Stay with strangers, not at a hotel

Stay with strangers, not at a hotel

Inside a well-appointed basement that offers a cozy bedroom, living room, a separate den with a 65-inch HDTV, separate bathroom with a washer and dryer, Stephan Drabek and Tracee Hume are stuffing their duffel bags after a two night stay.

"It's very personable, it's a nice apartment," says Drabek.

While some hotel chains place cookies and mints on the pillows, the couple from Cleveland found Brutus, the Ohio State mascot in the form of a small stuffed bear. With a good squeeze, Brutus will play the Buckeye fight song.

"Robert knew we were coming from Ohio and Stephen is a Buckeye fan," says Hume.

She's referring to their host, Robert Nachbar, who owns the Queen Anne home in which they were staying. In fact, the couple paid Nachbar $65 a night to stay in his basement apartment while he and his 2-year-old son live upstairs in the main home.

"When I looked at hotels, I couldn't find anything less than $100, so I started looking at Airbnb," says Hume.

Airbnd is a very trendy, up and coming, social-media style website with headquarters in San Francisco that hooks up travelers with hosts who have rooms or homes for rent.

We found hundreds of choices in the Seattle area that offered the very basic room next door to full apartments, condos, boats, family homes and even a mansion on Mercer Island that rents for $2,500 a night.

Finding Brutus on the pillow is indicative of the social nature behind Airbnb. The service relies on comments, conversations and trust between the renter and the host.

The website is simple, easy to navigate and has the appearance of a traditional travel website. Finding short-term and overnight rentals from private owners on the web is nothing new. Websites like VRBO (Vacation Rentals by Owner), Craigslist and others have had similar listings.

The difference is Airbnb handles the financial transaction for both sides, much like an escrow company. It also gives travelers the convenience of using a credit card, and there are no hotel taxes.

"We've had great experiences so far, everything has worked out wonderfully," says Drabek. Last year, the couple booked a room in Barcelona, Spain. Their experience was so positive they are now repeat Airbnb customers.

But not everyone has been that lucky. Recently a woman in San Francisco had her apartment ransacked by an Airbnb renter that was staying with her. According to press reports, it came at a bad time because Airbnb was just finishing up of private equity funding to expand its booming business.

To ease customer's fears, both for renters and the hosts, Airbnb has made an offer to pay up to $50,000 to victims of theft from an Airbnb client. The San Francisco incident brought an unwanted spotlight on an idea that seems to appeal the social-media conscious crowd that uses the service.

"You can never trust anyone 100 percent," says Drabek. "It's an act of good faith to let someone into your home."

Nachbar agrees. The comments posted from past renters on his Airbnb page are numerous and positive. Those comments and pictures led Drebek and Hume to pick Nachbar's home.

Nachbar was concerned about security when he first started renting last year. He often rents out his entire house for weekend stays using Airbnb.

"Many times, I come back and find the home is cleaner than I left it," says Nachbar, who has not had any problems with tenants. "I tend to believe in the general decency of people."

Nachbar runs a public relations company from his home. He calls himself a people person and makes sure he talks with prospective renters to "get a feel about them" before he rents his place.

"The nice thing about the site is you can vet people to a certain degree. You can see their profile and if they are linked to a social network like Facebook," says Nachbar. "These are some of the improvements they have made since the issues that they've had."

In an email, Airbnb spokeswoman Emily Joffrion declined our requests for an interview to discuss security, but in a statement said "the entire company is completely focused on strengthening our systems."

Forbes Magazine says Airbnb could be on track to surpass Hilton in terms of rooms offered by 2012. Currently, Hilton is the worldwide leader, with more than 600,000 rooms available.

But the chair-elect of the Washington Lodging Association, Andrew Olsen, isn't worried about Airbnb.

"The industry as a whole doesn't really look at something like this as a major delusion or a major threat to traditional lodging," says Olsen.

The future head of the 500 member, 40,000 room association says professional hoteliers invest heavily in security and take it very seriously. He believes security will become a deciding factor for people choosing between the trendy Airbnb booking model versus traditional hotels.

"You can perhaps save money at this kind of operation but what are you foregoing?" he asks.

Nachbar believes at some point services like Airbnb will have to seriously address the issue of security and taxes. Currently, bread and breakfast style establishments that offer fewer than 30 rooms are not required to collect hotel taxes.

"I think it's a matter of time before there is pressure to put on Airbnb and other like minded sites to provide regulations that these other companies have to go through," says Nachbar. "It's going to start to bite into their business and tax revenue for the city."