(or, How I Slayed Viperhead)
Homestay is a lovely way to travel, but this cautionary tale
will help readers navigate the rare Airbnb host nightmare.
Names and media changed to protect privacy. December 21, 2020
here is an Airbnb text, can you read it to me?” I tell Jane. We’re driving south, to a far southern corner of Oregon. But things won’t go south yet.
“It’s our Airbnb hosts. Gary and Pamela. They want to make sure we read the manual,” Jane says. She already knows that I always read the house rules. I have fallen in love with homestay as a way to travel, relied on the local knowledge of my Airbnb hosts, made lifelong friends with some of them, and left each unit in great shape.
Homestay home rentals has opened travel wide open for me; allowing me to stay in places where no hotels exist, to afford stays in places that would otherwise be unaffordable, and often to have a willing local to help with directions, translations and navigating the neighborhood.
“Why don’t we read the house manual again. Can you read it and tell me the highlights?”
Fifteen minutes passes by. “These are some pretty detailed instructions,” Jane says. “If you’re gonna tell your guests that your housekeeper gets angry if you put the cast iron skillet in the dishwasher, why not just leave out the cast iron skillet?” she says, before rattling off the house rules.
“What’s next?” I ask, realizing that there was something different about this rental.
“It just stops there. Mid-sentence. Anyways, the one about the dock is weird. I guess the property doesn’t have a dock, but the neighbor does,” Jane explains.
Airbnb Host is Hiding his True Identity
Our Airbnb homestay is on a coastal lake in Southern Oregon. We had chosen the location with our dog-owner friends at the beginning of the pandemic. Together, we decided that we didn’t care where we went, as long as we could find a place that was pet-friendly, and that we could drive there within the confines of a long weekend. As pet owners, our neighbors usually book our common rental, but I felt like it was my turn.
We arrive at our homestay, located atop a steep sand-dune hill. Night is approaching, and a deep marine fog darkens everything. We unpack the Jeep, hoping for sleep. Another text on my phone. This time, it’s not an Airbnb message, but a phone text. “Don’t mean to alarm you. This is your host. Just taking out the garbage.”
I walk out to meet him. We chat for a few minutes while his girlfriend sits in their car, looking at us.
The next morning, the coastal lake is still shrouded in fog, and our hosts drive up the steep hill to our homestay rental, and Gary gets out of the car, while his girlfriend stares at us with the car windows up. They are coming to say hello and formally introduce themselves.
Gary begins by explaining that he’s not really Gary.
“So, our Airbnb names aren’t really our real names,” Gary explains. “I’m an actor, and I’ve been stalked a few times, so it’s important to keep our true identities a secret. Well, I’ve been stalked twice, but still.”
Our friends arrive in the evening, with their big, smiley and lovable bernadoodle, Qui-gon. We meet them in a nearby town for dinner, and get back to the rental late in the evening. When I wake up in the morning, I notice that our kids are already out playing, and there is a man in the driveway. He is wearing khaki outdoor-wear. Not fatigues, but vaguely foreign safari clothing, and thick wellies. He looks mad.
“Someone was on our dock! It’s important for no one to be on our dock, you know, for liability reasons,” he says in a South African accent. I am surprised, but I don’t know yet that he has a surveillance system that warns him of dock intruders. I realize just then that my son and our friend’s son probably couldn’t resist the urge, and stepped out onto their small dock.
The properties on this coastal lake are widest near the road, but they narrow on the lake, so when you make it to the shore of this property, you realize there is nothing there: No beach, no waterfront. Just a few mucky feet of lakeshore. Even though we had warned our son about the dock, I probably would have done the same thing. At that age, I just didn’t respect the property boundaries of the adult world. A lone dock on a placid lake must be irresistible for a pair of urban 12 year olds who've been locked up in a dreary quarantine for six months.
When I see Gary later that day, I tell him about the incident with his neighbor, showing my embarrassment and making sure to be proactive about my desire to always follow house rules.
Gary is a working actor who has built a career playing psychos in horror and sci-fi films. He is internationally recognized for being torn apart by Arnold Schwarzenegger, for slashing his victims apart on screen, and for playing vicious psychos. In one role, he pries the eyes out of a hapless victim and fries them like eggs. In his most famous role, he is the violent and sadistic tormentor, Viperhead.
In response to my admission, Gary monologues about the importance of being a tough parent, and this part is key, “Yeah, my neighbor is a fucking asshole.”
By breakfast the next morning, our friends are already referring to our host as Viperhead, when he stomps up onto the deck, holding Qui-gon by his collar. “I found your dog running without a leash! Don’t you know, our neighbor has a rottweiler!” he exclaims. Viperhead is wearing a full winter wetsuit, and his red e-scooter helmet. He looks like that space slasher character. The tall one with the bloody gloves.
