My Airbnb Biz Got Me Evicted, Here's What I Learned

It only took five years for the couch-surfing startup Airbnb to rocket past 10 million bookings—and it only took 10 days for my landlord to force me out of my apartment for riding the wave.

After court appearances, phone calls, and printer cartidges, the ink is dry on a settlement that has me vacating my apartment in 10 days, all because I turned to Airbnb instead of Craigslist to find roommates—and a chunk of income in the process. Given that Airbnb announced today that it had surpassed 10 million bookings, I'm hardly alone in my thinking. Nevertheless, here's what I learned from being pushed out of my apartment for being an Airbnb host.

Go Big Or Go Home

None of my landlord's complaints had anything to do with how frequently I hosted, or even how much money I was making. Nor did the fact that I lived in the apartment with my guests mitigate his outrage. In fact, his counsel’s biggest point of contention was that I hadn’t sought permission for any of these roommates, something my lease requires me to do.

If you do get permission and plunge in, don’t half-ass it. Like an online dating site, your listing floats to the top of search as you become more active on the site, which in turn boosts your visibility to guests. Bringing in more reservation requests makes it easier to find guests that fit, which is more important than you’d think; I quickly learned, for example, that I couldn’t book couples for weekend stays, because they resented my building’s late-night party noise. (Lone guests stayed out later with friends, or went to join the ruckus.) 

Imagine The Misinterpretations

Imagine your landlord or neighbors have no idea what Airbnb does or how it works—then imagine they find your listing. How would it come off? My landlord thought I was running an actual bed-and-breakfast business, and suspected I was making far more money than I actually was. In fact I was using Airbnb to find short-term roommates, in lieu of using Craigslist, where anonymity and bad UI make this a huge hassle. To him, my little scheme looked too much like ... a big scheme. (Check out the sidebar to see my actual profit and loss by the numbers.)

Have An Explanation

My landlord never contacted me before I was served with a restraining order. If he had, I would have explained that an actual "bed and breakfast" serves you food, does your laundry, and cleans your room—all things I didn’t do as a host since I never would have as a roommate. Airbnb gives you payment infrastructure and protection that Craigslist doesn’t, but if you don’t have a succinct way of explaining that to nosy landlords and curious neighbors, then you should. If you’re new at Airbnb, approach the relevant people and explain your rationale before you dive in and become a super-host.

Get To Know Other Hosts

Other tentants in my building were pushed out for Airbnb hosting before I was, but I didn't find out until it was too late. Still, that's the least of the reasons to go to Airbnb meetups; attending them can teach you invaluable lessons about your own hospitality skills. Spitballing about prices, mishaps, and weird guests with other hosts in Greenpoint, I began to get a sense of how my apartment's vibe appeared to strangers, which let me rarify my listing and fix things that came off as unappealing. Since Airbnb properties can be so unique, referrals are vital, and learning where you fit in your niche helps you really harness all that social commerce to get more (and more interesting) guests.

Be Sincere

In his legal action, my landlord complained about the sundry "security risks" my guests posed to other tenants. I never learned how my landlord found my Airbnb listing, but the frequency of luggage-wielding European tourists getting lost in the halls was probably a tip-off that something was afoot. If you're worried about attracting heat, pick guests you'd choose as roommates—they won’t seem (or, for that matter, feel) wildly out of place as any old tourist. Because new guests require various levels of ice-breaking and orientation, I eventually sought to book repeat guests who I already knew and liked. Unless you’re in it for the money, think of Airbnb guests as a rotating cast of roommates and less like a series of profitable one-night stands.

Be Careful When You Add Value

I thought I’d earn more business by making my place look as fly as possible, and Airbnb’s pro photographers made sure my listing shone. In retrospect, I probably also succeeded in convincing my landlord he had undervalued my place by a huge margin, which I was now apparently taking. In growing cities like Brooklyn, prudent landlords like to turn over tenants every couple of years so they can raise rent. Making them feel foolish for charging you so little will only add to the incentive.

If Something Happens, Don't Be Scared

Got a litigious landlord and an ironclad lease? Fear not. When you get served, the papers will be legible and the ideas comprehensible. Read what's actually being charged before you respond or take action. My order had language in it that sought to kick out anyone staying with me, effective immediately. The judge had crossed out this section, presumably until he could hear the case, but I had Airbnb’s staff cancel my remaining reservations anyway, thinking somehow it might help. Due to clerical errors, my case wasn’t heard by a judge until 10 days later, meaning I could have kept my promises to several guests (and kept money coming in) until I figured things out.

Move Slowly

In the blogosphere, news of my eviction has been greatly exaggerated. My restraining order only sought to force me to stop using the service to rent rooms, so if you’re a host, don’t fret you’ll find an eviction notice on your door tomorrow.

