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A filthy vacation rental is not my thing! How do I get a refund?

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Michelle Couch-Friedman

Consumer reporter and ombudsman

When an Airbnb host directs Andrea Walker to use the service elevator in the building where she is renting an apartment, she’s slightly suspicious. However, when she opens the door to the unit, she knows she definitely won’t be staying. The Airbnb host apologizes for the state of the filthy vacation rental and quickly agrees to a refund. 

So why does the host later tell Airbnb that Walker spent the whole weekend at the dirty property? 


We rented a place on Airbnb. I had trouble reaching the host when it was time to check-in. Finally, I got hold of him, and he asked us to bypass the front desk and access the apartment through a back service elevator.

The vacation rental was filthy and had a broken bed. I spoke to the Airbnb host on the phone while we were still in the apartment. He told me that he would give me a full refund. I had my two girls with me, and we ended up at a local hotel. That place cost me $700.

When we got home, I contacted the host, and he claimed we stayed there and that he never spoke to me. This voice sounded different but at the same phone number. I think there may be an issue with co-owners.

I contacted Airbnb, and the “case” went on for weeks. Airbnb supported the host despite evidence that I was telling the truth. I found other reviews about this same host. These reviews support what I’ve been telling Airbnb.

In total, I’m out nearly $1,100. Airbnb then closed my case without contacting me. The Airbnb representatives claim they issued me a refund. They did not. Now, Airbnb won’t return my phone calls.

I want the Airbnb host to give me a full refund for this filthy vacation rental (about $460). And now I would also like compensation for the hotel room I had to pay for on a busy holiday weekend (almost $700). Initially, I was not asking Airbnb for all of this. However, I have changed my mind. I would appreciate a full refund for my time and trouble. Do you think you can help? Andrea Walker Hemet, Calif.


If you didn’t stay in the vacation rental and the owner promised you a refund, then he should uphold this agreement. But he didn’t send you a refund. Then to add insult to injury, Airbnb sided with him concerning your “stay.”

We’ll get to why Airbnb initially rejected your claim in a moment.

Fun times: sneaking into a filthy Airbnb vacation rental

Of course, an Airbnb host should never ask you to enter a property through the service elevator. That request was your first warning that you might not be in for the luxurious “LA penthouse” girls’ getaway experience that you expected.

But yours is not the first complaint that we’ve received in which an Airbnb host asked a guest to sneak into a rental.

Alex Tarce was left out on the street in Tokyo after he refused his Airbnb host’s request to circumvent the security desk in the building of his rental. And in another case, an Airbnb guest was asked to pretend to be the host’s family member to access the property.

Both of these requests were outrageous, and both cases ended on a happy note after I contacted Airbnb on their behalf. I was hoping for the same for you.

Your description of this filthy Airbnb sounded truly abysmal. With overflowing garbage cans, a broken bed with questionable linens, and an overall unclean state, you just wanted to hit the eject button. I don’t blame you.  No one wants to stay in someone else’s filth. Although, just FYI, we’ve seen Airbnb guests endure much, much worse. Regular readers will recall the case of Lee Smith, who had, hands down, the most terrible Airbnb experience of all time when she found herself sharing space with a sickly, dirty drunk.

But I digress. Let’s get back to your case.

There were several problems with your complaint.

You made the Airbnb rookie mistake of leaving the location and securing a new accommodation without giving the company a chance to resolve the problem. You also forgot to take any photos of the condition of the dirty unit.

By doing all this, you opened the door for this host to keep your money by claiming you had stayed. After all, it’s his word against yours as to whether you completed your weekend at the unit. And he told Airbnb that you did stay in the rental.

The importance of involving Airbnb

The Airbnb website provides a perfect system to create the paper trail that you needed to vindicate yourself and get your money back.

Unfortunately, you didn’t use it.

If you check into an Airbnb and find it unacceptable, you must let Airbnb know within 24 hours. You also must allow Airbnb an opportunity to find you alternative accommodations. This is outlined in Airbnb’s terms of use.

Contact us within 24 hours of check-in to document the issue and place a hold on the host’s payment. Include photographs or other evidence of the issue as part of your claim.

If you want your money back, it’s critical to document the problems. If your complaint is that the vacation rental is filthy, you need to have photos to show Airbnb that prove it. You can upload the photos directly within your account in the Airbnb Resolution Center.

