How to survive being an Airbnb host

After my first Airbnb guests checked out of our garage apartment last February, I eagerly called up their online review. I had no reason to suspect anything but flattering comments from the two young women from Oregon, one of whom had originally planned on coming with her husband to celebrate their fourth anniversary until he had to drop out at the last minute. She brought a friend instead, but disappointment, I discovered, came along in her suitcase.

When they arrived for the three-day stay in my home southwest of Austin, Texas, I met them cheerily with a basket of muffins and walked them through the apartment, which my husband and I used to rent out long-term until we decided to jump on the Airbnb gravy train. If all went well, we figured we could make the $650 we used to get per month in six nights.

As a travel writer, I’ve reviewed scores of hotels and was quite sure I knew what I was doing. We bought a sumptuous pillowtop mattress, luscious sheets and towels and an array of pillow styles. I left coffee, tea and real half-and-half (no powdered creamer for my guests!) as well as bubble bath for the tub. As I arranged the vintage patio furniture on the balcony and looked out over our 15 acres of rolling Texas Hill Country terrain, I thought, Who wouldn’t love this?

Well, as they say, pride goes before a fall. “Very little supplies in the kitchen,” was just one of the gripes the Oregon women left in their review. They gave me three out of five stars — a rating handed out in fewer than 6 percent of stays, according to a subsequent tsk-tsk note from Airbnb. Thanks to my faceplant out of the gate, I was told my search placement would be impacted. For months to come, my cumulative star rating remained less than nearby hosts. I was devastated, especially since I had sung the guests’ praises in my review of them (reviews are published simultaneously so I didn’t see theirs in advance). I felt the same pangs of rejection and inadequacy that go with unrequited high school friendships.

And so I discovered how little I knew about hospitality in the brave new sharing economy. Airbnb offers pages of advice on how to meet its hosting standards in areas such as communication (“respond to reservation requests within 24 hours,” for instance) and pricing (“a very high price may lead travelers to assume your listing is extra luxurious — they shouldn’t be expecting a castle when they arrive at a cottage”).

The site also lets you know what will happen if you consistently fail to measure up. “Travelers … tell us that getting rejected can be discouraging, so if you decline an excess number of reservation requests, your listing may be temporarily deactivated.” (The company, which says it has removed hosts for apparent discrimination, is attempting to get even more stringent with this type of penalty in order to address recent reports of some hosts not accepting requests from minorities.)

But in all those pages of practical information, here’s what Airbnb doesn’t tell you.

— At least at first, you will grow a thin skin.

Honest reviews of both hosts and guests are what keep the whole Airbnb system in check. Without them, people could go on rock-star, room-smashing benders with no consequences. Or hosts could get away with horrors like leaving hair doilies in the shower drain.

But even if you’re used to people throwing darts at you in your professional life, it’s something else to have strangers judging your home and your way of living. And doing it publicly. I’d told the Oregon women they were my first guests and to let me know how I could improve, but they never mentioned any problems and seemed happy enough. Being called out online is like asking someone if you have food in your teeth and having that person proceed to announce that yes, in fact you do, over a loud speaker.

That first review started well enough — beautiful setting and décor; kind, gracious host. Then came “although” and the first salvo: “There was no drinking water,” as if I was a stingy desert-dweller guarding my oasis spring, when I regularly had our well water tested and it was just fine. (The true outrage, I wanted to tell them, is when $700-a-night hotels charge $10 for a bottle of water.) The women also complained that the jets didn’t work on my whirlpool tub, even though I had told them that’s why I hadn’t advertised the feature on my listing.

The personal sting of such finger-wagging is compounded by the potential financial one, since negative comments affect future bookings. I had been told by experienced Airbnb hosts to price my property low initially to get reservations, which would lead to reviews that would attract other guests. Then I could raise my rates. But they didn’t say what would happen if you got a big raspberry. Luckily, I already had more bookings lined up.

