I want to comment on a story that’s getting a lot of play in the media lately: Living and Dying on Airbnb. This is a very sad story, the writer’s father died while staying in an Airbnb cottage in Texas. It was a rope swing on a tree that killed him; the branch broke while he was on the swing.

This death, like all accidental deaths, was a tragedy. And the writer, Zak Stone, produced a thoughtful piece in which he discusses the lack of regulation and standardization in peer-to-peer rental lodging services like Airbnb, which he believes led to his father’s death. And Stone explains why Airbnb has an interest in staying away from enforcing standards. 

cautionIt is true that these rental websites do nothing to enforce basic safety standards like carbon monoxide detectors, smoke detectors, or fire escape access, much less inspecting and monitoring things like rope swings on dead branches outside of the house. But I do think it’s an over simplification to suggest that hotels are safe. A quick google search on “deaths in hotel rooms” turns up all sorts of gruesome stories. Things can go wrong even in the nicest of hotel rooms, and the cheap ones often don’t have any safety features.

But still hotels are standardized in the sense that they are usually just offering you a room. And so it’s not hard to demand of them features like smoke detectors and door locks. There are a limited number of risks in a small hotel room. Part of the charm of Airbnb is staying in a home that isn’t cookie cutter standard. Rope swings, hot tubs, fancy kitchens, water beds: there are a lot of fun and unique features you can find in Airbnb lodging that will never appear in hotels. But these unique features are basically impossible to standardize for safety.

In reality, that rope swing was on a branch that was going to break some time soon. And someone was probably going to get hurt when it happened. It could have been the home owners, or a friend, or maybe someone doing work on the house who thought it looked like a relaxing place to take lunch, or a stranger renting the place for a holiday. These tragedies happen. It’s hard to see how someone can regulate rope swings. And I suspect that if someone did a study of rope swings in yards we’d learn they are generally pretty safe. Now if the house had a trampoline, I’d be super excited to use it, but that would be a huge liability risk for the home owner as those things are known to be dangerous and many home insurance policies explicitly exclude them.

Can peer-to-peer rental websites like Airbnb regulate the safety of the lodging offered on their website?

The author of this article wrote: “Had the hosts of the Texas property opted to become part of a community of more traditional B&Bs, they would have encountered a cumbersome but rigorous process, according to the Texas Bed and Breakfast Association’s executive director Connie Hall. ‘For new members, they are inspected with an overnight stay, and then every two years, our properties are inspected,’ she says, covering everything from cleanliness to decor, and ensuring that individual rooms have a deadbolt, smoke detectors are functioning, and landscaping seems safe.”

Am I the only one who pauses at the statement “seems safe”? Sure, doing regular inspections and having clear regulations about smoke detectors, deadbolts, etc. are definitely going to produce more standard safety features. But I have a hard time believing anyone would have caught a rope swing on a seemingly stable tree as a risk.

I’m not opposed to regulations to save lives. Forcing people to wear seat belts, prohibiting smoking indoors, and other similar laws are doing the public good. But these are regulations imposed in situations where there is a clear safety risk from a common cause for a lot of people. I don’t see rope swings ever falling into this category.

home safetyNonetheless, as the market continues to mature I would’t be surprised to see businesses arise to offer third party safety certifications for Airbnb hosts. This would reassure guests that staying in a home will not present any undue risks. It is nice to know, after all, that your lodging has the proper smoke detectors and emergency exits required by any standard insurance policy.