It’s not unusual for our advocacy team to hear from Airbnb novices who have not familiarized themselves with the resolution process. They end up in the situation that you found yourself in — no proof, so no refund and no resolution.

But you aren’t an Airbnb novice… are you?

Not just an Airbnb guest — you’re an Airbnb host

What is unusual about your circumstance is that you aren’t just an Airbnb guest; you’re also a host. So when I read your paper trail, I was puzzled that you were not aware of how to document and officially request a refund for an unacceptable Airbnb.

Your first written request for help through the resolution center occurred after the weekend in question.

It would appear that this misstep is what caused Airbnb to initially side with this host. You had no proof that you didn’t stay there, and this host maintained that you did. By the time you reached our team, you were well aware of this mistake:

I know, I should have known better. I just never had any problems while hosting; anything that came up on my end I dealt with fairly and compensated people. Any time I dealt with Airbnb, it seemed fair to both my guests and me. Neither side was left disgruntled. Believe me, I have learned this lesson. I was naive, but I’m not a liar. And what little evidence I have proves that. Airbnb just didn’t want to deal with it.

You forcefully defended yourself with Airbnb. By providing receipts that showed that you stayed at a neighborhood hotel during that weekend, you hoped Airbnb would believe your side of this story. And you sent the link to your host’s negative reviews.

Eventually, it appeared that Airbnb agreed with you. Over the phone, a representative told you that Airbnb would refund your stay.

Will this Airbnb fiasco ever be over?

Then you waited for this refund to appear, but it never did. And Airbnb refused to discuss the case any further with you. The company sent you a final message concerning your complaints about the filthy Airbnb rental.

We have already consulted our other case managers, but we will really not be able to provide the full refund and hotel reimbursement. I am really sorry about that.

Airbnb resolution team

Stunned by the last message, you contacted our advocacy team. I reached out to the executive contact at Airbnb to see if he could unravel this mystery refund and stay.

After reviewing your case one more time, Airbnb agreed to refund your “stay” at this filthy property. Additionally, the Airbnb executive team granted your request for reimbursement for the unexpected hotel stay. And although you really wanted us to share the listing here so that this host and his “LA Penthouse” won’t blindside any other unsuspecting travelers, we can’t because Airbnb removed the listing.

You are pleased to be fully vindicated now. Airbnb has sent the refund and your reimbursement. And you have assured me that in the future, should you find a need as an host or guest, you will follow the steps in the Airbnb help center to a T.

What to do if you find yourself in a filthy Airbnb vacation rental

No one wants to stay in a filthy Airbnb, but if you find yourself in one, you must take specific steps if you hope to qualify for a refund. Here’s what you need to do if you show up and your vacation rental is uninhabitable.

  • Alert the owner/host:
    During the pandemic, we saw an increase in traveler complaints about unclean hotels and vacation rentals. Whether this was due to the reduction in employees available or consumers being more aware and sensitive to the cleanliness of a property, it’s imperative that travelers alert the host of any issues at check-in. This protocol is a required step in the Airbnb resolution process. Airbnb allows the host a reasonable time to correct the problem before it is considered an unsolvable issue.
  • Take photos/videos:
    If you find your next vacation rental in a filthy state, make sure to take photos and document the property’s condition. If the host does nothing to swiftly correct the problem, you will need those photos to support your request for a refund. Remember, if you have no photographic evidence, Airbnb will side with the host, who likely has provided many sparkly photos of the property.
  • Use the Airbnb resolution center to escalate your complaint:
    If the host is unresponsive to your request, your next step is to sign in to your Airbnb account and file a complaint. An agent will ask you to upload your photographic evidence and your correspondence with the host. At that time, the Airbnb agent may approve your move to a new location.
  • Confirm what Airbnb will cover if you reject the property:
    If Airbnb agrees that the conditions at the property make it unacceptable, you’ll be offered a refund, OR the agent may attempt to rehouse you. If you accept the new accommodation, you may end up at an upgraded property. Review the offers very carefully before you commit to the new location. If you decide to go on your own, confirm with Airbnb what replacement costs will be covered.
  • Keep it reasonable:
    It’s essential to keep your new accommodation in line with the cost of your original Airbnb selection. If you’ve always wanted to stay at the Four Seasons — now isn’t the time to do it if you’re hoping for reimbursement from Airbnb. That won’t happen. Make sure to keep the cost of your new hotel or rental reasonable. 🙂  (Michelle Couch-Friedman, Consumer Rescue) 
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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.