Once upon a time (in 2007 to be exact) there were two mates, Brian Chesky and Joe Gabbia, struggling to pay their rent in San Francisco.
So, they put out three airbeds for rent in their loft, offered a cooked breakfast in the morning and asked around to find lodgers.
There’s an idea, they thought, and set up a simple site called Air Bed and Breakfast to marry those with room to spare in their homes with people who want reasonably priced accommodation in a “real” neighbourhood.
A feel-good community platform – environmentally sound and almost hippie-esque in its concept.
Since then, their simple site has morphed into one of the world’s most famous and iconic brands, and that story is featured in a documentary titled Airbnb: Dream or Nightmare on ABC2 on Wednesday night.
It’s a timely look at how the hippies went commercial with a majority of the properties on the platform now being full houses – not just couches or spare rooms anymore – and a business, they say, worth $30 billion.
But all is not perfect in their airbed world, with the site under attack from governments, tax collectors, a small proportion of disgruntled users and housing owners who claim that Airbnb is “hollowing the heart out” of cities like London.
The disgruntled users are bound to emerge, given that there are upwards of two million listings and eight million users on the site.
The documentary features a few spectacular examples, like the Canadian couple who rented their rather beautiful home to someone who said he was in town for a wedding.
Instead, he threw a huge sex party and, though the police were called, they could not evict the revellers because they had the legal right to be there.
The home was trashed and used condoms were everywhere. Initially Airbnb was nowhere to be found – until the couple posted the damage on social media and suddenly the company appeared and paid bills totalling more than $100,000.
A Londoner had more of a struggle for compensation after he rented out his father’s brand new, luxury apartment to a young man who, again, had a massive party and incurred about $25,000 damage on New Year’s Eve.
This time Airbnb apparently played harder to get – pointing to the “owners beware” clauses in their agreement – but coughed up most of the money for repairs via emails which allowed only 72 hours to accept their offer or it would be withdrawn.
Renters, too, had some horror stories. Like that of a young woman who accepted a room in a Paris flat with a guy who turned out to be a real creep. And the couple whose chosen apartment was double-rented, filthy and full of rotten food.
The biggest complaint through all of these stories is that you can never reach Airbnb to sort things out, except via email. There’s simply no one to talk to.
But, at the end of the day, this is a buyer’s beware story and you sign up as a user at your own risk.
I’ve used Airbnb on four occasions to rent properties and all have been good experiences.
As a property owner, though, there’s not a snowball’s chance in hell that I would rent my flat through this site. There are few checks on potential renters – and my neighbours’ sanity is worth more to me than this type of rental.
Watching this film reinforced that view – given that Airbnb apparently doesn’t see its role as helping the police or legitimate owners when things go wrong or when properties are illegally listed. After all, it’s not in their interest.
It’s big business now and not about spare rooms, local neighbourhoods or even community – despite their PR.
Watch one of Airbnb’s infectious ads: