Home >> Travel Troubles >> Mon Dieu! In real life, that cute Airbnb rental is uninhabitable. What now?

Mon Dieu! In real life, that cute Airbnb rental is uninhabitable. What now?

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Michelle Couch-Friedman

Consumer reporter and ombudsman

Airbnb guests Elizabeth Knox and her husband recently discovered bed bugs aren’t the only pests making accommodations uninhabitable in Paris. Soon after arriving at their cute rental in the City of Lights, they found another family already enjoying the apartment.

A family of mice that is – snuggled in a nest behind the refrigerator in the Airbnb. 

Concerned about what the free-range rodents might expose her family to, Knox immediately texted the host for help. Seemingly acknowledging the mouse problem at the apartment, the Airbnb owner quickly offered to cancel and refund her startled guests. 

However, that left the human family no place to stay in an unfamiliar city – and with a significant communication barrier. I say significant not because of the language difference but rather because Knox and her husband are deaf. 

As night fell, multiple Airbnb agents were unable to understand the gravity of the problem. That left Knox and her husband on their own to find last-minute accommodations.

Now, Knox is hoping Consumer Rescue can help. She would like Airbnb to acknowledge it mishandled their situation. She’s also asking Airbnb to cover the additional expenses her family incurred as they scrambled to leave the uninhabitable rental. 

But since the Airbnb host did refund her guests, are they owed anything else? Let’s have a look.

Choosing an Airbnb 

When Knox and her husband began planning their summer vacation in Paris, they were a bit alarmed by reports that city hotels were having a bed bug problem. They hoped to dodge the creepy crawler situation by booking an Airbnb property for their visit. 

The couple chose a small, pleasant looking apartment where they could explore the city with their two young children.

In mid-July the family headed to the airport to begin their much-anticipated trip to France. Landing in Paris after the long overnight flight, the couple grabbed a taxi. They were soon on their  way to the Airbnb that they’d rented for the week.

Knox said her initial impression of the property was positive. It was in a central location and it appeared clean and spacious.

However, that opinion would change after the fatigue of travel wore off and Knox took a closer look around the Airbnb.

Surprise! This Airbnb in Paris comes with a different kind of pest

Knox says a day or two later, she noticed what looked like rat or mouse droppings in the kitchen. 

“I began to investigate and that’s when I found the mouse nest behind the refrigerator,” Knox recalled. “I messaged the Airbnb host immediately and told her my concern.”

The owner assured Knox that she would fix the problem the following day. When Knox asked how, the host said she would deliver mouse traps.

At that point, my husband and I decided we wanted to leave. Mouse traps weren’t going to rid the Airbnb rental of the problem. I was worried the mice could be carrying disease, so I asked the host if she would cancel and refund us. She agreed.

Knox took photos and a video of the evidence that mice lived in the apartment and then contacted Airbnb. 

“We needed assistance finding a replacement rental or hotel,” Knox told me. “I assumed the Airbnb resolution center would be able to help.”

Unfortunately, the couple’s troubling situation was about to get a lot more frustrating.

Why can’t this Airbnb “agent” understand the problem?

Because Knox and her husband are deaf, they were relying on the chat feature provided in the Airbnb resolution center. However, as other Airbnb guests before her have discovered, the “agents” in those chats are often unable to properly understand the conversation. 

Despite Knox telling the “Airbnb Ambassadors” that she was deaf and that her family was currently without a place to stay, various agents offered to have someone call her within 24 hours. 

This is *****, one of the Support Ambassadors from Airbnb. I hope you’re doing fine. I do apologize for the inconvenience this may have caused you and for the delayed response. Your case was just endorsed to my supervision.

I have tried to call you, but you were not available, so please help me out with the right time to call you back so that I can help you in a better way.

Airbnb support Ambassador

Clearly, this “Ambassador” had not read Knox’s previous messages, or he would not have been trying to call Knox.

The paper trail showed responses with unnatural speech patterns that I’ve seen in many cases before. This usually means the Airbnb guest isn’t speaking to a human at all, but to a chatbot.

This suspected chatbot was cheerfully responding in the way it was programmed to do. But the responses weren’t helpful at all for deaf Airbnb customers who were in an unfamiliar city without a place to stay with their children. 

Knox tried again.

I need to make the booking now. We have our two young children and being deaf, I cannot be on the streets in the evening. We need a place without rodents immediately — this has taken up a whole day of a quite limited trip. I trust that Airbnb will make this right.

Many Airbnb rentals can’t be booked for same day check in

The agent then sent a list with three replacement properties and suggested Knox might pick one. But there was a giant problem with this list.

“Two of them weren’t even available for our dates and one was only a studio apartment,” Knox recalled. “All three were outside of our desired location.”

