An AirBnB Cautionary Tale

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View of Seoul Station and beyond from our well-located, but unauthorized AirBnB apartment

We had our first unpleasant AirBnB experience in Seoul and it had very little to do with the apartment itself. Two days before we were to arrive in Seoul (and just as we were about to begin our much-anticipated, Internet-free stay at Beomeosa Monastery, ie., with no time to make other plans), I received an email from the owner of the apartment we’d booked in Seoul, “Mr. S.” Mr. S wrote to touch base regarding handing off the keys, etc…and to tell me that “if any persons (police man) ask you regarding the you come to here through the airbnb, then pls DON’T SPEAK for airbnb will be appreciated…so you can say that this room is your friend’s room for you.”

Hmm. This was a first. I was, in essence, being asked to lie to foreign police to cover for an unauthorized rental apartment. No way was I comfortable with this and I would not have booked the apartment if I’d known. I really resented being put in this position, especially when I didn’t really have time to look for an alternative.

I researched AirBnB en route to Seoul via the KTX train’s wi-fi and discovered that a 2015 lawsuit had ruled that AirBnB rentals must be registered with the government. I now suspected that Mr. S might have avoided that registration.

When we arrived in Seoul, Mr. S met us as promised in the underground subway walkway which connects Seoul (train) Station to the building where the apartment is located. He handed off the keys, but when I expressed concern about his email regarding police and asked him to accompany us the short distance on to the building, he refused, leaving us to deal with any problems on our own. He apparently thought our odds of getting past “tourist police” better without him, but we had nothing to do with the situation and I thought it was pretty chicken of him to leave us to our own devices. Mr. S told us the riskiest part of this whole venture was when we went through the building with luggage (so he didn’t want any part of that). He dropped by the apartment 10 minutes after we were in to deliver the wi-fi hotspot he’d promised and extra blankets, so it wasn’t as if he had some pressing appointment that prohibited him from walking in with us.

On our 2nd night there, we went to explore the top floor gym and discovered a sign saying that all AirBnB rentals were banned in the building (apparently a building-specific internal rule) and could be subject to being reported to the police. “Great.” Even if Mr. S had registered his apartment with the government, it looked pretty clear that he was in violation of the building’s own rules. The next morning, we saw a similar sign on the front door. Unfortunately, we were past AirBnB’s 24-hour after check-in deadline for reporting problems that might void the whole deal and stop payment to Mr. S. From what I read, I believe it was he who was potentially in violation of laws and/or building rules, not us, but it was very awkward and uncomfortable nonetheless.

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In the end, we decided to live with the situation and hope for the best, since we were already moved in and only had 2 nights to go after seeing the posted signs. Happily, we were not confronted by police or building staff. I did report the situation to AirBnB and explain the facts on the ground in my review of the apartment and Mr. S so that others would be advised. (I was surprised that no one else had mentioned the authorization problems in the many positive reviews for this apartment. Either people ignored the situation, or the signs–and Mr. S’s proposed dealing with police–were a new development.) There are other AirBnB hosts offering apartments in this same building, though, so I hope AirBnB takes some initiative here.

I intend to keep using AirBnB as apartments are often better suited to my travel needs than hotels, but I will more closely scrutinize local laws. I’d like to see AirBnB alert its users when there are potential legal problems in a city or country so that users can ask the right questions of owners. AirBnB must be aware of the legal challenges its faces in different cities and countries (as covered in numerous newspaper articles), and I’d appreciate a heads-up for those of us who use the service. A simple alert from AirBnB when I search a potentially-problematic location would be greatly appreciated.

The apartment itself was pretty much as shown in the AirBnB photos. I had some quibbles with supplies, but the location was excellent. (It shares a brand new high-rise building with a Sheraton Hotel, and is connected to covered shopping, subway and the huge, modern Seoul Station.) Had it been an authorized rental, I’d have given it and Mr. S fine marks.

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