Millennial Money: These Airbnb horror stories can teach you what to watch for

FILE - The login page for Airbnb's iPhone app is displayed on a computer displaying Airbnb's website, May 8, 2021, in Washington. Airbnb “horror stories” are a genre unto themselves. Many problems, such as unclean properties or misleading photos, can be avoided by booking properties with several positive reviews. Other disasters can be less predictable, but having a backup plan can help. And communicating with hosts beforehand can gauge their communication style and help get on the same page about what to expect. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, File)

By SAM KEMMIS of NerdWallet

Many frequent travelers carry tales of delayed flights and disappointing hotel rooms. Yet Airbnb "horror stories" are a genre all their own.

Videos with the tag #AirbnbHorrorStory have more than 63 million views on TikTok, featuring guests venting about unclean properties and last-minute cancellations leaving them stranded. The website Airbnbhell features hundreds of similar accounts, where things do not go as expected for short-term renters.

While many of these stories offer little more than schadenfreude, others can act as instructive lessons for travelers looking to avoid similar pitfalls. While there's no way to avoid short-term rental surprises outright, many guests who have experienced them say there were warning signs they wished they had watched out for.

LOOK FOR REVIEWS

Jack Epner, a marketing consultant and digital nomad, has lived out of Airbnbs for more than four years. Of the many difficult stays in that time, one rental -- a house in Ecuador -- stands out.

"It wasn't clean, distinctly not clean," Epner says. "We're talking black mold all over the kitchen, hair all over the bedding. I ended up with bed bugs."

Beyond that, Epner says the host's friends would use the front lawn as a parking lot, and the host entered the (private) property unannounced several times.

After messaging several Airbnb customer service teams, Epner was eventually able to receive a refund. Yet the stay was so difficult, that it forced a recalibration of how much emphasis he now places on guest reviews.

The home had only one review, from a local, Epner says. And while he would usually look for more reviews before booking, the lack of availability at the time made him willing to take the risk. He says that's a risk he won't repeat.

"I do avoid places without reviews now," Epner says. "If there's really only one review, I'll be wary; I would like to see two to three minimum. The more reviews the better."

HAVE A BACKUP PLAN

When Agnes Groonwald saw an Airbnb listing in Crestone, Colorado, it looked too interesting to pass up.

"The place was intriguing. It looked like a spaceship buried in the ground," Groonwald says.

Groonwald, a nomad and creator of the blog Travel on the Reg, says the listing's uniqueness wasn't totally convincing. Yet, with no other listings available nearby, it seemed like the best choice.

Upon check-in, she noticed another group was already there: a family of mice.

"As soon as we arrived, we saw a little critter in the kitchen sink," Groonwald says. "This was an infestation; this was the real deal."

Groonwald, too, was able to receive a refund for the booking but couldn't find alternative lodging nearby at such short notice. That meant cohabitating with mice for several days.

"We would wake to the pitter-patter of little feet in the middle of the night," Groonwald recalls, saying that the experience taught her two lessons.

First, don't be drawn in by quirky photos. Staying in an unusual home, such as a spaceship, might sound fun, but it can mean dealing with equally unusual problems.

"Sometimes boring is better," Groonwald suggests.

Second, make sure there's a backup plan in place in case of deal-breaking problems. That doesn't mean you have to book another rental, but just make sure there's another lodging option available on the same dates in case something goes wrong with your Airbnb.

COMMUNICATE BEFOREHAND

Gabrielle Dahms, a realtor based in California, says she has always had good Airbnb experiences. Then, she checked into a five-day Airbnb rental in San Rafael, California, and discovered an unexpected hazard: synthetic fragrance dispensers.

"Anytime anyone made a movement, these things dispensed fragrance," Dahms laments. "Within two hours, my sinuses were completely swelled up."

Dahms complained to the host and Airbnb customer service, after which the host gave Dahms a one-star guest review. It has since soured her on the entire platform.

According to Epner, these problems of mismatched expectations between guests and hosts can be addressed by communicating with the host ahead of time.

"Anytime there's the potential to not be on the same page, I think it's helpful to connect before booking," Epner says.

He learned this lesson after staying with a host who wanted to be friends with guests, rather than respect privacy. He now messages hosts with a few questions before booking, to gauge their communication style.

"Do they treat it as a dumb question, or are they polite?" Epner says. "Anything I can do to get the sense of the host before booking, I'll do that."