Monday, August 8, 2011
The city of Coronado is cracking down on short-term vacation rentals, but San Diegans seem eager as ever to turn their homes into hotels. Reporter Maya Kroth takes a look at how local homeowners are using the internet to make some extra money while other San Diegans are using it to travel more affordably.
Chris Wagner rents out a small studio behind the South Park home he shares with his wife, Jean, and their two big friendly golden retrievers. The backyard cottage has a rustic cabin feel and is surrounded by lush landscaping and a small lap pool.
The Wagners have joined more than 100 San Diego homeowners using an online service called Airbnb to rent spare rooms, granny flats or whole houses to traveling strangers. Users create a profile, upload photos and a description of the space and list a price—in the case of the Wagners’ cabin, $55 per night. In the past nine months, Wagner says they’ve hosted almost 40 guests.
“We had a Canadian. We recently had a British policeman here,” he says. “It’s a great way to meet people and kind of avoid a touristy type of experience.”
Jeannette Candau is a project manager from Santa Barbara. She’s renting the Wagner cabin for the weekend, because, she says, she was looking for something different than the standard hotel experience.
“It’s real sweet,” she says, surveying the studio. “It’s definitely funky! In the restroom they have a compost toilet, which I’ve never experienced before, and it looks fine. We’ll see!”
Wagner says even though he’s never met Candau, he’s not worried about renting his cabin to her.
“Some of our neighbors would ask us, ‘You’re opening up your property to someone you really don’t know outside of a profile on Airbnb,’ but we’ve never had a negative experience,” he says.
Wagner’s neighbors aren’t the only ones with concerns about services like Airbnb.
“The first initial questions were, what about guest safety and health?,” wonders Ann Callahan, innkeeper at Hillcrest House Bed & Breakfast. “How will this be regulated? What if there’s a problem? What regulatory agency is going to help someone that has had a bad experience?”
Earlier this summer a woman in San Francisco found herself faced with that very question, when, she claims, her identity was stolen and her apartment vandalized after she rented it to someone through Airbnb while she was out of town. The ensuing negative publicity prompted Airbnb to implement a $50,000 guarantee to insure hosts against any losses due to property damage.
Still, a spokesman for the San Francisco-based company, which recently secured $112 million in new funding, insists the service is safe. In addition to the new insurance policy, Airbnb says it protects its users by serving as the broker when it comes time for money to change hands. When a guest books a rental on Airbnb, Airbnb holds the money in a kind of escrow, only releasing payment to the host 24 hours after the guest has checked in, just in case anything goes wrong. As with sites like eBay, users post positive or negative reviews of hosts and guests, which—in theory, anyway—keeps everybody honest.
Services like Airbnb have also encountered opposition from the hotel industry, which views them as unfair competition. New York State recently passed legislation to make it tougher to operate a residential apartment as a transient hotel, and the city of Coronado is cracking down on short-term vacation rentals. Still, San Diegans are joining these types of sites in increasing numbers.
“San Diego is what we consider to be an emerging market,” says Christopher Lukezic, Airbnb’s director of communications. “It’s been doubling almost every month for the past few months now.”
Lukezic attributes this success to “a paradigm shift in the way people are using the Internet. Airbnb has come at the end of a huge Internet revolution where people first had to really get comfortable with paying and transacting online.”
After that came the social web, he says, when people got used to sharing personal information and photos through sites like Facebook.
“The final thing now is this real emergence of businesses that are taking people from online and building communities of people offline as well,” he says.
At a wine bar in Little Italy, members of another online travel community called Couchsurfing.org are gathering for a weekly meetup they call Tipsy Tuesday. They’re mostly in their 20s, and are fans of budget travelling. Couchsurfing.org is where they find people who offer their couch or living room floors for free. The site has almost 3 million members worldwide, close to 2,000 in San Diego alone.
“It’s not a hostel, it’s not a hotel, it’s not, ‘Oh here’s a free place to stay, I’m gonna do my own thing.’ It’s about experiencing another place,” says Couchsurfer Zach Lee, who used the site to land a spot as a crewman on a sailboat that recently docked in San Diego.
Because no money changes hands, Couchsurfing is less commercial and instead emphasizes the personal. Hosts and travelers, who call themselves surfers, choose each other based on mutual interests listed on their online profiles. Hosts often act as tour guides for their surfers, taking them sightseeing, kayaking or to a concert.
“It’s not actually the couch that matters,” says Tipsy Tuesday organizer Galia Aharoni. “It’s the host that makes the experience.”
Like Airbnb, Couchsurfing is also self-regulating, relying on user references to police any bad behavior on the part of the surfer or the host.
“Negative references on the site are taken really, really seriously,” Aharoni says. “You can have 100 positive references and one negative reference and nobody will ever host you, so it’s not in your best interest to leave a big mess or be rude or eat all their food or whatever it is that people might be tempted to do.”
The Couchsurfers I talked to universally praised their experiences on the site, other than a few complaints of a sore back after too many nights spent sleeping on floors and futons. They all seem to agree it’s a small price to pay for the privilege of connecting with fellow travelers.