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An AirBnB horror story
Being an AirBnB guest can be a frightening experience
It was our sixth long-term stay on our tour around the Dordogne and Bordeaux areas, to experiment with living in France. After a delightful summer, we decided to find somewhere we could stay for a few months, on a kind of winter retreat. The listing we found, which promised so much, unfortunately was full of omissions and flowery language (a tranquil paradise etc.) that turned out to be hollow and untrue. Spooky fish-shaped driftwood and wreaths lay about among old chipped fish dishes as an attempt at a seaside theme, adding to this damp and tired, out of place barn nearly two hours from the sea. The pool was not heated as promised, there was no mention of a large, noisy dog whose toilet was the garden, there was no fire extinguisher despite the electrics being well-below standard (I received mild electric shocks from my hi-fi on the first day and could smell burning from a bare light bulb that was resting on a wooden beam), the attic bedroom was around 4–5 ft high so impossible for an adult to stand up in, and the kitchen was disgusting and dangerous. Oh, and the Wifi (a wireless extension of the host’s own) was about 7mbps so inadequate for client Zoom calls, which meant we had to use our own data via our Netgear mobile router placed on a window sill.
We are regular van-dwellers with a strong spirit of adventure, so can put up with many things for a safe and sound accommodation. The price for the converted barn next to the host’s house was fair and the description attractive, so we decided we could live with the initial issues we found, and continue to weather the whole five months we’d booked it for, in order to fully experience French countryside in the winter. But things were to get much worse.
After six weeks we started to feel a strange atmosphere, like someone was in the house with us, who wasn’t happy with us being there. Kaye felt something bad had happened, which she’d never felt anywhere ever before, and couldn’t sleep properly. A couple of light bulbs literally exploded, which also tripped two safety switches for the plug sockets, so I pushed the switches back up and reported it asking politely for two bulbs. Then the whole electricity started cutting out. We thought we heard footsteps upstairs and the air was getting damper as the days went by. Were we sinking into an ancient sea in some nightmare parallel universe? We communicated our concerns about the electricity to the host via the Airbnb messaging system and got responses about an overloaded system, which was connected to their house next door. We could hear them marching out to the external junction box and flicking switches, anxious voices in the dark with searchlights. But the cuts got more frequent, up to five times in one day and they started ignoring our concerns. Being suddenly plunged into darkness when holding a boiling kettle or on the stairs was scary and dangerous. The barn was fully electric, the heaters were on full and only just kept the room temperature at eighteen degrees. There was no heating in the bathroom or kitchen and the when the temperature outside dropped below freezing, they were places we didn’t want to go in, not just because they were cold, but there was something that made the neck hairs stand up. This was a very wet November on the side of a North facing hill in the shade and the place started to smell damp and get colder. I saw the external door handle move by itself three or four times but put it down the the wind and wonky fittings.
Something else about our hosts felt increasingly odd. When we first moved in, the family, with two small children came to meet us and were really pleasant, if a little shy and distant, with a bit of the expected language barrier. This attempt at being sociable disappeared quickly and our approaches were met with some coldness. We wondered why the husband regularly appeared in the garden trying to clean the pool of leaves, instead of just covering it, as everyone else does. It was unheated anyway, and we hadn’t used it, but there he was regularly trying to fish out leaves. A cursory enquiry revealed they’d only moved in two years previously and I deduced he didn’t know what he was doing but left him to it. I rescued a large toad out of the pool once. During my attempted conversations with the guy in our rented garden, which included offers of painting their rotting window frames, I discovered he really didn’t want to get to know me. Something was amiss. We invited the wife for a coffee but she declined. It was as if they were trying to keep away not just from us, but the house as well. We weren’t shown where to put our rubbish, nor where to get logs for the huge cast-iron range (which they confessed didn’t know if it worked or not). From then on, both we and they kept separate lives and we all continued to live that way, despite being next door to each other in the middle of the countryside. I appreciate privacy and the formality, but we couldn’t help wondering, did they know something about the house they weren’t letting on?
