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When Airbnb experiences are more mediocre than mortifying

My worst Airbnb experience involved having to haul a giant floor rug outside to shake it out. The vacuum cleaner was broken, the host waived a cleaning fee with the expectation the house be returned in the same condition it was left it, and my friend who booked the place didn’t want a negative review. The rug was actually cleaner after my efforts than when we got there, but my friend went on and on about the clean and cozy cabin in her review. To be fair, the slightly dirty rug was no big deal, and the fact that this minor inconvenience is my worst experience is why I keep using the service.

The site changed the way its reviews are published last year, and now neither guest nor host has to fear receiving a negative rating just because they complain about the lack of towels or that the guest used a family member’s toothbrush. That fear of reprisal may be part of the reason there used to be so few negative reviews on the site; another may be that it’s just hard to dock someone points, after you’ve just stayed in their home, simply because their home isn’t as clean as you’d like it to be. But many people do have overwhelming positive experiences using Airbnb, both as guests and hosts. The situation falls somewhere between crashing with a friend and going to a bed and breakfast. It’s more personal than a hotel, but the owners often aren’t doing this as their livelihood. It feels like you’re helping each other out, even if money is exchanging hands (or bank accounts).

It seems like every few months there’s an Airbnb horror story, though. A squatter refuses to leave. A homeowner returns to her New York penthouse to find it full of feces and condoms. It’s often the hosts who have nightmare guests, although it can be the other way around: A drunken host let himself back into his house while a Business Insider employee was staying there, mumbling somewhat creepy things. Thanks to incidents like these, Airbnb started using a Verified ID system in 2013, letting some users go through a check of their Facebook or LinkedIn pages, while others have to give the company access to government ID, like a driver’s license, or passport. Still, only a few days ago, a guest allegedly stole $35,000 worth of property from her host.

Some bad experiences fall between a dirty rug and an orgy. Maybe the pretty little place looked great in pictures, but when you arrive, you find there are already other guests there — like roaches. Perhaps it’s the host himself who decides to stick around, though you designated that you wanted the whole place to yourself. Hey, it happened to Aubrey Plaza’s mom. Guests have had hosts cancel on them at the last minute, and while Airbnb usually comes the rescue at such times and dings the host $100, it can still be upsetting when you arrive in the middle of the night in an unfamiliar city. Then again, if a host cancels your booking simply because you refuse his offer of a ride from the airport, you probably dodged a bullet. Also, the first rule of Fight Club should be “Don’t have Airbnb guests staying at your place when you’re hosting Fight Club.”

Even with the new policy, there’s still the possibility that a disgruntled host or guest will leave an unfairly unfavorable review. One man had a weekslong email exchange with a host who wanted to charge him extra for bringing three dogs into her home instead of the agreed-upon one; someone had supposedly spotted them in the bedroom, she said. The man insisted he’d only brought a single dog and was a little put out at the thought of someone peeking through the curtains. Another Airbnb user asked for advice on reddit when a host falsely accused her guest of stealing a KitchenAid mixer and was asking for a $600 reimbursement. And having your roommates rent out your room on Airbnb, without your permission, is pretty bad; having your host die while you’re staying at their place is worse.

On the other side of the equation of bad-but-not-criminal Airbnb experiences, guests can be obnoxiously drunk or rude or might try to throw an impromptu wedding, complete with a tent, in your backyard.

When you scroll through the reviews on someone’s listing, it’s not Yelp or Amazon. There aren’t stars next each review. You’ll see that a place has an overall rating of 4.5 stars, for example, and there’s a breakdown of how the place scores in terms of location, cleanliness, and so on, but you don’t see how a user rates a place. This means you have to scan the reviews thoroughly to see if anything’s amiss. When there are dozens of reviews, that can make it difficult to find pertinent information. Someone who rated five stars might dash off a quick note (“Had a great time. The place is clean and in a good location. Cute dog!”), while someone who thinks the place deserved four might go a little more in-depth (“It was a great location, but it was hard to sleep because her asthmatic poodle is a cuddler.”)

The Airbnb experience is kind of like a box of chocolates: It’s hard to tell which will be nutty. So, what can you do? Be safe, be considerate, and vigilantly read the reviews.