clearly being taken advantage of and are at a loss to work on resolving it due to the fact that we are living in India. I’m so disappointed Airbnb is set up to give a renter the ability to abuse her power like this.

James to Airbnb

Case closed? Not so fast.

James’s next stop: our advocacy team.

Asking our advocacy team to clean up this Airbnb mess

Of course, as a consumer advocate, I’m determined to resolve all the cases that I take. In many of these situations, though, it’s easy to see a little of both sides of the story. Often, neither side is 100 percent wrong or 100 percent right. 

But then a case like this comes along. And it highlights why our consumer advocacy team is necessary.

James’s plight made me angry. This young family didn’t need this additional stress in the middle of an international move.

That “host” provided zero evidence to Airbnb or to James as to why she took a $1,470 excessive cleaning fee from this family. And then to make matters worse, instead of looking at the facts and reversing this charge, Airbnb allowed her to decide if she should return it.

The failure in the logic was glaring.

I looked at the few photos that the owner had sent in a feeble attempt to justify her cash grab. The resolution was poor, but in no way did they illustrate or justify a $1,470 excessive cleaning fee.

And as I read through the entire paper trail, I couldn’t help but see the similarities of James’s experience to the many cases we’ve had of travelers being hit with wild and surprising fees after vacation rental stays and visits to franchised hotels recently.  

These stories are all cautionary tales — when your credit card is provided to strangers of undetermined moral character the results can be disturbing.

Airbnb removes the excessive cleaning fee

Knowing that the executive Airbnb resolution team is skilled at fixing things that go wrong in its customer service department, I sent the case over for a review.

And suddenly that questionable $1,470 excessive cleaning fee vanished. James received an apology from a senior Airbnb representative and confirmation of the return of the entire amount.

Upon reviewing your correspondence with the host via our Resolution Center, I can confirm that you wished to place a counteroffer for the amount of $80 USD in response to her request for the amount of $1,470 USD for extra cleaning fees.

I am terribly sorry to see that the full amount was charged by our system. I sincerely apologize for the inconveniences posited by this action as well. Please rest assured that our Resolution Center allows both hosts and guests to offer counter offers—if they cannot reach an agreement, they can ask Airbnb to mediate at any time. Though we do not know what led to this system mishap at this time, I want to kindly thank you for bringing this to our attention, as my Team and I will be taking a look into these matters promptly.

This being said, please note that Airbnb has personally issued a refund for the entire excessive cleaning fee the host charged.

Airbnb executive resolution team

James is pleased to have this ordeal over. But unfortunately, it’s another one for our file of outrageous tales of credit card misuse by a host, management company, or hotel after checkout.

Stay tuned — unfortunately, I’m sure there are more on the way.

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Michelle Couch-Friedman

Michelle Couch-Friedman is the founder and CEO of Consumer Rescue. She is a consumer advocate, ombudsman columnist, mediator, writer, and licensed psychotherapist. Michelle is a public speaker, and her expert guidance has been cited in MarketWatch, Consumer Reports, Travel & Leisure, The Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, Popular Science, CNN, CNBC, Boston Globe, CBS News, National Geographic, Travel Weekly, Reader's Digest and more. You might even catch Michelle on TV reporting on a situation. :) Michelle is also the travel ombudsman columnist for The Points Guy and is the former executive director of the nonprofit Elliott Advocacy. During her six years in that position, she resolved thousands of cases for troubled travelers and other consumers. You can read hundreds of 5-star reviews Michelle earned during her service to the nonprofit since 2016 here on Great Nonprofits. She is also a member of the Society of American Travel Writers. Today, she continues to spend as much time as possible fiercely defending consumers and traveling the world with her family. Contact her at Michelle Couch-Friedman or on Linkedin, Twitter or Facebook.