From the New York Times comes another article about a recent phenomenon, short-term vacation rentals in private homes. These cheaper accommodations fill a niche for the budget traveler.
Europe Without Hotels - New York Times
12 July 2010 By BENJI LANYADO
IN the middle of a cool, cloudless Parisian afternoon, light was pouring into my guest room from a turn-of-the-century courtyard in the 10th Arrondissement. I clambered up to the loft bed, suspended above dark oak floors, and stared at the textiles shop sign swinging in the courtyard through the large, almost floor-to-ceiling windows.
A bottle of Bordeaux was breathing; other amenities included a pantry stocked with cereal, milk and yogurt. I also had a phone number to call if I needed dinner recommendations or, perhaps, extra shower gel. But I was happy sitting at the window, nodding at my new neighbors as they wheeled their bikes onto the street and headed into the cafe-lined Marais.
Hotel guests pay handsomely for such perks, but I wasn’t in a hotel. Nor was I in some vacation rental. I was in the home of Julien Szeps, a 26-year-old chef whom I met through a new kind of short-term rental service called AirBnB.com. And the studio apartment was only 65 euros a night, about $80 at $1.23 to the euro. Not bad for an entire apartment with a full kitchen and bathroom, less than 10 minutes by foot from the Louvre.
While AirBnB is the largest of these new services, it isn’t the only one. A half-dozen upstarts have emerged in the last two years — with names like iStopOver.com and Crashpadder.com — offering the convenience of a hotel, the comforts of a home and the price tag of an up-market hostel. Call them social B&B networks, or maybe peer-to-peer hotels. Despite the confusing legal issues in many cities surrounding subletting, these new short-term rentals are making inroads into the hospitality industry, with hundreds of thousands of listings across the globe; there are over 3,500 short-term rentals in New York State alone.
Social networking first significantly influenced the world of travel in 1999 with the start of Couchsurfing, a service in which members offer a spare couch — or bed, or floor space — to fellow Couchsurfers, at no charge. It spawned a social phenomenon, and today counts almost two million people in 238 countries as members.
Social B&B networks are a natural next step, imposing an important distinction: money. The new sites appeal to a traveler’s desire to see a city through local eyes (and from the vantage point of a resident’s home), but add a hedge against disaster: with Couchsurfing you get what’s given (it’s free, after all), while sites like AirBnB generally provide detailed descriptions of the private rooms or apartments available for rent, along with protections if things go wrong.
In my own personal evolution, the proliferation of these new services couldn’t have come at a better time. I used to Couchsurf frequently, from mattresses in Soviet-era tower blocks in Poland to luxurious condos in Madrid. But gradually, I’ve stopped using the service. These days I want a little privacy, especially if I’m traveling with my girlfriend. And I’m happy to pay a little money to guarantee a bed. Various vital signs are indicating that — sigh — I am growing up.
Unfortunately, my bank balance is still in the throes of adolescence, and upscale hotels are still well out of my reach. So I decided to test-drive a few of these new social B&Bs in a three-stop trip through Europe this spring. I began at home, in London. I decided to use Crashpadder.com, a two-year-old British-based site covering 59 countries, with a particularly strong selection of peer-to-peer listings in the city. You’re lucky to get a London hotel for less than £100 (about $143) a night, but on the first page of my Crashpadder search results, I saw beds going for £21. In northern cities like Manchester or Leeds, there were beds for under £10.
To book one, I first had to create a short profile of myself. Unlike Expedia.com or other traditional hotel booking services, these sites rely on social networking, and everyone is encouraged to have a face and a little back story. I rewrote my entry three times before settling on: “Hello there. I am a 26-year-old from London. I like Chinese food and early ’90s Italian football shirts.”
NEXT, I scoured its listings. There was a luxury apartment in north London owned by an information technology professional who rents it out for £65 a night when he’s out of town. In Bloomsbury, an American social worker had a room for £35 a night. But my dash across Europe necessitated a bed near St. Pancras International train station, so I opted for a “clean simple room with a chrome silver double bed” in the once-seedy district of Kings Cross for £50, owned by a 39-year-old vintage-clothing buyer.
Once you’ve found your room on Crashpadder, you can interact with the host through the internal messaging system and ask any questions you might have. (Do I need to bring towels? Do you have cats?) Hosts can ask for the money either up front or upon arrival.
