Sometimes you hear horror stories about nightmare Airbnb guests who trash houses and leave thousands of dollars in damage. But what about when the shoe is on the other foot, and an Airbnb host is trying to get a substantial sum of money out of you? We recently had an owner demand $1,000 from us for something we didn’t break. What would happen if we refused to pay? We had no idea, but we knew we were going to fight the unfair charge tooth and nail. Here’s how it went:
We’ve been staying in Airbnbs since before Airbnb existed. OK, back then they were called VRBOs or just vacation rentals. The first time I remember staying in a privately-owned lodging was about 18 years ago, when we had to send the owner of a Mexican condo a personal check, communicate by email, and hold our breaths hoping that the condo really existed when we arrived in Puerto Morelos. (It was, and it was lovely!)
Through all these years of staying in homes, I’ve always been super concerned about accidentally damaging something and getting charged for it. Over the years, we added three kids and two dogs to our family, increasing the chances of something getting wrecked. I take precautions: I seek out rentals that aren’t too fancy or easy to damage (white couch? next!). I buy damage insurance when available (VRBO usually offers this for $59-$99, but not Airbnb). When we arrive at a rental, I put away any breakable tchotchkes, cover couches with blankets or sheets, and make sure everyone takes off their shoes at the door. I lecture and remind. I’m a real party girl on vacation!
Occasionally, something has gotten soiled, and I’ve pulled out all the stops to wash, remove stains, etc. This includes one time when my girlsfriends and I successfully removed blue hair dye that rubbed off on a light-colored chair on a girls’ wine country getaway, and one other time, washing a heavy barfed-on comforter in the tub and drip drying it all week because it was too big to fit in the house’s washing machine.
Despite all this worry, we’d never had a single host complain about the condition of a rental when we left. Until 2020.
While we were staying in San Diego over Thanksgiving break this year, we had two mishaps in the beach house we’d rented. First, my teen went to sleep with a heavy duty eyeliner pen in her pocket, and ruined a sheet. After copiously applying stain remover and running it through the wash multiple times, I concluded that we were going to have to offer to pay for replacement sheets. Then, my husband opened the refrigerator and a compartment fell off the door and broke in half — right on his bare foot. The carton of milk and bottle of champagne that had been in the compartment had also landed on his foot, and milk spilled everywhere, but at least the champagne didn’t break.
I photographed both damaged items and sent the owners — in this case it was a rental company operating through Airbnb — a message explaining what had happened. I made it clear that the fridge door box was not our fault, but that the sheet was. I planned to have my daughter pay for the sheet herself. I got an understanding reply and figured it was 50/50 whether they just let it go or charged us for the sheets.
So when, a few days after checkout, I received a message from the management company, I wasn’t too surprised. I expected it to be asking for reimbursement for the sheets. But when I opened it, I was surprised to see they didn’t mention sheets.
In the message, the company claimed that after we left, they had inspected the living room couch by opening up the hide-a-bed (we hadn’t used that part) and that it was broken inside. They asked what happened to it. I immediately let them know that I was sure we hadn’t damaged the couch. For one thing, we probably would have heard a crack if the wooden support at the base of the couch had snapped, like it was in the pic they sent us. For another, you would expect a couch would only break if it were being used in an abnormal way, like jumped on. Our kids are old enough to know not to jump on the couch.
And by the way, I reminded them, I’d be happy to pay for that stained sheet.
After replying to the owner, I was consumed with worry that they would charge us for this damage we hadn’t caused. I didn’t have to wonder about it long. The same day, I received a request, through Airbnb, from the host. They wanted $1,000 to replace the couch!
I proactively messaged Airbnb to report the message they’d sent. I wondered if the hosts might be trying to scam me. But I reviewed all the reviews, not just on Airbnb but also on the many other sites where the same company listed this and other units, and I didn’t see any complaints about them asking for suspicious damages.
The money request included response buttons, to say whether I would pay the $1,000 or decline. Of course, I declined.
After that, I heard nothing for more than two weeks. I actually contacted Airbnb again, asking about it, and was told that after I declined to pay, the next step was for the host to request an investigation, and then I would get a chance to respond with my side of the story. Customer service told me the owner had two weeks to initiate an investigation, and since just over two weeks had passed, I figured we were in the clear. Maybe, I supposed, the owners found out that Ikea was willing to replace their couch, which probably failed under the strain of normal use, either during our stay or during a previous guest’s stay. Or maybe a manager had found out their employee had made this ridiculous request and shut it down.
Maybe I shouldn’t have asked, because just one day later, I got a message that the owner had initiated the investigation. By this time, I had already done some online research about what other guests did in this situation. The blog Culture Passport had a particularly helpful step-by-step example of how they had successfully disputed a baseless damage claim. I penned a thorough refutation of the charge that we had broken the couch, siting my perfect record of positive reviews over the years, as well as my messages through the Airbnb system owning up to something separate we had accidentally damaged. I pointed out that although the owner had a photo of a broken couch, this didn’t prove that the damage had happened during our stay. I felt confident that I had proved our case. In the meantime, just to be safe, I removed my stored credit cards from my Airbnb account.
Two days later, Airbnb informed me they were requesting additional documentation from the host. A week after that, Airbnb emailed to say that the host had prevailed, but they were reducing the amount I owed to $798. They sent me a link with which to pay.
By this time, I had read up on this as well, and learned that Airbnb will ask guests to pay, but they won’t send collections after you or charge your original card without permission. Basically, Airbnb tries to collect from guests for damages, and if it fails, it reimburses owners itself. After all, Airbnb promises its hosts a $1 million guarantee to cover guest damages.
So, although it pained me as the rule follower I am, I ignored Airbnb’s request to click a link and pay $798, even though I knew I didn’t damage the couch. Airbnb sent a reminder, including a vague warning worded, “To prevent further action on your account in the future …” I knew that Airbnb would probably terminate my account, but I was willing to accept that rather than pay for something I didn’t do. After all, if Airbnb was going to treat me this way, I probably wouldn’t want to use the service any more either. I could always stick with VRBO or book directly through rental companies.
After a few days, Airbnb stopped asking me to pay. That was three weeks ago. So far, my account has not been shut down, but I won’t be using it again, just to be safe. I included a description of the erroneous charge attempt in my review of the property, along with the positive and negative impressions we had of the property itself. I’ll definitely never stay with that rental company again!
I know from looking at some online forums for Airbnb hosts that most hosts would assume we’re lying about not having caused the damage, and just trying to get away with not paying for something we should. I can understand their point of view. They’ve seen a lot of jerky guests. But I also feel 100 percent confident that my family did not abuse any furniture during this or any other trip! So I don’t feel guilty at all about avoiding this attempt to wring an extra $800 out of us after what was already an exhorbitantly expensive stay.
Oh, and by the way: The rental company said on its Airbnb rules page that it charged an $850 deposit, saying, “The Guest is responsible for the amount of the Security Deposit, but it will not be charged unless the host makes a claim.” This is in accordance with Airbnb’s security deposit policy. Maybe this is why the host adjusted their money request from $1,000 down to $798? At any rate, I was never charged anything beyond the rental fee for this listing.