I have talked a lot about using AirBNB of late on my blog and a few of my friends had some questions about the whole experience and I have managed to compile their questions into a Q&A session. Joining me to deal with these questions are Henry and Carla – Henry is a frequent user of AirBNB whilst Carla is an AirBNB host who often uses it as well when she travels. You can click here to redeem your S$32 voucher now if you are in a hurry! Oh and in case you’re wondering, I’m Alex.
Q: Isn’t it kinda strange to go stay in someone’s house? Wouldn’t you feel like you’re just getting in the way of their daily routine and family life? I would feel like I am intruding into someone’s private space.
Henry: It’s a service you are paying for. These people are opening up their private homes to you at a price and they are willing to sacrifice that little bit of privacy to earn your money. Clearly, you are only going to venture into the communal areas if the house – the toilet, the living room, the kitchen and dining area. You don’t go into their bedrooms for example and if there is an area that is off limits, they will tell you so.
Carla: I’m quite used to it – I grew up in a big family where we always had friends and family staying in the spare room. It’s not just my aunts and uncles who visited often, they’ll be work mates of my parents and we always played host to somebody at some point in time. During Christmas time, we would have guests sleeping on the living room sofa and I’d be sharing my bed with some cousin. I think if you are quite used to that kind of lifestyle, then it’s not a such big deal to welcome someone into your house. They understand that there are house rules, you abide by the rules that the host dictates and if they break anything, well then that’s where the deposit comes in useful. The whole AirBNB set up covers it very well and everyone who participates in the process understands how it works.
Alex: I always try to be a polite and considerate guest when I am staying with someone. So if they are working, I don’t talk to them. If they are relaxed and in the mood for a conversation, then I can be friendly. I don’t leave the kitchen or the bathroom in a mess, if I use the kitchen to cook a meal then I will wash up and do the dishes. If I am still up late at night, I would tiptoe around, just to make sure I don’t wake anyone up – I am on my best behaviour.
Q: How do I know what I am paying for? I have had a look at the AirBNB websites and the prices vary. How do I tell the difference between, say a room that is priced at £55 and one that is priced at £85?
Henry: Location, location, location. Those rooms in the middle of town command a much higher price than those which are out in the suburbs. In fact, you can probably get a much nicer room for a lower price if you’re willing to spend an hour commuting into town in the morning – the fact is most tourists want to be very close to all the sights in the centre of town so the demand for the rooms which are centrally located is much higher. That allows the hosts to put a premium price on them.
Carla: Some people are offering a smaller room, others are offering a much larger one – sometimes you can even get a whole flat or a studio; sometimes you get your own bathroom, sometimes you don’t – so read the description carefully to see what you are getting for your money. If you price your room unreasonably, then customers will be unlikely to choose you. But if you find something that ‘s a lot cheaper than everything else, then you’ll be left wondering if there’s something wrong with that room – why is it so cheap? Fortunately, that’s what the reviews are for.
Alex: When you open the map for any city on AirBNB you can click on each room and see the price, that gives the hosts a pretty good idea as to how to price their rooms. So you can compare the different prices of the different rooms in the neighbourhood and see what the market price is – many people will also be comparing this with what you can get for a hotel in the area and those prices are more or less fixed as well. So market forces will ultimately determine the prices, if the host charges a price too high, then s/he will not get any business. Charge too low, and s/he may not make a decent profit.
Q: Do you spend much time with the host or are they pretty much invisible?
Henry: That really depends. I have had wonderful hosts who spend time having meals with me, showing me around the city and then I have had busy hosts who are working long hours – it’s not like they are unfriendly, but they are so busy and I don’t want to get in their way, so we barely talk. Either way, I understand that these people have their own lives and if they have the time to chat, that’s great – otherwise, I am pretty happy to leave them alone and it’s just a place to stay.
Carla: I can tell within like the first ten minutes whether or not I am going to become social with my guests – sometimes you just click with people, other times you don’t. It’s just social chemistry you know, if I think okay, there’s a cultural barrier or a language barrier, then I simply play the formal role of a host and do not try too much to be a friend. But if I feel there’s some kind of connection, then why not? I love making new friends, but I accept that there are some people you are going to click with a lot more easily than others. Some people are also naturally more friendly and wanna talk whilst others are more reserved – I let them take the lead. If they wanna be sociable and friendly, then that’s fine, if not I still make sure I do everything I can to make sure they have a good experience.