— Everything will be your problem.

Even the things you can’t control. My worst sin in that first review turned out to be location, location, location. They claimed I was at least an hour from downtown (not 30 minutes as I said truthfully in my listing). Their low rating on my accuracy was, in the Airbnb webosphere, the equivalent of yelling, “Liar, liar.”

My listing included a map that showed exactly where I was in relation to Austin. When they arrived, the Oregon women told me their GPS took them the wrong way, and they did make the trip during rush hour; hence the 60-minute drive time. No matter. Their travel issues became my issue. I wanted to respond to their review with an apology for not clearing the highways out of Austin for them, but I had the sense to know snark would not win me future bookings. Instead I immediately put a disclaimer on my listing that “your driving time may vary because of traffic.” “Duh” implied.

— A special kind of paranoia will set in.

Once you’ve gotten a less-than-rave review, you start looking at every possible defect as a potential online skewer. One day, when the wind blew one of the sheets off the clothesline and onto the ground (I had some romantic notion that people would appreciate the smell of country-air-dried bedding), I imagined the review I’d get if our next guests suffered a spider bite in bed. Another time I noticed the bathroom sink was leaking; in my head I saw, “Could not sleep because of the drip, drip, drip.” The emergency plumber bill was about half as much as my imminently arriving guests were paying for the whole stay. At that moment, the $650 a month from non-review-writing tenants seemed like a bargain.

— You will not be above bribery.

When I bemoaned my bad review to a friend, she mentioned that she always gives wine to her guests. Aha, I thought. That’s what I was missing. So in addition to a basket of muffins, I began leaving a nice bottle of sauvignon blanc. “How much are you spending on each guest?” my husband asked when he saw me carting the check-in swag to the apartment. To be honest, I didn’t really care. My pride was at stake and anyway, it seems to have worked. All my reviews were glowing after the addition of alcohol.

— You’ll sometimes run from your guests.

You may start your Airbnb career imagining you’ll be a magnanimous, mi-casa-es-su-casa kind of host. But at some point you’ll have guests who’ll make you want to hide under your bed until they’ve gone out for the day. We had a perfectly nice couple who could not master the thermostat and would call or text every time the temperature was not to their liking. They’d also frequently update us on their struggles with the ice-maker, the washer’s spin cycle, the ceiling fan switch.

On one occasion, when I ran into the couple in the driveway, they informed me that they’d found an insect they suspected was a “kissing bug” (which they claimed was poisonous though I’d never heard of it in my 20 years in the Texas Hill Country). They were thinking of sending it off for testing, and oh, by the way, the wife had some weird bite on her arm. I think my eyes spontaneously crossed. Later, after they’d checked out and given me five stars (wine for me after that one), I got a text from them saying that the agricultural extension agency confirmed the insect was indeed a kissing bug. It was with great joy that I deleted it and thanked the patron saint of innkeepers, St. Martin of Tours — who according to some sources also serves that role for alcoholics, appropriately enough — that they hadn’t included that little tidbit in their review.

— You’ll become a better guest.

Even at a Motel 6. I’m no longer hosting for Airbnb — not because I got my 600-thread-count Egyptian cotton sheets in a wad, but because we sold our house five months into my gig. We made a bit of money from our stint as guesthouse hosts — maybe not as much as my husband hoped with the wine and all. Plus, because of that first blot on my record, I never felt I could raise my rates.

However, I gained something else in the process: a new empathy for those I’ve scrutinized in my other life as a hotel reviewer. Cleaning toilets in between guests will do that for you. These days I avoid using a hotel towel to wipe off my eye makeup because I know firsthand that mascara is nearly impossible to get out. I lose the woman-on-the-verge tone when I call the front desk over a temperamental Wi-Fi connection.

I was just a hobbyist, but I’ll think twice about re-upping with Airbnb in our new home although we have the space. The hospitality business is one long, grinning, love-me-please tap dance, more easily disparaged than done.