[Editor’s Note: With listings in 190 countries, Airbnb is the world’s largest community-driven hospitality company. Paris is its largest market with 50,000+ rentals listed. Because of this, guests are potentially spoiled for choice when it comes to finding the perfect apartment. But not so fast. Here contributor Michele Kurlander, a Chicago-based lawyer, provides tips and tricks for getting the most out of your Airbnb experience in the French capital.]
I have had a love affair with Paris for a number of years, and when I visit, I like to experience the city as a resident not a tourist – not in a hotel but in my very own place; to leave my apartment and walk down cobblestone streets to find my morning coffee and croissant – or to purchase a morning newspaper and take it home with a fresh baked bread so I can read while drinking coffee brewed at home; to shop at local markets and to cook at home when I don’t feel like eating in a restaurant – or to wander down the street to a restaurant populated mostly by locals and have a refrigerator in which to keep leftovers (doggy bags have recently become ok in much of Paris).
I cannot afford to purchase one of the very expensive apartments springing up all over Paris, and I find professional rental agencies and their listings a bit impersonal.
Three years ago I found a solution – Airbnb, the worldwide matchmaking service between hosts and guests – still run from a SanFrancisco headquarters by the three entrepeneurial young men in San Francisco who invented the idea 7 years ago and who last year won Inc Magazine’s “2014 Company of the Year” award – and per the award announcement article in the magazine, were “guys with a website, three air mattresses, and ambitions that to many people sounded silly, naïve, and reckless” but “have revolutionized the way people think about travel, displaced the hospitality industry’s established players, and generated billions in revenue for themselves and their hosts.”
Understand, that your “host” is most often an individual who is turning over his or her residence to guests while moving elsewhere (with a boyfriend or girlfriend) or who maintains a second apartment to use for this purpose – not a professional in the real estate industry but just someone reaching out through the Internet for guests. (Sometimes, your host is someone who has become an investor and who maintains a number of apartments and perhaps uses third parties for management. I prefer the former, since I like interaction with the local resident – I met one several years ago at the Contrescarpe for wine before we went to put me into the apartment, and it really added to the experience.)
Hosts also rent rooms in their own residences, where you live in a separate room in their home which is still occupied by their family – but that is not what this article is about since I have never opted for that alternative. Also, I feel that the danger of a mistake is larger under this alternative.
The apartments you find through Airbnb can range from beautiful to a little funky, to very funky.
We have all seen the Internet complaints about horrendous experiences of both hosts and guests through airbnb. I had a friend who had one in the south of France where, among other things, she shared a bathroom with several other guests, the host reneged on her promise to let the guests use the kitchen, and the nearest restaurant was a long bus ride away. I have also read of guests waiting hours offsite to receive a key from a friend of their host. I have also read of guests who found mold, roaches, and other horrible circumstances.
So how do you know what you are going to get or whether it will work out for you?
How do you know the difference before you arrive with your bags? And what if it is not what you expected, not just a little, but by a long shot?
I cannot offer certainty, but some rules that may help – and have made memorable all of my experiences over the last 3 years (8 rentals in less than 3 years).
As I write this article, I am drinking a matcha tea that I made in the little kitchen of a studio apartment on the second french floor of a 500 year old building with beamed ceilings, a couple of blocks from the Pantheon on one side and rue Mouffetard on the other , while boiled eggs gurgle on the cooktop and through my window I can see the thick green crown of a tree growing in the small courtyard out back.
Yes – the microwave wasn’t working at first, but the owner just left after bounding up the steps so fast he tripped on the landing, racing around turning everything on and off to make sure it worked even though I assured him it was only the microwave, and putting in a new fuse. When he met me here a couple of days ago he told me he is the third generation owner of this entire building (I believe that this is the only apartment here subject to airbnb short term rental ) – and he displayed pride in showing me around when I arrived and pointing out not only how things worked, but the fact that the floral decorated wardrobe in the main room is 200 years old and the fully functional cable tv and internet uses wires that don’t interfere with the building’s historical integrity. I believe him. He installed a heated towel rack in the bathroom which – a miracle for Paris – has a tub (not just a shower), and he made up the large bed with a navy blue quilt, matching pillowcases, and velveteen green throw pillows – a nice touch. There is, however, no pepper in the kitchen – only salt and a little olive oil – and it is one of those narrow kitchens without a table.