It was then that Knox realized that she was going to need to find their own replacement rental. 

Then another problem hit: Many properties on the Airbnb listing site can’t be booked for same day check in. There must be at least a 24-hour buffer between making a reservation and arrival.

Knox went back to the Airbnb chat while still scrolling through the available listings. 

Will I be able to book a property right now? Can you help me find a property that is available and that we can check into right now? We’ve been trying to work with Airbnb chat all day, and now it’s getting late.

After some time, the Airbnb agent responded by recommending that Knox search on her own and find an “instant booking” rental. He told her he would issue a $100 coupon toward the new property.

Airbnb: We’re so happy we were able to help you

By then, Knox had already found an instant booking – but at a much higher rate than the original Airbnb. However with no other instant options and Airbnb unable to find a comparable and available rental, she booked it. And the family was soon on their way to the new apartment. 

Unbelievably, the Airbnb agent then pats himself on the back for the help he provided.

An email from the Airbnb agent who claims to have resolved the problem for the guest.
The Airbnb agent says he’s pleased to have resolved the problem even though he didn’t.

By the time Knox and her family were settled into the new apartment, it was late in the evening.

“I had wasted an entire day of our vacation in Paris trying to get help from Airbnb,” Knox explained. “To add insult to injury, the agent’s coupon was only good for a future stay –  AND he told me that my refund for the rental with mice would not include the cleaning fee nor the service fee I had paid.”

Yes, that is correct, Airbnb expected Knox to pay the cleaning fee for an apartment it had agreed was uninhabitable because of mice. 

But Knox and her husband were determined to enjoy the rest of their time in Paris. She would deal with Airbnb after they returned home.

Asking Airbnb for an additional refund

When Knox reached out to Consumer Rescue, she had already asked Airbnb multiple times for additional compensation for her fiasco in France. 

The host had agreed to refund her for the unused days of her reservation. But this human family had incurred additional expenses because of the mouse family occupying her Airbnb rental.

Knox also found it particularly offensive that Airbnb would not refund the cleaning fee for the rodent-infested property – especially since she also paid a cleaning fee for the new rental.

In her letter to Airbnb, she detailed the challenges her family had faced in this situation.

Communicating via phone was extremely challenging due to my deafness, and it further exacerbated the difficulty of resolving the issue in a timely manner. As a result, I faced significant obstacles in conveying the urgency of the situation and the impact it had on my family, especially with young children in tow. The delays in communication and resolution left us scrambling to find alternative accommodation at night instead of resolving the matter earlier in the day, as it would have been possible with effective communication.

Knox to Airbnb

Knox ended her email with a request for a $759 cash refund. That figure included the price differential, cleaning fees and an adjustment in Airbnb’s service fees.

However, despite escalating her complaint up the Airbnb executive chain, the company remained firm in its rejection of further compensation.

Airbnb reiterates that its guest is only owed a refund for the unused nights at the rental it deemed uninhabitable.
According to Airbnb’s policy, you already received the maximum eligible refund for the situation you encountered during your stay.”

When Knox tried one more time to convince “Tony” that Airbnb owed her more than a partial refund of the original rental, he simply sent his response to her again. But this time he included the line “This thread will now be closed.”

That’s when Knox turned to Consumer Rescue for help.

Asking Consumer Rescue for assistance

When I read through Knox’s request for help – especially the paper trail with the various Airbnb Ambassadors – I shared her frustration. She had been very hopeful and upbeat at the beginning of that day and with each additional non-helpful response from new agents, her patience dissipated. 

Many of the responses from the agents were completely insensitive given the situation. Each time she reiterated that she was deaf and that the problem was urgent, an Airbnb representative would offer to have someone call her. 

But it was time to put an end to this frustrating experience for Knox. I figured no human (other than myself) had reviewed the nonsensical paper trail. 

I sent Knox’s case over to real people at Airbnb who we know are proven problem solvers for their customers. And soon Knox received the good news that restored her faith in the company she has used so many times successfully in the past. 

The good news from Airbnb: Here’s your refund

It turns out Airbnb agreed that its agents hadn’t properly assisted its customer in this case. When the executive resolution team reviewed Knox’s experience, it approved her request for additional compensation. 

In the end, Airbnb refunded the cleaning fee on the rental it deemed uninhabitable because of the mice. 

Additionally, Airbnb covered the differential between the nightly rate for the original property and the new one and it dramatically reduced its service fee. Finally, the coupon for the future stay was converted to cash for a grand total of $781 returned to Knox.

Hi Michelle,

Airbnb reviewed my case and came to the outcome I would have liked — thank you so much for pushing this along.

Warmly, Elizabeth

Oh, and that apology Elizabeth wanted? She got that, too.