If you’ve never been served with court papers, it’s like stepping into your own real-life rage comic—but remember that you can write the ending if you don’t flip out. "Ya know, Christopher, I read your article," were the first words from the opposing counsel during my settlement, as he considered outloud suing me for the $20,000 I said I had made. His heart wasn’t in the threat, and it won’t come to that. But flaming his client on the web, yelling at the building staff, or making threats of my own might have furnished him with more zeal. I spent two absurd, boring days in a courtroom while lawyers scrutinized the language of my Airbnb reviews, and I must say: You do not want to get sucked into all that.

The Landlord Keeps His Property, But You Keep Your Friends

If you live in someone else's building, you may win Airbnb battles, but you will never win the war. Even had I dug into legal action, my lease would still expire naturally in August, and my landlord could choose not to renew it. Lots of friends have reached out to say they’re sorry I’m losing the place—but there are a far-flung handful who I never would have met otherwise.

Read part one of the saga.

[Image: Flickr user: philcampbell]

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33 Comments

  • Mimi

    Just proves that tenants can be just as greedy as landlords, maybe even more so. And what about the liability issues and consideration/respect for your neighbors? What are you like 12 years old? Do you think your neighbors appreciated having a hotel embedded in their building? I'm sure it's one of them that ratted you out. And what about the spread of bedbugs into the building? Was it worth the risk of getting evicted? Your cost/benefit analysis skills are seriously out of wack.
    Oh, and do you really think all the peeps you "met" & heavily profited off of are your friends? I don't think so.

  • travller

    Air bnb customer service really sucks. Stuck in paris ...host cancelled upon arrival for emergency and multiple calls to call center for my emergency help and over 30 minutes wait. \finally booked hotel room and will deal with matters later. Airbnb does NOT earn their fees.

  • DrMike

    Their PRO Photographers dont last either. Once they realize they are putting 4 to 10 hours work on a shoot, then discover they are making less than minimum wage to provide a professional service, they bail. Which leads to a constant turnover, diminishing pool of photographers. The AirBNB model is destined to fail because it is not self sustaining. It relies on the facebook "everything is free for me to take and make mine in perpetuity model. 

  • dave

    What you did is usually called curb-stoning.  You are advertising to rent out a piece of property that you do not own.  If you had owned it, you would have the right to rent.  It's really ridiculous that you think this is an acceptable arrangement.  Go buy a house if you want to use the place like a motel.  Would a motel let you rent out the room you just rented?  No.

    I don't understand why so many people are so hot to rent (as opposed to owning private property) but then try to hide behind all the various private property laws, which don't fully apply to renters.  You can't have your cake and eat it, too.

    This reminds me of all these stories floating around about gay couples being turned down by a landlord, simply for being gay.  Just because it's stupid, doesn't mean it's unfair.  People have a right to do what they want with property they OWN.  If you put half as much energy in to buying a house as you do in to renting out a spot in someone else's property, you'd probably be all settled in and paid off by now.

  • Julianglobalhealing

    Dave,

    You do not k ow why people rent and do not own a propery??? Are you in touch with reality or maybe you may live in La La land. Sure, everyone can own property. Educate yourself before talking rubbish.

    Millions of renter in this country has roommats to help pay for the crazy high rent fees and blood sucking landlords. What is wrong with it?

    People who can not afford to buy a home forced to rent from landlords who use these money to pay the property mortgage. So, we are renter pay the landlords bills so they can become rich on out back. Again, WHAT IS WRONG FOR HAVING A ROOMMATE? NON.

  • Kimberley Wilson

    As a legitimate B&B owner I have to declare my income to the tax man, have liability insurance, fire inspection and Food Hygine - all of which are very expensive to comply with and require extensive paperwork. None of this is complied by many who advertise on Air B&B which means if something happens to a guest there is no cover, if they disapear in the night with your TV I can guarantee your insurance will not pay out as you gave them the key. It also means legitimate businesses can't compete with these illegals as our costs are much higher due to our compliance with the law. The fire service in the UK has stated that even to rent 1 room out on this basis you should have a wired in smoke alarm and fire doors on your doors as a minumum and it is a legal requirement to have a risk assessment.

  • jeanine naviaux

    As a California Landlord, its the lawyers that make this so difficult.  I rented a house of mine and the forms I use from the California Board of Realtors (their forms are the most up-to-date and are very inexpensive).  The legal agreement as of April this year that I must list every person living in the house even if they are  5 or 7 years old.  I treat my tenants and I want to be treated, with respect. Be open with the landlord- plus I take pictures of the house with a move-in form that is signed by me and the tenants and a move-out form with pictures taken.  That way there is not dispute when it comes to the deposit.

  • Bob Barker

    Airbnb is great for homeowners but should be used with caution if you're a renter. That's why VRBO is infinitely more successful. Face it, you don't own the property, so why should you legally be allowed to profit off it? If you do decide to make a go of an Airbnb biz make sure you know your city's rental laws and your lease. I don't recommend doing it without the blessing of your landlord, and keep in mind that you should really report it as income if you're not paying hotel taxes. The problem is, if you do your due diligence you'll realize that you're entering into a situation that could ultimately displace you or worse. Remember when Craigslist was a marketplace for prostitutes? That's not to say it isn't still, but they cracked down considerably. You can't have your cake and eat it too without taking a huge risk. If you're a renter who uses Airbnb you are likely breaking a law, and a glistening website that promotes it will not last. Look at what happened to eBay, it's an utter nightmare working with them now. I'd go as far as to say that the founders are paying themselves out of dividends from financing so there is less pressure to sell or go public, thus allowing them to neglect these holes, but I'll give them a small benefit of the doubt.

