Do I deserve a refund for the apartment rental from hell?

Not a good apartment rental. / Photo by Vicky S. Flickr
Maybe Patsy Chan should have known better than to rent a room using AirBnB. After all, she works for a hotel, and in a high-profile position at that. It’s no secret that a reservation on this startup site is a hit-or-miss-proposition.

Then again, the apartment she rented for herself and her family in Beijing for 10 days in March looked just fine. It was in a good part of town and had all the amenities she expected.

Until she checked in.

“When we arrived, there were no fresh bed linens,” she says. “The apartment had no TV, which was one of the amenities it promised. The place was filthy and the shower box drainage was blocked.”

The apartment owner was out of the country, but a local contact was of little use. He told Chan there were no spare linens, so they’d have to wash the old sheets themselves and place them on the bed, which they did.

Bad enough? Oh, it was just getting started, says Chan.

That night, a toilet bowl clogged, flooding the bathroom. Chan and her mother had to clean up the mess.

In the morning, the shower ran cold. They had no one to call, and so they had to make the best of it.

Could it get any worse? Why, yes.

Soon after that, the bathroom had a minor flood unrelated to the ill-fated shower.

I found puddles of water all over the floor. My mother told me she slipped on the water when she went to the bathroom in the early morning hours and hit her head.

When my sister and I were busy mopping the floor, my dad knelt down right in front of our eyes and hit his kneecap because of the slippery floor.

My sister and I also slipped but luckily we could maintain our balance.

Chan reported the problems to her host, who sent a plumber over.

“The plumber found the root cause: a leaking pipe and water valve hidden inside a kitchen cabinet. He even showed us a small silver tray underneath collecting the seepage, so obviously someone was aware of this leakage problem,” she says.

That was the end of it. The Chans checked out of their AirBnB rental and found another place for the remaining nine nights. They asked AirBnB for a refund.

It responded by refunding two out of the ten nights, or about $144.

“That means I paid $560 for one night in that sh****y and dangerous place,” she says.

Chan wants me to push for a full refund.

I suggested she wait for her appeal to AirBnB, which is often reviewed at a higher level. But it only offered to refund a $58 agency fee on the property. The rest, the owner apparently gets to keep.

Should I help her? Well, Chan’s room was pre-paid and nonrefundable, and although it comes with certain warranties, they are sufficiently vague that the apartment owner could make a case that her expectations were too high.

Chan sent me pictures of the wet tiles, and I didn’t think they helped her case. Let’s just say water doesn’t photograph well on a white tile floor.

Anyway, of all people in the world, Chan should have known about AirBnB’s inconsistent product. Here’s a recent story.

Do I think she deserves a full refund? Sure, if for no other reason than good customer service, she should get more than two nights and a reservation fee back. Not everything (her family stayed one night) but more than she did.

But she signed a contract and pre-paid for the room, knowing the terms. I’m far more concerned that this apartment might remain in AirBnB’s inventory, and that more people will fall for it (figuratively and literally).

I don’t know if Chan needs my help. But other guests might.

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

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  • Carver Clark Farrow II

    If this were the US the contract wouldn’t be an issue.  There is such a thing as an implied warranty of habitability for residential properties.  It cannot be waived or contracted away.  If the conditions are as Ms. Chang claims, she would be entitled to, at the very least, a full refund of the nine remaining nights and a partial refund of the first night.

    However, as this apartment is in Beijing, that presents a legal problem.  Who knows what Beijing laws are.  However, assuming Ms. Chan lives in the US, she should pursue smalls claims court.  AirBnB wrote the contract.  That means that the court will construe any ambiguous terms in Ms. Chan’s favor.  Also, since she is dealing with residential property, the court is likely to be sympathetic to her.

    If she paid AirBnB, a court is likely to order it to refund the money and let them duke it out with the owners themselves.

  • HuntAll

    If this were the US the contract wouldn’t be an issue.  There is such a thing as an implied warranty of habitability for residential properties.  It cannot be waived or contracted away.

  • backprop

    I think she should get her money back, in theory, despite all the legal issues she’s going to have.

    But what’s a supposedly knowledgeable woman *in the travel business* doing renting an apartment halfway around the world from an internet start-up?  Most travelers in that situation are going to be fighting not only fatigue but an unfamiliar legal system as well as, often, a language barrier.  Who wants additional surprises in the form of dealing with an unknown landlord?

  • Abhay Negi

     i think you got your money back. but we don’t know about the law of beijing so its depend on the contract. i also bought a apartment through internet by its cheaper and reliable.

  • emanon256

    I voted yes, because I think the place did not deliver what was agreed to, but for that reason alone.  I find it quite annoying that she has to identify herself as working in a high-profile position.  That reads to me like she thinks she is better than herself and deserves more than anyone else.  Also, she states she should have known better and that she paid $560 for 10 nights?  What was she expecting at that price? 

