Holiday rentals – the owner versus the host

My last article entitled Airbnb – The Good, The Bad and The Ugly elicited a flurry of phone calls from justifiably disgruntled owners and guests, which highlighted a whole different side to the world of holiday rentals. The focus of those calls was on certain unethical practices employed by some hosts who act on behalf of the owners, as well as owners who defer all responsibility for problems to the host, including those related to the state of the property itself.

This raises the challenge that if you are an owner, and are considering listing your property for holiday rentals, the onus is still on you to ensure that the property is up to scratch, with all the promised amenities in good working order. The idea that owners can abdicate all responsibility to the host is a cop-out, as hosts can only do as much as the owner permits them to when it comes to maintenance of the property and amenities.

An example that reflects both sides of this issue is that of a couple from the UK who spend a few months of every year in Hermanus. After seeing a listing on Airbnb which appealed to them, they contacted the host (who was not the owner), but were redirected to his business website and coerced into booking directly on that website, thereby taking Airbnb out of the loop.

This approach removed all the security protection guests have if they book via one of the recognised international portals. This left them with no recourse should anything go wrong (which it did in so many ways) while the host received full payment prior to check-in.

Within the first few days after the guests had checked in, it became very apparent that the property was misrepresented in the listing and the range of issues was enough to keep a handyman busy for months. Apart from the fact that the house was so cluttered with “stuff” that the guests had to fill the garage with a lot of it in order to function in the house, the issues they encountered were extensive.

Broken exterior doors were unlockable and compromised security, toilets didn’t flush properly and when they did, backflushed sewerage up the drain pipes into the showers. With load shedding, the battery backup for the main gate to the property was not working and they were stranded outside, in the dark, with no way of accessing the property. With the host being unavailable, the guests contacted the owner, who simply put the phone down and ignored the situation.

If this wasn’t bad enough, the only way to get the stove working was by switching on the isolator switch which caused the oven to go on – but there was no dial to regulate the oven temperature so it was totally unusable. The washing machine thought it was on steroids and even when it started a spinning cycle on the lowest level, it went on a journey around the kitchen. Add to that exposed electrical cables, an ironing board that collapsed when you tried to use it and a host that was missing-in-action, and it is perfectly understandable that the guests were irate.

What added insult to injury was that the owner tried to hold the host solely responsible, even though the host had allegedly absconded with a large portion of the owner’s money from the transaction. When we investigated the initial Airbnb listing, we found that the owner had appointed new hosts and none of that had been communicated to the guests. The owner clearly knew something was amiss, yet avoided taking any responsibility for the state of the property and left the guests high and dry.

Owners and hosts alike must realise that they have a joint responsibility to the guests, unless there is an arrangement where the host is given total freedom to attend to all matters pertaining to the property. Owners should also follow some form of vetting process before appointing a host, and they need to clearly understand that by letting out their property, they cannot abdicate all responsibility.

Whilst it should be the hosts’ responsibility to familiarise themselves with the properties and to make sure that all appliances and facilities are in working order and that the property meets acceptable standards, the owner cannot ignore these realities if they want their property to enjoy regular bookings and the returns that go with it.

People must realise that these unethical and devious practices have a negative impact on both the reputation of the booking portal and our town as a holiday destination. Our tourism industry is reliant on positive messages being taken away by visitors.

I reiterate a statement I have made many times regarding owners and hosts – if you want to be part of the positive experience that tourists look forward to enjoying when they visit Hermanus, do it right, do it ethically and professionally and understand that all parties need to take responsibility when the inevitable problems do arise.