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Home Away from Home: The Risks & Rewards of Home Sharing

More consumers than ever before are bypassing hotels and motels to spend a night or vacation in a stranger’s home. Home-sharing websites advertise everything from a couch in the basement to a private island. Such an arrangement might be an enticing alternative, but a lack of traveler protections means that you can’t be guaranteed a clean or safe stay.

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Mark Chen, 41, stayed in nine different homes in as many weeks in 2014, none of them his own. One had ants. Another had noisy neighbors. The eighth place had a prime location that was close to the beach. It also had fleas.

Chen, who is a professor, landed a position at Pepperdine University and had to relocate to Southern California from Washington. He wanted to meet people and explore different neighborhoods before he signed a long-term lease, so he used Airbnb, which allows consumers to rent space in someone’s home, rather than reserve a room in a hotel or motel.

Chen’s experiment highlighted the pros and cons of home sharing. He became friends with one of the hosts—who can be property managers, owners or renters—who took Chen around town and familiarized him with the area. He also found what appeared to be evidence of fleas in his bed in one home and ants in another apartment (so many that he hid his garbage in the refrigerator so he wouldn’t attract more). Another host didn’t tell Chen that he’d be sharing space with both the host and another traveler, or guest.

Chen paid less than $100 per night for each of his nine reservations, compared with $129–$199 per night for a midrange hotel near the university. He says home sharing is a better deal but adds, “it’s not rosy.”

Chen is one of many consumers who now embrace home sharing. According to Airbnb, which to date is the home-sharing company that’s drawn the most attention and scrutiny, at least 16 million guests stayed in rental lodging that the company listed online in 2014. Airbnb, along with other home-sharing companies, helps you to book everything from someone’s couch to a room, an apartment, or even a castle, treehouse or igloo—sometimes for as little as $10 per night.

As of press time, Airbnb provided at least 1 million global listings, at least 155,000 of which are in the United States. Through HomeAway, which runs several vacation home-sharing websites, you can find at least 1 million listings that are in 190 countries. FlipKey, which is part of TripAdvisor, has at least 300,000 properties from which to choose, including a home that’s on a private island off the coast of Maine for $1,500 per night.

Others have sprung up to cater to specific clientele. Kid & Coe is meant for families, and onefinestay is for the international jet-setter who wants to have the luxuries of a five-star hotel (and can afford it). Overall, an estimated 14 percent of U.S. leisure travelers booked a trip through a home-sharing company in 2013 (the most recent data available), compared with 12 percent in 2012, according to Atmosphere Research Group, which is a travel research and advisory company. An increasing number of business travelers also make arrangements through home-sharing companies—enough that it drew the notice of Concur, which develops software that corporations use to manage expenses. Concur in July 2014 announced a partnership with Airbnb after its customers’ use of the website quadrupled from 2010.

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“It’s growing worldwide,” says Henry Harteveldt, who is a travel-industry analyst and the founder of Atmosphere Research Group. “You have the chance to have a unique experience that is completely unavailable to you when you stay at a hotel.”

Supporters of home sharing rave about its benefits. You get to live like a local or embark on a novel adventure, says April Rinne, who is an attorney and expert on “sharing economy” startup companies. For families or groups of friends who want to stay together, it means more space, often with two or more bedrooms and bathrooms, and a living room. Perks that might cost extra at a hotel, such as premium movie channels, wireless Internet and parking, typically are included in the price of the home-sharing arrangement. When Consumers Digest stayed at a cabin during a skiing trip, we were able to take advantage of the host’s community access and had discounted rates on skiing and sledding. Frugal travelers also can save money by cooking their meals in a kitchen or doing laundry on-site.

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