Q: Did you ever arrive somewhere and then think, oh dear, this is horrible, what was I thinking?
Henry: Not really. On AirBNB there are photos and reviews and I do make sure I read them carefully before booking anything and none of the hosts want to get a bad review from you, because that is very bad for business. So if there’s any problem, we do not wait till we leave and then leave a bad review – no, we would raise it with the host there and then and usually it would be resolved.
Carla: I think anyone who participates in the AirBNB experience realize that they are not going to a hotel – that it is very different from staying at a hotel. My point is that you get what you pay for – yes there are a range of prices within any city but often the more expensive options are always the nicer ones, so if you are after something a bit nicer, then be prepared to pay for it. If you choose the cheapest option, then make sure you read the listing carefully and know exactly what you’re paying for.
Alex: All my experiences so far have been pretty good actually. I have only had bad experiences with hotels!
Henry: Not really. I only speak English and a bit of French and Spanish, but I have managed to get by – mostly because the hosts I have been with have all spoken very good English! You can always read the listing before you book it and there the host will state what language(s) s/he speaks.
Carla: Oh I have had this lovely Portuguese couple once who barely spoken ten words of English between them, but somehow, thanks to Google translate, we managed to speak to each other and when there is a will, there is a way!
Alex: All the hosts I have met so far all speak English or French fluently so no problems for me!
Henry: Yes! That’s what Facebook is for! I also recommend the best hosts to other friends who are visiting the same city so they can also have a lovely stay.
Carla: It depends. As a host, I am professional and am providing a service, I am not going to impose myself on the guest. If they wanna add me on Facebook, I would gladly accept the friend invite. But otherwise, no, I would not be sending out any friend requests to my guests on Facebook.
Alex: I have only kept in touch with the hosts whom I have gotten along exceptionally well with.
Henry: Not really. Practically all AirBNB hosts I’ve met have day jobs – renting out the spare room with AirBNB just brings in a little supplementary income. I do find that quite a number of them work from home, so it is more convenient for them to play hosts if they can be around to deal with the guests. It’s harder for those who have to work fixed hours in an office.
Carla: I don’t even let my room out full time you know? I have a sister who spends quite a lot of time in London with me and when she is in town which is like for a few days every few weeks, she stays with me, in that room. But when she is not here, then I let it out on AirBNB. My sister gets first priority for that room – I love having her around, but I don’t charge her so she gets it for free and I am foregoing some money when she is taking up that room. This arrangement actually suits us just fine, as I cannot have a full time lodger in that room if I want to keep it free for my sister when she comes around. So yeah, it works for us.
Alex: No, all of the AirBNB hosts I’ve met have a day job – it is not a full time job for them. As a guest I also clean up after myself, I don’t expect the host to act like my servant or maid – that’s quite different from a hotel where you do have staff paid to do the cleaning for you.
Q: Have you heard of any problems that have gone wrong with AirBNB guests/hosts before?
Henry: No, to be honest, not really. Nothing more than a few negative reviews along the way.
Carla: I once had these guests who on the surface were so polite and friendly, then they made some really racist comments about black people. And I was like, woah, I felt like saying, get out of my house you racists. I was that close to doing that I swear. But I thought, they are only staying two nights, I am just going to tell them I am very busy and steer clear of them. What can you do in such a situation? I am providing a service, these are paying customers – they are not some guests who showed up at a party. They didn’t give me any trouble but I just felt so appalled by their racist attitudes. They were the only guests I really didn’t feel comfortable having in my house.
Alex: I have an interesting story. I was once with this film crew that had scouted a location with AirBNB and it was a beautiful flat in south London, really posh. The French couple who lived in that flat let us in and disappeared for the day as they didn’t want to be in the way. The crew started moving all their camera equipment into the flat and as you can imagine, there were like 5 or 6 guys carrying loads of stuff from the van into the building and we started filming in the corridor area. This woman then shows us, screaming and shouting at us, threatening to call the police.