  • Raven_Altosk

    I voted yes because that was definitely not what was offered and certainly someone knew about the plumbing problem.

    However, if she is high up on a hotel food chain, why not stay at one of their properties? Was there not one in Beijing or was she trying to do this on the super-cheap? If it’s the latter, I feel less sympathy for her. After all, you get what you pay for.

    Also, the link that’s implied to be on “here’s a recent story” doesn’t appear in Safari.

  • john4868

    Yes but … It seems that the mediation is going to have to be with the apartment owner. Bnb already refunded their fees.

    Got luck getting the apartment owner to cough up anything

  • Christopher Elliott

    Fixed that. Sorry!

  • Nikki

    I voted no, but only because we know very well that AirBnB is going to live up (or down) to its reputation as a capital-letter “Agency to NEVER ever ever rent from”.  Otherwise, I think that because of the problems, she’s entitled to the balance of her stay back.

    One thought to the OP though… Getting upset is one thing.  Getting uppity to the point of throwing your hotel/hospitality weight around, especially in a foreign country, is another matter entirely.  Didn’t work for you, did it? Might want to rethink that strategy in the future.

  • TonyA_says

    Asia (not including Japan) is supposed to be cheap (comparatively). So you definitely should be able to rent an apartment for about $56/night.

    However, generally speaking, IF I were to look for an apartment in China, I would be more comfortable to stay in a place where expats live.

  • TonyA_says

    Same in firefox. No link.

  • ExplorationTravMag

    This is actually an amazing and point related statement.  I wish someone else had said it first.

    Oh…  Wait.

  • ExplorationTravMag

    Chris – can anything be done about posters who are hopping in here for the sole purpose of advertising their sites for free?  

  • emanon256

    @chriselliott:disqus The report button won’t work. I think this is  a spam bot.

    Sorry, I meant to reply to the SpamBot.

  • Cybrsk8r

    Even if you don’t mediate the case, I would publish the address and/or AirBNB listing number of this hell-hole so others will know to avoid it.

  • Hercule

    I’ve never rented with AirBnB, but I went on a trip to Israel and rented two different apartments from their internet sites.  While neither was perfect for a “deluxe” visit (partly due to our ignorance), both delivered essentially what was promised for a lower price and more comfortably fit our family of five (who generally don’t fit into single hotel rooms well).  So I don’t think it is unreasonable to rent an apartment, to expect it to be habitable, especially with a larger group of people. 

    I wil say that I’d never use AirBnB after reading this site, though.

  • Fly, Icarus, Fly

    Not sure why everyone is getting on the OP’s case about where she works. The story doesn’t imply she “threw her weight around”. I think it just goes to show that even people in the hospitality industry can meet up with hospitality problems.

    That being said, I don’t think I would have cleaned anything up. I would have demanded that the “contact” come right away, making up a story (apartment is flooding! come quick!) or the like. Maids are dirt cheap in China, so the owner had no reason not to have cleaned up the apartment. Truly a travel horror story. If AirBnB had any sense (of decency) at all, they would remove the listing until the owner coughs up the refund.

  • Bill Armstrong

    The property should be delisted from what this story says.  AirB&B would probably go out of business if they had to refund in each case like this.

    There is no mention of the reviews this place had…were there any indicators?  China is a very dicey place to rent an apartment.

  • Katrina Keating

    Asia is notorious for that kind of thing, which is why I only book one or two nights when I first arrive then spend the time finding a place that I can see in person.

  • SooZeeeQ

    What a cluster-you-know!

    While it is indicated that she should have known what she was getting into because of your story in January, since I did not see the article, it is also possible that she did not either, so it was not a no-brainer.

  • SooZeeeQ

    If we could click on “Report” along with Like and Reply, as on other sites, that would work, then the webmaster can delete.

  • pinklotusblossom

    I am not sure why anyone would be annoyed since nowhere in Chris’ article does SHE identify her high-profile position in the hospitality industry or say she deserves more than anyone else.  

    Also, cost of living is quite low in China compared to the U.S. It’s not at all surprising to me that apartment rentals can be had for $56.

  • pinklotusblossom

    Nowhere in Chris’ article does Ms. Chan identify her high-profile position in the hospitality industry or say she deserves more than anyone else.  She didn’t throw her weight around or get uppity, nor was there even such an implication, so there is no strategy to rethink.