A week after booking my room, I rolled my bag through the back streets of Kings Cross, aiming for a 1920s red-brick council building, where my host, Rachelle Hungerford-Boyle, lives on the third floor. It was the kind of unspectacular housing block that makes up vast swaths of the city, scattered in between the genteel stucco mansions that make it into the films.
I was buzzed through an electronic gate, and found Ms. Hungerford-Boyle hanging over the balcony, beckoning me up. I maneuvered my way through a soccer game among 8-year-olds and marched up to meet her. Inside her small apartment, the living room was dotted with extravagant secondhand dresses she had picked up in markets around the world. She’d sell her prize possession, a fluffy ball gown dangling from the window, only to Lady Gaga, she said.
My room, just over 10 by 10 feet, with a double bed and a door that locked, was good enough as a base. There was also a kitchen I was free to use, and a bathroom and shower. As this was my first social B&B experience, it was also immediately clear what I wasn’t getting. I couldn’t walk around naked, for example, and there wasn’t a concierge who could make a dinner reservation for me. But there was Ms. Hungerford-Boyle, who, while making her temporary bed in the living room (where she sleeps when she has guests), told me how quickly the area was gentrifying, and suggested I visit Simmons, a trendy bar around the corner.
At Simmons later that evening, I thought about the £50 I had paid for Ms. Hungerford-Boyle’s spare room. Founded in 2008, Crashpadder hasn’t expanded as much as AirBnB (in early July it had listings in 898 cities compared with AirBnB’s 5,378). I had a feeling that prices were somewhat scattershot, freed from the self-regulating bonds of a more mature marketplace. At my next stop, I wanted more.
The next morning I caught a Eurostar train to Paris, where my social B&B was booked through AirBnB.com. The site, which is based in San Francisco, was started by Joe Gebbia and Brian Chesky, roommates who decided to rent out their spare bedroom to people visiting the city for a design conference. An idea was born.
The site started operating in 2007, but it wasn’t until the following year — during the Democratic and Republican conventions in Denver and St. Paul — that it started making waves. When Denver ran out of hotel beds, more than 300 residents used AirBnB to offer spare rooms. Unwittingly, they had opened a new tier in the holiday accommodation industry.
In Paris, AirBnB has places in every arrondissement, including $13-a-night rooms in the western suburbs and $285-a-night houseboats on the Seine. As the first Web site of its kind to grab the headlines, the system has already developed a large and loyal user base. Some properties have as many as 70 user-generated reviews, which give paying guests a greater sense of confidence. It is similar to how eBay works: you’re more likely to buy from an eBay seller with good feedback.
My studio apartment there had received gushing write-ups from AirBnB users, including Francesca, who wrote that it was “peaceful, lovely and so cute!”
After paying $97 for the booking via PayPal, the service sent me Mr. Szeps’s e-mail and street addresses, and within an hour of arriving in Paris, I turned up in his courtyard, and entered his beautiful studio apartment.
Mr. Szeps joined AirBnB this year. “I used Craigslist when I wanted to rent the apartment before, but it was a little too risky. I didn’t really know who was turning up,” he said. “Then I used a normal B&B agency, but they made the apartment too expensive with their commission, and nobody came” he told me. Then he found AirBnB.
Since then, he has been a busy host, often receiving guests three nights a week. Some have stayed for as long as a month. By cutting out a traditional real estate agency, which can charge as much as 60 percent commission on top of a host’s base rate, he can offer his apartment at a more competitive price. AirBnB tacks on 6 to 12 percent (the more expensive the rate, the smaller the commission). He even offers special deals during off-peak times. Though he didn’t plan it, it has become a supplementary business for him.
As a restaurant professional, Mr. Szeps was also armed with tips, and he dispatched me to the Marché des Enfants Rouges, 10 minutes away in the northern Marais, where local traders have been selling fruits and vegetables since the 18th century. Today, West African and Asian stands are nestled between selections of Normandy cheese and produce from Île-de-France. For dinner, he recommended a Parisian classic: an al fresco picnic on the Canal St.-Martin, the splendid waterway that cuts an L-shaped swath through the northern part of the city center.
Not everyone is happy with these new social B&Bs. Innkeepers, for one, point out that they are unlicensed, uninsured and, depending on local real estate laws, against the law. In Paris, for example, renting a residential apartment for less than a year is considered illegal, though many pied-à-terre owners do it anyway. And in New York City, tenants and co-op owners are not usually allowed to sublet their apartments for short stays without permission from the landlord or co-op board. Still, neither apartment owners who stand to make money from these sites, nor the growing numbers of travelers looking for a middle ground between Couchsurfing and a traditional B&B or hotel are likely to be deterred.