It turns out that she is the landlord of the building – she owns the whole building and the French couple were only just renting from her. She said that the French couple had permission to host guests with AirBNB but they certainly did not have any right to grant the film crew permission to film in the communal areas of the building – that had to be sort from the landlord and she was saying no because it was her right to do so. There was a nasty quarrel, the rest of us were told to wait outside whilst they talked about it – the production manager tried to bribe her with a payment and I thought for a moment they would negotiate a price. But in the end she just called the police and we had to leave. I am astonished that the location manager for that shoot didn’t double check that if the French couple were in a position to give us permission to shoot there.
Q: Can you make a serious amount of money from being an AirBNB host?
Henry: I doubt it – not unless a host has several properties to let at any one time, most people only let out their spare room and that’s it for them. The room would otherwise be empty so they may as well generate a little bit of income from it. The income is sporadic… sometimes seasonal – you will need constant full occupancy to generate a steady stream of income so it’s usually a little something they do for a bit of extra rather than something they depend on. There will be a hire demand during the tourism peak season and less demand the rest of the year.
Carla: I am letting out my spare room and I am pricing it at £75 – that is comparable to a decent hotel room in London but certainly not in as good a location as me. I am fairly central so that’s the advantage I would have for someone looking to spend about £75 a night in London. How much do I spend on the room? Well, I make sure there are fresh sheets, fresh pillow cases. The guests help themselves to tea and coffee in the kitchen, I will usually provide some bread and cereals – nothing fancy but enough for them to have breakfast there. Apart from that, they may use a bit of my shower gel and shampoo, but it’s hard to think about what else they may get from me. I do have to spend a bit of time cleaning and tidying the room especially between guests, but that’s more a matter of time and effort on my part rather than spending money per se. The guests also use my wifi, water and electricity… but really, the costs to me is marginal… a few pounds here and there? So of the £75 I take, most of that is actually profit. But think about it, I have to do all this to prepare the room for my sister when she stays with me anyway, so I may as well make money from the same routine with AirBNB.
Q: Why are AirBNB rooms sometimes more expensive than hotels?
Henry: This is because it is worth it – just because you’re staying in someone’s home doesn’t mean that it should be worth any less than a hotel. It all boils down to the experience – if it is a very nice home, then it should be treated like a 5 star hotel and I have in my experience paid quite a lot to stay in some very nice AirBNB rooms before and they have been totally worth it. There have been some pretty amazing houses, we’re talking about the most tastefully decorated homes in beautiful locations and it was a privilege to have stayed there – that’s the kind of experience that money cannot buy. Don’t always assume that hotels should be the higher quality option – there are some pretty nasty hotels out there.
Carla: You go onto the AirBNB website and search for rooms in the city of your choice, you get to decide what your budget is. If you want to look at say, only rooms that cost less than £40 a night, then you can set the filter at £40 maximum and it will show you what options fall within your price range. If you think a place is expensive, fine, then don’t stay there, pick somewhere else that suits your budget. Some places cost more than others, but then again you get what you pay for. We are providing a fine service, one that is on par with most quality hotels – this is why AirBNB works.
Alex: I find that new properties on AirBNB usually offer slightly better value for money as they don’t have the track record, they don’t have 50 excellent reviews from guests who have stayed there – so they have to lower their prices to entice you to consider them. It is hard to get the first guest to say yes I’ll book this place even though they don’t even have a single review yet. Having 50 excellent reviews allows the host to increase their prices because they have earned those 50 excellent reviews. You can’t really compare AirBNB to hotels – there are five star hotels and no star hostels and their prices reflect that. With AirBNB, you tend to get far more decent homes with nice hosts, so that eliminates the super cheap end of the spectrum. Maybe that’s a new market that can be tapped into by another website, but that has not been the focus of AirBNB’s business model – it has always been a value for money option, rather than just a super cheap alternative trying to undercut hotels.
Many thanks to Henry and Carla for helping me with this Q&A. If you are tempted to try AirBNB for your next trip, please take this free S$32 voucher from me by clicking here – it’s S$32 towards your first booking just to turn a good deal into an irresistible bargain! Thanks for reading.