  • emanon256

    Then why is it necessary for Chris to say, “After all, she works for a hotel, and in a high-profile position at that.”?  That adds nothing to the story, nor her case, other than it makes her sound more important, which I interpret as her having a trumped up sense of entitlement. Her case stands on its own merits and her status is just a distractor.  She got screwed no matter who she was.
    I guess the apartment sounds cheap to me, I see basic hotels in China for around $150-250 a night, so I would expect an apartment in a good area to be a little more than $56 a night, but I could be wrong.  I wish Chris would post the listing so we could see what it is supposed to offer.

  • Jeanne_in_NE

    If you move your mouse just right of the time elapsed since the comment was posted, a little flag shows up.  Sometimes.  The comments portion of the article has been acting up all morning.

  • SooZeeeQ

    I just tried – it linked me to something else and the flag disappears.

  • pinklotusblossom

    ” I find it quite annoying that she has to identify herself as working in a high-profile position.  That reads to me like she thinks she is better than herself and deserves more than anyone else.  Also, she states she should have known better and that she paid $560 for 10 nights?  What was she expecting at that price?”

    I was responding to your statement that she was the one who brought up her job position.  She clearly did not.  I also read Chris’ description of her job as commentary on the fact that even someone who works in the hospitality industry can be taken advantage of, not as an implication that she thinks she is better than everyone else because of her job or that she feels entitled to anything beyond what someone else might get.

  • TonyA_says

    You are correct about the hotel prices since most hotels we (foreigners) really want to stay at are 5 star hotels in Asia. (I pay at least $200+ a night for a hotel room in Asia.) But most of Asia has had a huge boom in condominium and apartment building and many of these are speculative properties that end up as rentals. But renting out property are priced to local standards (which are cheap). That is why you will see plenty of much cheaper condos for rent. If you know the area well, you will find bargains. But the key is always location, location, location. That’s why staying where the expats are is a good indication of safety for foreigners.

  • emanon256

    You read it differently than I do.  That’s why I said, “That reads to me…”
    But why would Chris be mentioning it, if she hadn’t brought it up to him?  Most of Chris’s columns lately have been people who feel entitled because of who they are.

  • emanon256

    I really like your idea of finding ExPat areas. 
    I personally would not feel safe renting out a place that was that cheap by US standards unless I personally knew the area.  I went to PR recently and found a place that was almost too good to be true cheap.  I have a friend who worked in PR for many years and he gave me his approval, I went for it, and had a great and inexpensive rental.  But without him vouching for the area, I would not have gone for it.

  • Carver Clark Farrow II

     It works. Thanks.  One thing, it has to be all the way to the right of the time, the “In reply to” if present and any likes.

  • Carver Clark Farrow II

     Well remember, her last name is Chan.  She might very well have family or other ties to China that you and I lack.

  • Carver Clark Farrow II

     I read it as pinklotus does.  As far as why Chris mentioned it, I suspect, that in his interview that was part of the background information that he collected.  Or perhaps it was identified in her e-mail is she sent it from work.

  • Carver Clark Farrow II

      or was she trying to do this on the super-cheap

    What wrong with being cheap.  There’s getting what you paid for and getting ripped off.

  • Joe_D_Messina

    I read this as Carver and pinklotus did–Chris is just including details to make the column more interesting.

    I think people just need to read some of these articles more carefully.  A couple columns ago a lot of people went off on the OP for demanding stuff from Air France…except they’d never asked for anything, it was Chris who had interjected that he thought they deserved something.

  • IGoEverywhere

    Anybody that travels to a foreign country should do a ton of research with a travel agent long before they lay out any money. She bought a pig in a poke and got exactly what she paid for… price and a crappy room, with a crappy refund for loss services. Do the reservation by on the internet and become another loser. 

  • TonyA_says

    Seriously, my cousin and her kids in Texas are Chan(s). I don’t think they know anything about renting an apartment or room in Beijing.

    If I had local contact in a country (which I do have), I won’t bother to use AirBnB. I will lift the phone and call my relatives.

    Actually, China is one country I will be very cautious using peer-to-peer sites. In my experience, that country might have 5 start hotels, but the living conditions for NON TOURISTS and NON EXPATS are not at par with US home standards that we are used to. Mainland China has not adopted Western Standards for that long. Go to a market place there and check out the bathrooms. You’ll understand what I am talking about. My kids told me they would never want to travel there again even if I paid them.

  • TonyA_says


    Maybe Patsy Chan should have known better than to rent a room using AirBnB. After all, she works for a hotel, and in a high-profile position at that.

    If I had a high-profile position in a hotel, I would be embarrassed telling the whole world this happened to me. Not unless I had another agenda. Maybe to tell the world how “dangerous” it is to use these peer-to-peer booking sites. But note she later said this.

    The Chans checked out of their AirBnB rental and found another place for the remaining nine nights.