Naturally, we started thinking about leaving and asked the host if they would be happy to negotiate an early exit, as it clearly wasn’t working for us and there were some unexpected things they needed to work out. We didn’t feel it was fair to charge us the standard extra thirty days if we were to cancel on safety grounds. After half a day when I didn’t get a response, I asked AirBnB what our rights were.
“Since this electricity is an essential utility we can help you about your concern if you will cancel the reservation.”
We decided to instruct AirBnB to provide a month’s notice (as we needed to work uninterrupted and take a short trip elsewhere), which I thought was fair. When I grew concerned about the possibility of an argument with the host, a nice Airbnb assistant told me:
“One of our evidence that the Host is not responding even the last messages that you send about the changes.”
Within hours, things suddenly took a nasty turn. I could hear Kaye, my wife on the phone upstairs, unusually for her, shouting at someone. I cut my support group meeting short, apologising to the participants. She turned on the phone’s speaker and I hit record on my own. The guy had exploded! He was irate, ranting in his strong accent, calling us liars and laying down an ultimatum — either we “pay everything up until March now or leave tonight!” I was shocked but projected calm. Kaye was in tears. I asked him if he wanted to come round and discuss things “like gentlemen”. He said he was at work and besides, “tonight would be too late”, adding,
“After tonight there is no more discussion and you will see. I will bring someone to help.”
I was quickly aware he was on very thin ice with the law. Having given him a good ten minutes of my patience, I chose my moment. At a pause, I told him very clearly and firmly,
“OK, you listen to me now. If you don’t stop calling me a liar and threatening us with eviction I will call the fucking gendarmerie.”
I meant it. I paused. I was still recording.
I thought, “It’s over to you, monsieur.”
He started to calm down just a little, and eventually promising the electricity had been upgraded, but still, the ultimatum was there, and he wasn’t budging. I gave him the benefit of the doubt, perhaps the electricity had really been upgraded. Perhaps ‘liar’ meant something different in French. I told him I would reverse the official cancellation with AirBnB. I even apologised, although I don’t know why. Anyway, it effectively bought us some time, and at least we didn’t have to move out immediately. It was already dark and we had moved in a lot of possessions for our five-month stay.
But I had already been coerced into doing something I didn’t want to do, and we were both very shaken. We were already strangers in a strange land, with no one to turn to.
We feared he was going to come round in the night or turn the power off. I thought about going to the police but we were too scared to lose our shelter straight away. We looked up the law on the internet and discovered French law is very pro-tenant, for example, it is illegal to evict in winter. It was highly likely the host would be in serious trouble if we were to inform the authorities.
This was arguably harassment, extortion and forced eviction; unnecessary and violent threats to legitimate, paying guests who only wanted a peaceful and safe place to stay.
I messaged AirBnB what had just happened and told them I had the recording, but we wanted to stay a while to think things through. A caring message came back, “Are you guys ok?”
We pondered we might have a peaceful few days to let this settle in and decide what to do next. But it was clear that there was no more trust and the harassment was a new, far more serious safety issue. He had referred to my several earlier polite, concerning messages (which had been ignored) as “a catastrophe.” Moving out quickly would’ve been distressing and inconvenient at this time, which is why we had politely asked for an early exit. Apart from really imagining we were being dishonest, there was no reason we could think of for this man to react the way he did.
We tried to joke about the episode, trying to get inside his brain, mimicking his high-pitched ranting, lightening the atmosphere a little. After a restless night, I awoke at 4.30am and knew we had to leave.
It took us around six hours to quietly pack the van by moonlight and when the sun came up, revealing a beautiful thick mist in the valley below, we drove away for the last time, relieved.
Half an hour down the road south, I pulled over and messaged AirBnB to cancel everything, which they did, and immediately began their investigation. I received assurance calls from a member of their safety team, we were refunded for the rest of the month and given a discount coupon for future use. For a few days, travelling around our new ‘safe house’, the effects of a traumatic experience manifested in imagining further threats, or that we saw his car following us, or that he found out where we were staying, and worse.
I’m happy to report the ghosts have now gone, but being an AirBnB guest can be a real hazardous and frightening experience, even for hardy explorers like us.