My last rental a week ago – 10 minutes from here – supplied me with olive oil, bread crumbs, salt and pepper and numerous other spices, coffee pods and a machine to put them in, and an American sized kitchen, but in the main room, the bed was a “click-clack” (a futon that converts from a bed to a sofa – that is, when it worked) and I had to climb three flights to get there.
Here – I have one nice half table for my computer, which needs to also be used to eat on. In that other rental, there was a desk with bookshelves for my computer– right next to the faux balconied window where bright sun shone in on me, church bells rang from L’église Saint-Médard around the corner, and there was a separate table to eat on in the kitchen – but no bathroom per se – just a small closet-like room with only the toilet and some shelves, another closet like room with only a shower, and the only sink being in the kitchen.
This rental cost me $575 for 6 nights, and the other one $509 for the same period – a daily charge ranging from $85 to $96 per day (including the Airbnb “service” charge and, in one case, a “cleaning” fee).
In other words, renting small apartments in Paris through Airbnb doesn’t provide perfection, but if you do your homework and follow what I feel are some basic rules you can have the experience of living locally and comfortably at a truly budget price.
What is important is that you make your own decision as to what level of non-perfection is ok. I loved both these apartments, and for the most part knew exactly what I was getting before signing up and paying for the week. I don’t mind climbing up to 3 flights – once I did 5 (never again) – but you may need ground level or an elevator.
Here are the “rules” that I have developed, and which so far have served me well.
- Carefully choose amenities and location details in your search.
On Airbnb’s site, you start with registering on the site, and for each individual search, you get to check details that you are looking for. You can specify such amenities as wifi, bathroom, kitchen, number of rooms, whether you need a separate bedroom, or more than one bed, an elevator, etc. You also can limit your search to certain neighborhoods.
Take your time and make sure before you start the search that you have carefully made your choices – but don’t get too picky or you may reduce your choices materially when some of the so called “amenities” are not absolutely necessary for your comfort. For example, consider climbing to a second or third floor or even higher since limiting to elevator buildings will seriously reduce your choices and increase your price.
- Ask questions and fill in the blanks – including the location and neighborhood and internet and amenities.
I need to continue to practice law when in France, so for me a working and reliable wifi is critical. That means that I don’t just check the “amenity” box, but specifically ask the question. You get to have a dialogue with the host through the Airbnb site before finalizing your decision, and I ask a lot of questions to complete what I believe to be missing information. For example:
I always try to locate the apartment. Airbnb gives you the street name and a vicinity, but not too close. I have asked the host for the exact address, and often they do not object. Or I ask where on the street it is – between where and where. From there I go to google maps and go to the street level option and actually “walk” by the place to get a feel as to where I will be living. My preference is that it be not too far from a market, or at a minimum is not on a wide and busy commercial street. I once opted for an apartment on Cardinal Lemoine, that looked perfect – private balcony and even a separate bedroom – but then realized as I “walked” by that I was on the part of Cardinal Lemoine that widened into a busy commercial street, with a fire station right across from me – no longer a residential or typical Parisian street with atmosphere. As I walked from there to Mouffetard, it didn’t feel right. I was able to cancel the listing, and find a place on rue Pot de Fer – the very narrow cobblestone street where George Orwell lived in a run down hotel while writing “Down and Out in Paris and London” – a hotel that is now a residential building. Six minutes away – but made all of the difference since for that rental I was spending an important birthday month and I would have been very unhappy in the first place.
Make sure you can see everything. I looked around the photos of one apartment and realized there were big blanks – sides of the apartment I really couldn’t see. I wrote to the host a number of times and finally she added photos to the site. Those photos led me to not opt for that place.
Make sure nothing important to you is missing. One place appeared to have a two burner hot surface for cooking, but no oven or microwave. I questioned him, and he got a combo microwave/oven which was installed before I moved in. Before renting one place, I noticed there was no table other than an end table – in other words, no place for my computer OR to eat on. Discussed it with the owner, who agreed – before I formally opted for the place – to get a small table put in – which he did.
Always ask what floor the apartment is on and how steep are the stairs and, then, whether there is an elevator. I have discovered that seldom are these facts a part of the listing or of the photos – you simply have to ask.
