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Is anyone in charge of making your Airbnb or other rental safe?

By Sam Kemmis | NerdWallet

Aviation safety is constantly under public scrutiny. When the door flew off a Boeing 737 in January, it made headlines for months. The U.S. House of Representatives recently passed a bill giving the Federal Aviation Administration $105 billion to hire more air traffic controllers, improve runway safety and even train flight attendants in self-defense.

Yet the safety of short-term rentals, available on platforms like Airbnb and Vrbo, receives far less attention.

When a fire at an illegal Airbnb rental in Montreal killed seven people last year, it was primarily local news. Social media is filled with tips for improving the safety of a rental — such as checking for hidden cameras — yet it’s difficult to know whether these address real or imagined threats. That’s partly because no regulatory agency oversees the safety of short-term rentals.

A safety Wild West

“Imagine if Delta Air Lines said you have to bring your own oxygen tank — you’d say, ‘No way, I’m not getting on there,’” says Justin Ford, the director of short-term rental safety and certification programs at Breezeway, a property operations platform for short-term rental property managers. “Yet people are saying you should bring your own carbon monoxide alarm to a rental. We, as an industry, should be embarrassed by that.”

Airbnb insists the problem is minor.

“With over 1.5 billion guest arrivals to 220 countries and regions, safety issues on Airbnb are incredibly rare,” an Airbnb spokesperson said in an email. “We are committed to helping our global community travel and host safely on the platform. We continually invest in these efforts, including through dedicated policies, resources for hosts and guests, and support like our 24-hour safety line, and we partner with experts to help inform our work.”

Yet the scope of the problem is difficult to assess. These rentals remain largely unregulated, stymying efforts to track and report incidents. And, unlike aviation safety, there is no clear party responsible for maintaining the safety of short-term rentals. Is it the hosts? Or the platform? Or local governments?

As it turns out, nobody really knows.

Slips, trips and gas leaks

The heat was off when Jack Epner checked into an Airbnb in Spain, so he messaged the host about turning it on. The host said the heater had a potential safety issue and was reluctant to turn it on due to her “fear of the house exploding.”

“Her ‘solution’ was to give me a giant tank of butane for my bedroom — a giant tank of flammable gas that I could smell leaking,” Epner, who is nomadic, explained in an email.

The experience soured him on the short-term rental platform.

“I simply don’t want to deal with them ever again,” Epner said.

Some experts say safety issues at short-term rentals are not usually this dramatic.

Ford, the safety expert, says, “83% of issues are due to slips, trips and falls. That’s where we’re seeing the injuries happening.”

According to Ford, improper lighting, missing handrails and even area rugs can cause accidents. He says that hosts can enhance safety by improving these features in their rentals, but that the real problem lies in the lack of safety standards across the industry.

“The big challenge is that there are standards for most commercial properties, but a lot of those standards don’t extend to short-term rentals,” Ford says. He adds that this is true “in about 95% of locations.”

Who’s in charge here?

Some local governments have tried to require safety inspections for short-term rentals.

The city of Portland, Oregon, requires basic safety requirements for rentals, such as a working smoke detector and bedrooms that are up to code. Yet, as part of the city’s struggles to enforce its short-term rental regulations, it has inspected only 14 properties since 2019.

“Resources and permit fee costs act as inspection limitations,” Robert B. Layne II, senior communication coordinator for the city of Portland’s Bureau of Development Services, said in an email, explaining why so few properties have received these basic safety checks. The fees for registering a property would have to be drastically increased to cover inspection costs.

And while short-term rental platforms such as Airbnb and Vrbo offer safety guidelines for hosts, they have shied away from mandating inspections.

“Airbnb banned cameras in their properties,” Ford says. “Why can they do that but not require a deck inspection? They’re being selective in what they do.”

It’s a game of kick the can involving safety, with nobody — hosts, platforms or local governments — taking full responsibility. Ford says another group may need to step up to improve guest safety.

“The insurance companies need to stand up more and demand changes,” Ford says, suggesting that short-term rentals are getting harder to insure and that safety inspections could impact hosts’ bottom line if insurers demand them.

How to stay safe

Airbnb and Vrbo show which safety features, including carbon monoxide alarms and fire extinguishers, are included in each property. Safety-minded guests can filter results by those that contain these features.

Guests should remain aware of the unregulated nature of these rentals and seek properties managed by professional hosts, according to Ford. Messaging potential hosts and asking about basic safety information is a good way to determine how seriously they take guest safety. Ask about:

  • Fire alarm batteries.
  • Deck inspections.
  • Pool fences.
  • Bunk bed railings.

And Ford suggests that guests with families talk to their children about potential hazards, especially with swimming pools.

“We’ve seen a lot of pool drownings lately,” Ford says. “We need to have these discussions with our children about pools.”

Note: Because of an editing error, Breezeway was originally noted as an online communication platform for short-term rental property managers. It is a property operations platform. The article has been updated to reflect this change.

Sam Kemmis writes for NerdWallet. Email: skemmis@nerdwallet.com. Twitter: @samsambutdif.


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