Our friend, who had not yet met our host, is alarmed by this strangely dressed man at our door. She rushes off the table to grab Qui-gon from the sliding glass door, pulling it shut and locking it while Viperhead angrily cites the house manual, cut off mid-sentence by the slamming of the door.
Qui-gon found his way out the main entrance door, which the boys had failed to close securely. Now, we have a second infraction with our host, who stands outside the locked door giving a piercing look, not totally unlike the one he gave during that moon massacre scene.
On our way home, driving with the top down through the cold coast and the hot interior, we get another text from Viperhead. “Where are the keys? Our housekeeper can’t find the keys!”
We explain that both sets of keys are exactly where we were told to leave them, in a location that would be impossible to miss. We exchange several texts before he finally learns that the housekeeper had found the keys.
At this point, I am beginning to wonder if this last part was part of a ruse, a setup.
And after we return home, the text that I had been expecting arrives. Viperhead says, “There are agreed upon stipulations for the dock and dog incidents. We can take care of it with the Airbnb deposit, which will go against your record, or paypal. What would you like to do?”
Something about this sounds fishy. Viperhead knew that I am a travel writer, and that my spotless Airbnb record is important to me. With plans of documenting our conversation, I tell him, “Sure, let’s just deal with it through Paypal.”
“The dock issue stipulates giving up the entire deposit,” he explains. “And then there is the dog incident. I would make sure that the juveniles are on the hook to pay the amount. You owe me $900.00. That amount does not even come close to adequate compensation. The main reason these penalties are so severe is that my neighbors are trying to build a case to deny us having an Airbnb.”
Where Airbnb Nightmares End
I am stunned by his stated amount, but I also know that he is trying to extort me, and I keep him talking, screen capturing his various fights with his neighbors. Jane and I begin to document the conversations and details from the house manual.
While collecting information from the house manual, we notice that Viperhead is adding new details into the manual; writing up harsh stipulations that were not there before. And there is a completely new section about pets. “It is stipulated that if you are bringing your dog, you must book through (redacted by Airbnb) rather than Airbnb.”
We take our case to Airbnb, but by now, wildfires are raging across the West. Airbnb customer service is in disarray, and no one is getting back to us.
But several weeks later, Patricia, a senior customer service representative from Airbnb apologizes, giving me some details about how the fires have overwhelmed Airbnb.
Patricia explains, “I have reviewed the reservation you mentioned, as well as the messages you have exchanged with your host, both on and outside the platform, and of, course, the ones you exchanged with us. First things first: you have done the right thing by reporting this incident, and what happened won't have any kind of repercussions on you or your Airbnb reputation. That I can definitely assure you.”
Patricia continues, “the payment request he sent you is frankly ridiculous. Not only does he have no evidence to support these alleged ‘violations’ of the house rules, but, even if he had it, he could absolutely not charge $900 for them, since the security deposit for his listing is currently $338, and that's the max amount he could request from you.”
“In addition, if he had truly wanted to seek compensation for house rule violations, he would have had to first open a Resolution Center case to file the claim properly through Airbnb, and then request our intervention for possible mediation with you. Even then, we would not have been able to ask you for more than $338, and if you had wanted to dispute his claim, you could have done so, and we would probably have covered the amount on Airbnb's behalf, without charging you. And we are talking about scenarios in which the host is able to provide adequate documentation to prove these violations. Gary did not provide any documentation of any kind, and he never contacted us about this reservation. There are no Resolution Center cases open, and since the time window to open one after a reservation is 60 days, he would not be able to open one now even if he wanted to. I can assure you that there is no reason to worry. However, I would advise you to report the public profile of the host. You'll be requested to fill a short form, then the report will be sent to our Trust and Safety department, which will start a discrete investigation on the host.”
At every moment in my interactions with Viperhead, I showed restraint, honesty and my desire to be an exemplary guest. Looking back at our dual infractions; these sorts of things would have been unavoidable. A group of two families and a dog, by their very definition, would fall into the trap of this host’s house rule breaches. In fact, Viperhead’s six pages of rules and stipulations, and his willingness to ‘catch’ us and extort us was his way of exporting his neighbor troubles onto his guests, and attempting to make them pay for his bad relationships with neighbors.
The idea that, in the midst of a pandemic, a host would go to lengths to extort his own guests seems unfathomable. But maybe Viperhead really is that character behind his villainous face? By exporting his bad neighbor relationships onto his guests, Viperhead made one big mistake. Will he still be able to supplement his working actor income with this rental? By documenting our conversations and his changing house rules, I believe his future with Airbnb is ending.
Lessons for future Homestay & Airbnb travelers?
- Document conversations with hosts.
- Beware of long house rule books.
- Beware of hosts who want to take any aspect of the booking off the system.
- Read between the lines of the reviews. Watch for signs of a problematic host.
- Read the host's profile thoroughly.
- Ask for Airbnb's assistance in mediation.