And with that, we can successfully close one more tale from Consumer Advocacy Land.😛

What to do if you find yourself in an uninhabitable Airbnb

Luckily, most Airbnb guests will never find themselves in an uninhabitable property at check-in. Hosts have a vested interest in making sure their guests are happy. 

However, what constitutes an uninhabitable Airbnb can be subjective. So if you check in to a rental property and it isn’t up to your standards, you must follow these steps. Otherwise, you may never get your money back if you preemptively leave (as many Airbnb customers have done before) before the company confirms you can.

  1. Inspect the Airbnb rental: When you first arrive at your Airbnb rental, you’ll likely be tired from traveling, and inspecting the property might be the last thing on your mind to do. However, that is a mistake. It’s crucial that you do a walk-through and take inventory of the condition of the vacation rental. 
  2. Take photos and videos of the Airbnb rental on arrival: Just as we recommend doing when you check out a rental car to avoid being charged for someone else’s damage, you should do the same with your vacation rental. Not only does videotaping your rental unit protect you against false damage charges later, but if there is a problem that is making the property uninhabitable, you will need to upload those photos to Airbnb.
  3. Ask the Airbnb host to address the problem: Airbnb guests must first give the host a chance to correct any problems with the rental. If you simply have a look at the property and leave, you will not receive a refund. You must inform the host in writing of the issue and wait for a response. Warning: Skipping this step virtually eliminates any chance of a refund later.
  4. Reject self-cleaning suggestions: Airbnb guests pay cleaning fees, so under no circumstances should you agree to clean up whatever problem is making the property not habitable. Unfortunately, we’ve seen many times where Airbnb hosts will suggest that the guest do the remediation of the rental (See: Is this the worst Airbnb experience ever?). Should a host ask you to perform the clean-up (Or catch and release mice as one Airbnb host asked my bonus daughter to do.), politely decline and escalate to the Airbnb resolution center. 
  5. Do not cancel the Airbnb reservation: When faced with a property you find unsuitable for living in, the first impulse may be to press the cancel button on the Airbnb site. This is also a mistake that could end up costing you thousands. You must let the Airbnb host cancel if they agree the property is uninhabitable. If you cancel, that completes the transaction in the system, and Airbnb transfers the payment to the host. If the host cancels, that won’t happen. But we know that many hosts, when confronted with a problem with a reservation, will encourage the guest to cancel. Don’t do it.
  6. Get offers in writing: If a host offers you a refund, make sure to get it in writing. A phone call doesn’t memorialize the offer and you’ll be stuck in the end if the host reneges. So always get refund offers in writing through the Airbnb message center in your account.
  7. Contact Airbnb Resolution center: If you’ve tried your best and the owner is unwilling to provide a positive outcome, you can make a formal complaint via the resolution center. Airbnb Cover details your protection as a guest – as long as you’ve conducted your business (including payment) through the Airbnb system. This is when you’ll upload your photos and any correspondence with the owner.

At that point, Airbnb will tell you whether their resolution team agrees that the property is uninhabitable. If so, you’ll receive either a refund to find alternative accommodations or Airbnb will help you find a similar place to stay. 

What is the Airbnb definition of an uninhabitable rental?

Here’s where things can get tricky. As I mentioned, the term “uninhabitable” is subjective. 

Based on our case files, this fact is clear. In fact, one Airbnb host believed that the absence of a working toilet didn’t make the rental uninhabitable. Other Airbnb guests have tolerated really inhumane conditions before making a complaint (See: Is this the worst Airbnb experience ever?). 

At the same time, some Airbnb guests have rejected properties because of minor issues that a host could quickly correct.

But the bottom line is that when you’re hoping to be able to leave your vacation rental and get a refund, Airbnb’s definition of what is uninhabitable is what counts. 

In Airbnb’s official “Rebooking and Refund policy,” the company considers a rental “not habitable” under the following conditions:

  • It is not “reasonably” sanitary and clean.
  • There is a health or safety hazard present.
  • It contains “pests.”

This somewhat vague policy often leads to problems when an Airbnb guest’s definition of a pest, health/safety hazard, or reasonable cleanliness differs from the host’s.

I’ve seen unreasonable claims on both sides of the Airbnb guest/host equation.

So what can you do if Airbnb refuses your refund request?

If you’re sure that Airbnb owes you a refund and you’re unable to get it, Consumer Rescue is here to help. We can do this in one of two ways. First, if you just need to reach a real person at Airbnb, you can send your request to Consumer Rescue’s Research Valet, Meera Sundram. For many years, she’s been compiling a customer service database that includes consumer-facing executives who we know can help you. 

But if you’ve already escalated your complaint and need direct assistance, send your request for help to our advocacy team. We provide fast, free and friendly mediation for anyone who needs rescuing from a consumer problem. (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.