3. Note how quickly the host responds as you dialogue on the Internet through the Airbnb site. Try to talk to the host: First, if the host is non responsive or takes a very long time to answer questions, you can assume the same thing might occur after you move in so problems may remain unresolved. In this case, I will not opt for the place. Sometimes, I will try to discuss things before I have made a final decision. Since Airbnb does not disclose actual contact info, and trying to insert a telephone number or e mail address into the conversation results in the site blocking that part of the message, you need to get creative – one host and I shared our tel. numbers by doing it in three pieces. That was the case with my discussions re the missing microwave above. In other words, if you have some serious concerns, but are really close to opting for a place, at least try to talk to the host since not only can any remaining issues be cleared up on the phone, but I find also that I have a feel for who he or she is, and how responsive they are going to be.
4. Check the Reviews: Guests are strongly encouraged by Airbnb to write and post reviews within 14 days of the end of the rental, and hosts are encouraged to review guests. I have always done my reviews, and in return I have had several hosts who have given me very positive ones. That does of course help in future rentals. More importantly, the best way to find out what the place and the host are really like is to read reviews. It was only through the reviews that I discovered that one possible rental was on a higher floor than I had assumed. Only once did I rent a place that did not have a number of posted reviews – and in that case, I had extensive conversations with the host and had him permit a friend of mine who lived nearby to come over and look at the place. That’s how important I think reviews are.
5. Make sure you understand all of the charges as well as the “refund policy”. Don’t just look at the daily or weekly charge – but also look at add-ons. In each case, there is the Airbnb “service charge”. Some hosts require a refundible security deposit. Some require a cleaning charge (not refundible), and one required that I deposit a daily estimate for utilities, which was settled at move out and final reading of the meter. There are various refund policies – which you need to become familiar with since in many cases, you can change your mind and reverse the charge on your credit card until maybe a week or so before the date; in others you will lose some or all of what you paid if you cancel.
6. Make sure you contact the host way in advance to make the arrangements for your move in. Airbnb will email you as a reminder, but nevertheless you and the host need to decide how and when you will meet – and whether at the apartment or elsewhere – so you can be let in, told the wifi and door codes, given a key, etc. I had to sit at the Contrescarpe having lunch and listening to a jazz band for a few hours between my two rentals this month because Host No. 1 needed me out by 11:00 am and Host No. 2 wouldn’t be done with the cleaning until almost 2:00 pm. Because I knew this in advance, I made arrangements to meet a friend there. In each case, I was met at the apartment – in the 2nd case I needed to text or call him since he told me he was not in the apartment but elsewhere in the building.
7. Finally – go onto the Airbnb site and read their terms of service and, most importantly, the rules regarding their Guest Refund Policy – a separate document. I’m not saying that you need to read all 36 pages of the most recent Terms of Service, but skim it and it will really tell you what the deal is. More importantly – the guest refund policy (only 3 pages long) is where you can find the list of what is considered a “travel issue” (which includes a number of items, including whether the size and amenities are “materially inaccurate” compared to what has been promised).
It is important to know that per these terms, Airbnb is simply the provider of a “platform” where hosts can list facilities and guests can access the listings and communicate directly with the hosts and make their deal with the host, that Airbnb does not guarantee anything with respect to the host or the site, and is not a party to your agreement with the host, BUT that the hosts have to abide by certain rules, including the correctness of their listings AND Airbnb operates as a “limited payment collection agent” for the hosts – meaning (AND THIS IS IMPORTANT) that Airbnb takes your payment in the form of a credit card charge, via a related entity called “Airbnb payments” and it is Airbnb Payments that remits the money to the host – generally only after 24 hours after you enter the premises; that if there is a “travel issue” (you are not given access, or the place has a “material innacuracy”) you must tell Airbnb within that 24 hour period – they have a 24 /7 hotline – and the host promises to be available to you during that 24 hour period to try to resolve issues. If the issue is not resolved, then Airbnb has, under their “Guest Refund Policy”, the option to either cause you to be reimbursed, or to use reasonable efforts to find and book you another accomodation. ALSO, I READ RECENTLY THAT PEOPLE HAVE BEEN SCAMMED BY ALLEGED AIRBNB HOSTS INSISTING ON PAYMENTS BY WIRING OF FUNDS. Airbnb always takes your credit card – that is how they operate. Be wary of anyone asking for any other means of receiving your funds.
Lead photo credit : Sunset panorama from top of Notre Dame/ by Moyan Brenn on Flickr