On January 22, Airbnb posted a photo on its internationally viewed Facebook page showing a large stone staircase with no railings and a child relaxing with his dad underneath. Even though the property is located in Es Llombards, Illes Balears, Spain, the message comes into the international vacation rental industry like a flaming torch. The property is being touted by Airbnb as a great home to stay in when traveling with families and little ones. While it isn’t known what the local building codes are in Es Llombards, the fact that without railings, this house, by anyone’s common sense, isn’t safe for a child to stay in is problem enough. One of the world’s largest OTAs has chosen to use this property and photo to illustrate a good travel destination which is disturbing.
Airbnb, like other OTAs, claims that they are concerned about safety. They have posted on their website:
Your Airbnb experience begins the moment you embrace adventure. That’s only possible when you trust this community and feel safe. As a result, safety is our first priority—we require that you refrain from endangering or threatening anyone.
However, this statement falls incredibly short. On their safety page for property owners, Airbnb makes no mention of making sure local building codes are addressed. Not one comment is made about common sense safety items like making sure that stairs have railings or that there are working smoke detectors in the homes. Airbnb’s own Preparing Your Home for Guests checklist makes no mention of safety items at all.
Unsafe properties in Spain aren’t the only ones that Airbnb’s sharing with the traveling public. Here in the US, it only takes seconds of browsing through their properties to find others that aren’t up to basic building codes. One property in Maine has a lead photo that shows its deck (which is three steps high) with no railing around the deck or on the steps. Yet another rental, an apartment in Oregon, shows the same thing: a deck, not up to code, overlooking the ocean. Within minutes, I was able to find 20 properties on Airbnb that are being advertised and aren’t up to national building code standards.
People are, indeed, getting hurt in Airbnb vacation rentals that are not up to building codes. Last month, Michael Venci filed suit against Airbnb in New Orleans for alleged spine injuries he incurred after falling down stairs that didn’t meeting building code. Both Airbnb and the property owner are being accused of failing to maintain proper lighting, failing to provide a guardrail, and failing to use reasonable care in the vacation rental. Venci is seeking $75,000 in compensation.
So what? Why are properties that aren’t up to building code standards advertised on Airbnb or other OTAs like HomeAway, VRBO, and FlipKey?
This is a serious problem for the vacation rental industry.
A quick Google search reveals that hundreds of towns and cities around the US are cracking down on vacation rentals. The number one focus of most local governments is on basic home safety. The most recent locality to put forth a referendum is the City of Palm Springs, California. Officials in Palm Springs said, ”the proposed safety initiative would require short-term vacation rentals to comply with similar health, safety, accessibility, building, and insurance requirements that small motels and hotels are required to follow in the event the new ordinance is overturned.”
The key points of this statement are highly common. The hotel industry is aggressively pushing for the vacation rental industry to be required to follow the same safety standards that they are required to follow. This is their most useful tool to combat the potential takeover of the lodging industry by vacation rentals.
In order for Airbnb and the rest of the vacation rental industry to move forward successfully, it must embrace safety. Cool houses like one on Airbnb’s website located in Yucca Valley, California may be what’s helping attract new vacation renters to our industry. But if someone walks off of the concrete patio that is over three feet high, we will all end up paying for increased oversight and regulations. Airbnb, other OTAs, professional vacation managers, and RBOs need to set a standard that, unless their rentals meet national building code standards, they shouldn’t be offered as vacation rentals.
I reached out to Airbnb and asked them to remove their post. Despite replying to others who commented on the post, and despite many others pointing out the irony of the property being advertised as a good property for children, the post remained “live” for at least 24 hours past post time.
Justin Ford is the owner of On the Water in Maine vacation rentals in Maine. He has a background in safety that goes back to a four-year tour in the US Coast Guard where he participated in fishing vessel safety enforcement in Alaska. Later, he joined his local fire department where he is the training officer. Justin is also the Vice President of the Vacation Rental Professionals of Maine and presents regularly on safety for the VRMA. Justin also produces a Facebook community page on Vacation Rental Safety at https://www.facebook.com/Vacation-Rental-Safety-811465988927504.