Newport International Group Projects Company: The dark side of room rental sites

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London – When the call came through to Jon and Katherine Thompson on New Year’s Day informing them that a party had been in full swing in their £1-million loft-style apartment for the past 20 hours, the couple were incredulous.

The Thompsons, whose main residence is in Wiltshire, had been renting out their flat in London’s trendy Shoreditch for some time to people they believed to be good tenants.

However, it emerged that their tenants had tried to make a quick profit by subletting the property through popular room rental site Airbnb.

The company, which began life in 2007 as a few airbeds slung down in the living room of two hard-up flatmates, has proved such a hit with holidaymakers that last year it was valued at £6-billion.

Today, there are many people who wouldn’t travel any other way. They say that instead of staying in anonymous concrete holiday complexes, Airbnb allows you to see a destination from the perspective of a local, enjoy the comfort of a family home, and shop and eat away from expensive tourist traps.

Fans say it makes it possible to stay in some of the most amazing locations around the world for a fraction of the price of a hotel.

It’s also an easy way for ordinary families to make some extra money by renting out their homes when they are away — or a room, when they are there — without any of the red tape or hassle that goes along with running a traditional guesthouse.

Ruth Wasserman, from St Albans, is one loyal user who says she has been on many trips booked though Airbnb with her husband Greg — and, more recently, their baby son Ernest.

“I like to get off the beaten track and live like a local, rather than hang out with other tourists staying in identikit apartments,” says Ruth, a 34-year-old design manager. “Airbnb is always my first port of call when booking a holiday.”

There are certainly some amazing bargains on the site: 12th century Dairsie Castle in Scotland, which sleeps 13 and boasts a medieval dining hall, antiques and paintings, can be rented for £2 200 a week — or just £154 per person.

However, critics like Katherine and Jon Thompson are concerned that too few checks are made by the company to safeguard the security — financial and personal — of property owners and holidaymakers alike.

Police were unable to evict the 25 teenage revellers on New Year’s Day as they had a document from Airbnb proving they had paid rent.

And Airbnb did not, certainly in the immediate aftermath, offer a great deal of support to the Thompsons as they tried to find out what had been going on in their London apartment.

They asked the firm how many times their tenants had let it through the site and how much money they had earned, but were referred, somewhat unhelpfully, to the ‘Frequently Asked Questions’ section of the website.

Meanwhile, in Sandbanks, Dorset — Britain’s most affluent stretch of coastline — multi-million-pound holiday homes are being rented out through websites such as Airbnb for loud and lavish parties that go on until dawn, much to the annoyance of genteel neighbours.

Under Airbnb’s rules, people must agree not to offer properties that they do not own or do not have permission to let. However, the site does not demand proof — and a disclaimer says it has no control over the conduct of hosts.

Launched in 2008, the scale of the company’s success has been startling: 800 000 listings worldwide, 34 000 cities, 190 countries. These are just a few of the headline figures that Airbnb boasts.

It’s not just the young looking to supplement their income. A quick look at British listings reveals the over-65s are renting out rooms, too.

Everyone from students to pensioners uses the site to find holiday accommodation. Plus, anyone can log on simply to check out their neighbours’ decor.

Indeed, one big attraction of sites like Airbnb is that even before you make a reservation, you get to snoop around people’s homes courtesy of the many photographs posted online. For example, click on a picture that says ‘Amanda’s home’ and you get to see how she lives, right down to the crisp white covers on her bed. Continue reading…

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