By COREY LEVITAN
I value not getting me or my family raped, murdered, or videotaped for an Internet sex site more than I do saving a couple hundred dollars. But obviously not much more, or I would have paid closer attention when booking my first Airbnb.
Friends have raved for years about this website, which connects people seeking to rent a spare room, apartment, or house for less than the going hotel rate, with people who have one. One of my female friends uses it for extra cash nearly every weekend.
The idea creeped me out, though, and I’m someone who once slept in a youth hostel converted from a museum in which pigeons flew above my head. Yes, Airbnb verifies both hosts and guests by requiring driver license photos, social media links, and other personal details. But you’re entering a complete stranger’s private residence, one where his standards of cleanliness apply instead of those of a trusted hotel conglomerate.
In addition, until only last week, you could be secretly videotaped. Airbnb just amended its policy, requiring that hosts “fully disclose whether there are security cameras.” However, that policy is still only a suggestion because a reasonable expectation of privacy applies only in proper hotels.
On the other hand, planning a spontaneous weekend L.A. beach getaway only three days in advance means that every decent hotel room either requires $250 a night or a 60-mile round trip to the ocean. I decided to search Airbnb for a one-bedroom/one-bath in one of the rich, beach-adjacent neighborhoods I feel comfortable strolling through as a coward. (So, not Venice Beach.) Traveling with my wife and three-year-old daughter, I of course clicked “entire place” instead of “private room” or “shared room.”
To my surprise, more than 100 results filled the page. And most appeared decent. But the prices still averaged $200 a night, which wasn’t much of a savings. So I slid the top of the price range bar down to $100, just to see what would happen.
My new options numbered exactly four. Two would have had me, my wife, and preschooler sharing a single-size bed. Bedbugs practically smiled for the camera in the third. And God knows what was wrong with the fourth, because it was only five blocks away from the beach in Santa Monica (the others were miles) and displayed only an exterior photograph of the apartment building.
Then I noticed another string of results along the bottom, under the heading “Similar Listings.” And there it was, our dream resort: a totally upgraded one bedroom/one bath in Westwood, marble floors, five miles from the beach and four blocks from where my wife and I used to live. And it was only $80 a night! What the what?
I reserved it immediately, before anyone else with a brain could beat us to it. Within 10 minutes, I received an email. Before our potential host accepted our reservation—because they have that choice—he asked the nature of my trip and who would accompany me. That’s also what I would want to know about my guests if I didn’t intend to serial-kill and eat them.
This seemed legit, and even my wife agreed—though mostly in a way that indicated that she would also love to see this fail and use it against me during our next major argument.
And so our four-hour drive from Las Vegas ended with the warm greeting of a man who spoke with both the accent and inappropriate intensity of Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich, and looked a little like him, too. He met us in front of the apartment building, handed us a key and clicker to a garage, showed us our parking spot and helped unload our bags. Lars told us he’s originally from Germany, he’s self-employed, and he’s 34 years old.
He then accompanied us upstairs to show us how the keys work and give us a tour. The apartment was even more beautiful and clean than it appeared on the Internet.
Why doesn’t everyone everywhere use Airbnb?
This question wasn’t as rhetorical as I intended it to be, because it received an answer of sorts when I noticed that this beautiful one-bedroom apartment actually had two bedrooms, one of which Lars entered while saying “See you in a bit!”
Suddenly, those strange and somewhat intrusive questions made sense: “What time do you usually come home for the night? When do you go to sleep? Do you like watching TV loud?” We just figured he had quiet neighbors.
For the first time since 1996, I had a roommate. My wife glowered at me. That major argument she was gathering ammunition for seemed about to happen.
Many reactions occurred to me in the moment, and I’m glad I decided not to go with pounding on Lars’ bedroom and ranting about what a freaking liar he is. Because it eventually dawned on me that “Similar Listings” meant different variables. Obviously, “entire place” was the culprit. This was entirely my fault, not Lars’.
Still, there he was. Everywhere. When we ventured to the fridge to pour a bottle of milk for our daughter, there was Lars in the living room, watching TV, waving hi and smiling his Lars-y smile. When he bathed himself in a bottle of European cologne to go to his girlfriend’s place that night, we had to breathe it in.
“Daddy, who’s that man in our hotel?” our daughter wondered.
Ironically, one of the conversations we had with Skylar on our road trip was about strangers. They aren’t necessarily bad, we said, but they could be so you can never trust or talk to them unless we do first.
So how do we put this lesson into practice? By moving in with one and trusting him not to shank us in the middle of the night. (Did I mention that our bedroom had no lock?) “But officer, he had 30 positive feedbacks and a little green verified checkmark by his name!”
Instead of a carefree weekend vacation, we were now Anne Frank-ing together in a 250-square-foot room, taking fully clothed trips to the hallway bathroom and whispering because the walls were so thin, we could hear the German guy in the next room breathing. There was a balcony, but our bedroom shared it with Lars’, whose sliding door was always open for the fresh California air.
This meant no iPad Netflix, since neither my wife or I wished to be judged for our enjoyment of The League, Blacklist, or our other lowbrow American favorites. It also meant spending most of our days away and not returning for much-needed naps. Which sucked enough by itself, but also because of what my wife and I had planned once Skylar went down for her nap.
Lars had kiboshed our first vacation sex in 1.5 years. And vacation sex is always good.
But again, it wasn’t his fault that I don’t know how to work a website. Lars couldn’t have been a nicer guy. He was effusively accommodating, polite and friendly. And, after a while, he didn’t even seem that rapey or murdery.
In fact, I felt bad for him. How nerve-wracking must it be to let complete strangers into your private residence every weekend based solely on the trust that some website did a thorough enough job of screening them for violence and/or insanity? Some of my close friends are violent and/or insane, and it took years for me to discover this!
By Sunday, I got used to having Lars around and even noticed the good in this awkward situation. My wife and I got none of the relaxation, sex, or even privacy we wanted out of our spontaneous weekend getaway. But we got something even better that we didn’t expect.
Lars gave us an excuse to get closer to each other.
For the first time, my girls and I were pitted against a common foe instead of each other. We each alternated Lars scouting missions to see if the kitchen or hallway was free. And as we drifted off to sleep both nights, we cracked each other up with whispered Lars impressions. For once, instead of staring at our iPads, we were communicating non-virtually.
The next time we take a vacation, Lars is invited.