    So apparently some rentals are shi**y and some are not. It’s hit and miss. Well if you don’t like surprises, stay in a 5 star hotel. I’m sure she knows that.

    Anyway, the average (mainland) Chinese still does not live like we do in the Western world. I remember reading an Asian article about the Chinese government wanting to spur the economy and subsidized (almost give for free) washing machines. So many people took the offer. The problem is that they did not have indoor plumbing to hook up the washing machines. So many of the machines were unusable.

    I’ve been to China during Winter when there was UNEXPECTED snow. It must have been but an inch or so in the ground (but it was very cold). So they shut down the HIGHWAY and you had to use local roads. You can see that they were using people with brooms to push the snow out of the road. I am not kidding since I saw it with my own two eyes (in Shanghai). I think readers here can figure out what to expect with the rest of China.

    If you want western living standards, go to Hong Kong.

  • TonyA_says

    I guess it depends on the place. Here’s one condo right beside the Shangrila hotel in EDSA Manila Philippines (SE Asia)
    Looks like the host is an Italian expat in Manila working for UNICEF.
    I’ll give this post high marks if I were in the market looking for a room in Manila.

  • Raven_Altosk

    Trufax, but like my grandmother used to say, “The cheap comes out expensive.”

    If you want hotel quality and someone to attend to things breaking, stay in a hotel. If you want to take a gamble in a foreign land for $56/nt, well…then…don’t expect the Ritz. I do feel she was ripped off, but when I’m traveling overseas, I’m extra cautious of the “mom and pop” places. Found a few good ones in my time, and also found some ratholes…

  • TonyA_says

    I think it has more to do with reputation. That’s why we trust hotel CHAINS. You know what to expect. With AirBnB, it’s more like a crap shot.

  • Carver Clark Farrow II

    It may also depend on where in the country they reside. I live in Silicon Valley where there is a large first generation population.  Speaking the language and having connections with the home country is fairly common.

  • JPainis

     If she does, she would be much better off trying to deal with it in China rather than here.

  • Carver Clark Farrow II

     I seriously doubt that.  The US has substantial consumer protection laws.  The owner has the home court advantage in China as well the knowledge that international collections is a b*****.  If possible, the best avenue is to sue AirBnB in the US and let them duke it out with the owner.  The theory would be that she contracted with AirBnB so it’s their responsibility to ensure that the contract was adhered to.

  • adventurebaby

    I think she’s an idiot. People in China live in the smallest, most crammed quarters in the “developed” world. Their household amenities are nothing like you would expect in the US or Europe. How can a professional in the hospitality business be that dumb as to rent a private residence in China and think she was getting Western standards.

  • S E Tammela

    So, nobody else finds it odd that all four adults supposedly slipped on the floor? ALL FOUR? REALLY?

  • Vacation Rental Guru

    AirBnB are aggressive marketers and have a hollow offering. People should read the blogs. If you let any Tom, Dick or Harry advertise on a listing site this is what you get. Unfortunately they make their money from the advertiser so you can guess where the loyalty lies…

  • rybashka

    In China, foreigners are not allowed to stay in private apartments unless they register with the local police.  This typically requires going to the police station (where they will be unlikely to speak English) with the landlord and a copy of the rental agreement.  The penalty for not doing this may be a monetary fine and/or deportation.

    Given the legal restrictions, AirBnB should probably not be offering apartment rentals in China to the average Westerner.

    If you want to save money in China, there are budget chains (such as Home Inn or Motel 168) that are clean, cheap, and can be booked on-line.

  • Sadie_Cee

    In the past year, AirBnB has been the subject of at least four complaints on this blog alone. One can access all such posts by simply doing a search on Google.  There is no excuse for any traveller who is embarking on a particular mode or to a destination for the first time not to begin with some exploratory research.   The OP here could have received all sorts of useful information that would have avoided this unfortunate experience.

  • rybashka

    The Chinese Public Security Bureau (i.e., the police) in Beijing has just announced a 100-day campaign to stop foreigners and demand that they produce their passports and valid residence registration papers.  The PSB will be going to areas where foreigners congregate (e.g., places where there are nightclubs and Western restaurants).

    Chengdu (home of the pandas) will be starting a similar campaign soon. 

    More reason not to use AirBnB in China.

  • Marian Rosenberg

    Perhaps you mean 150 – 250 yuan per night.  My apartment is on the cheap side of things due to a five year lease and a good relationship with my landlord but I pay less than $100 a month and I’m only two kilometers from the beach.

  • emanon256

    No, I mean US Dollars, as I was searching for results in US Dollars.  I don’t think decent hotels charge $1.80USD to $3.00USD a night, which is what you are quoting.  And renting a fully furnished / linnened apartment for a few nights generally costs substantially more than a 5 year lease.