When I contacted AirBnB about its stance on the questionable legality of listings in some cities, a spokesman declined to comment.
As for myself, I’ve stayed in many B&Bs in Paris on previous visits, and none were as comfortable as Mr. Szeps’s apartment, or as good a value.
For the final stop, I caught an overnight train from the Gare Montparnasse to Barcelona, arriving on a beautifully clear Thursday morning. As I walked through the multistory 19th-century apartment blocks, I caught late-rising locals nursing coffees in corner cafes.
I was looking for an apartment I found through iStopOver, a year-old site based in Toronto that specializes in providing housing during large events like the World Cup and the Olympics, when visitor demand outstrips the supply of traditional hotels and B&Bs. The “Barcelona Penthouse” looked a little less homey, and more like a traditional vacation rental, than other listings, but I drooled over its outdoor terrace.
It was also in the Eixample neighborhood — a 15-minute walk from the tourist-drenched sidewalks of La Rambla, though it feels like a different city. There are no street performers or tacky stalls, just motorbikes parked outside apartment buildings with staggered roofs, and tier after tier of balconies overlooking quiet streets.
I buzzed an intercom two doors down from a tiny corner cafe, and was greeted by Arian Mostaedi, a 30-something publisher of coffee-table design books, who guided me through his modern one-bedroom apartment, with a glass kitchen table set for dinner for two, a sparkling bathroom with a glass shower stall, and a queen-size bed. And bingo — the large roof terrace with lounge chairs shrouded in citrus plants. For $105, it was a bargain.
Mr. Mostaedi bought the apartment with the intention of renting it out when he didn’t have family staying — his mother is a regular guest. He, too, got frustrated with local agencies, and instead listed his apartment using a less expensive service in which he could vet guests, and interact with them before they arrived.
After the brief tour, I gave Mr. Mostaedi the code that allows him to collect my payment from iStopOver. That’s one of the safeguards that iStopOver offers to guests. If a listing turns out to be fraudulent or misstated, you can refuse to give the owner the code, and the fee is refunded in full. Other services offer similar protections: AirBnB withholds a host’s payment until 24 hours after guests check into an accommodation in order to fend off potential scammers, and Crashpadder uses credit card payments to verify guest identities (though it says it will monitor but not otherwise involve itself in any disputes).
IStopOver also offers to mediate in the event of a dispute, but I had no reason to try this out. The apartment was superb. So were Mr. Mostaedi’s recommendations for restaurants and his hospitality. He left cookies and fruit in the apartment, and called me several times to check that everything was O.K. This is another perk of these new social B&B networks: hosts seem more inclined to take care of guests.
I spent most of my stay in Barcelona sprawled on my rooftop terrace, dipping in and out of the apartment for cold drinks and sliced fruit. I napped on a bed surrounded by exotic patterned pillows, with the balcony door open and the occasional whoosh of a car, or the sound of nattering shop owners, drifting up from the street. As the sun faded, a text arrived from Mr. Mostaedi, asking whether I was all right, and if I needed anything.
“All is good,” I replied, as I watched my own private slice of Barcelona skyline turn from orange to red to blue.
These sites are growing, and the number of listings is growing with them. These numbers were supplied in early July.
AirBnB.com, founded in 2007 in San Francisco, is the largest of this new generation of social B&Bs and has the most user reviews.
Where: About 5,378 cities in 146 countries.
Accommodations: Air mattresses to entire villas.
Price: In New York, from $10 for a room to $3,000 for a loft.
IStopOver, founded in 2009 in Toronto, specializes in big events, like this summer’s World Cup in South Africa.
Where: Mostly North America, Europe and South Africa.
Accommodations: Apartments and houses.
Price: $10 to $8,000 a night.
Founded in 2008 in London, Crashpadder.com operates mostly in Britain, with a surge expected during the 2010 Olympics in London.
Where: 898 cities, including more than 1,000 listings in London.
Accommodations: Bedrooms to houses.
Price: From £15 (about $21 at $1.43 to the pound) a night, plus £3 booking fee.
Founded in 2008, Roomorama.com focuses on higher-end properties, especially in New York City.
Where: 36 cities, including more than 1,000 listings in New York.
Accommodations: Bedrooms to houses.
Price: From $30 to $5,000, plus an 8 to 12 percent booking fee.