  • russell kurson

    I am a trustee at a real estate investment trust that owns apartment buildings. The real issue here is that having unknown individuals in a apartment building without the consent of the owner or his or her agent is a clear liability. That person has violated more than one section of the lease.

  • Brian

    Does your REIT screen overnight guests of promiscuous tenants as well?

    (Didn't think so).

  • Qin

    There's always a degree of reasonableness that applies to tenant-landlord agreements. 

  • Gregory Wu

    I am also on the side of the author's landlord. The author portrays himself as the victim when in fact the responsibility is entirely his own. He portrays his landlord's objection as simply "because the landlord wasn't informed", when in actually that's probably just the clause in the lease the landlord is using to evict the tenant. Had the author asked, I'm sure the landlord would have said no.

    The truth is as a renter it is not your property to do as you'd like. You can't run a business out of a rented apartment either.

    This is not the same as friends staying over. As soon as money changes hands a business transaction occurs and the laws on liability are completely different. The landlord has every right to protect his building and protect the interests of his tenants.

    The author gives a lot of tips on what to do if this happens to you. It also seems like his tips go the vein of "How to hide your AirBnB business". Where is his first and most important tip? How about "If you are a renter, know your rights and what is allowable in your lease before attempting to conduct business transactions in your apartment."

  • Judith Hoogenboom

    Thanks for the article. The comments are kind of laughable. It's as though people imagine you paid $37K in rent for a place that was furnished, cleaned, had the utilities all paid, soap in the soap dishes, all appliances, and so on. "Gouging guests" for "rent." Wow! Think (really) nice hotel, people! Complete with a personal concierge. What "rental unit" offers that?
     
    I'm amazed by the elegance of Airbnb. It's well designed and serves to disrupt the hospitality industry while allowing people to share their resources and optimize their finances. I just signed up. In my case, I live in a desirable neighborhood and the rent just keeps going up, in spite of the fact that my (and everyone else's) living wage keeps going down, and the cost of essential basics like food and healthcare keep going up. What's a girl to do? I'd rather have a few temporary house guests than a full-time roommate. The cost of renting in NYC is ridiculous--as is the cost of a hotel. So there you go. 

    I can't quite understand why a landlord would object as long as they get their rent and the other tenants don't care. The truth is, my sister used to have 50 non-paying house guests in her NYC apartment each year. What's the difference? Love how people feel that resisting change beats embracing it.

  • nick bouton

    Wow - I'm impressed by your naïvety. As a condo owner who's considering renting out their apartment in the next couple of months, this article scared the shit out of me, and comments like yours leave me flabbergasted.

    Tenancy contracts and rental
    agreements exist for a reason. If this guy - renting out bits and pieces of someone else's property and making a buck off it in the process - realized the liability he was placing on his landlord, he'd probably think twice. I'm surprised his landlord didn't sue the crap out of the guy for his profits instead of just booting him out. He's pretty lucky the owner was lenient. His line about "narcs" goes a long way to showing he realized he was doing something wrong.

    The lesson here is that Airbnb may be awesome if you're a property owner, but if you're a tenant, you're renting out property you don't own. That's a total scam and you deserve what you get if you get caught in the act.

  • Brian

    Whiny landlords crack me up.

    The same guys who cannot be bothered to properly maintain the property and keep it in good working order, keep the walls painted every year or two, maintain carpeting, make sure the heat and AC work, and fix the trash compactor are dissing the very people they're gouging with outrageous rents (and the things that the tenants they're gouging have to do to pay those outrageous rents in exchange for poorly maintained "income properties.")

    If you don't want to assume the risks of renting, don't rent.  The entitlement philosophy of landlords -- that they have a right to earn millionaire-style incomes sans risk from their minimally-maintained properties -- is a joke.

  • Mike Jacobson

    Judy, Judy, Judy. You can't understand why a landlord objects because you have no idea of the liability issues involved. What if the landlord condoned the illegal subletting and the subletter molested your child or committed some other illegal activity? How much would you sue him for?

  • Rod Edwards

    Judith, have you read any of the comments from landlords? The reason landlords resist it is liability and insurance, as well as things like disruption to other tenants, building security, and utility costs.  These are real-world reasons, with real-world consequences. AirBnB is elegant, no doubt, and a great way for the right person in the right circumstance to make some friends and some money. That doesn't make it legal, or right, to turn your rented apartment into a micro-hotel, however.

  • Brian

    Whiny landlords wheedling about liability have no problem raising rents every year while often refusing to maintain their properties.

    If you don't like the risks inherent in renting property, then give up those lucrative cash flows that you get for renting the property and sell it.  Stop whining that you don't magically get entitled to both eye-popping cash flows and zero risk.