Hotel rooms are all pretty much the same; every Airbnb property is different. That's part of the home-rental service's allure, but it's also what makes it so difficult to guarantee the safety of travelers who choose to eschew the predictable comforts of a room at the Marriott in favor of a stranger's guest house.

In Matter, writer Zak Stone offers a tragic tale of an Airbnb stay gone wrong. In 2013, Stone booked a stay for his family at a cottage in Texas over Thanksgiving weekend. Among the property's features was a picturesque rope swing suspended from a tree. When Stone's father attempted to sit on it, the tree's rotten trunk gave way and collapsed on him, causing massive brain damage and, with tragic swiftness, brain death. He was taken off life support within hours. 

"We were shocked and heartbroken when we learned about these incidents and we continue to keep these guests and their families in our thoughts," Airbnb said in a prepared statement in response to Stone's article. "Nothing is more important to us than safety. Over 60 million guests have stayed in an Airbnb and we are proud that accidents are incredibly rare. We know that every industry, every community, and every city grapples with safety issues and no one has an absolutely perfect record, but that's what we strive for and we'll keep working as hard as we know how to make our community safer for everyone."

Airbnb disclaims responsibility for accidents that happen at properties booked through its platform. In general, its safety policies are meager in the extreme: The company offers liability insurance for landlords and homeowners*; it offers free smoke and carbon monoxide detectors to hosts in the U.S.; after the death of Stone's father, it began requiring new hosts to view safety tips during onboarding.

Airbnb has more than 2 million properties on its platform. Certifying the safety of all those home, apartments, yurts and treehouses would be a herculean task, but it's more than mere logistics keeping Airbnb from doing more. As Stone notes, the more the company does to vet the safety of the dwellings it advertises, the more it's potentially liable in the inevitable event things do go wrong. It's a similar bind to the one facing companies, like Uber and Instacart, that employ large workforces of independent contractors but must refrain from training them to avoid running afoul of the IRS.

Yet the idea that Airbnb has an excuse to do next to nothing is particularly unpalatable when you consider how ready the company is to drop its "passive platform" stance to drive bookings. As Stone notes:

Airbnb, for its part, figured out early on that "really bad" photos of its listings in New York City were keeping guests away, as co-founder Joe Gebbia recalled to Fast Company in 2012: "People were using camera phones and taking Craigslist-quality pictures. Surprise! No one was booking because you couldn't see what you were paying for."

Airbnb's solution was to send professional photographers to document hosts' properties free of charge. The program was a success: professional photography quickly helped double revenue in New York and is now available nationally. 

Stone adds:

When it comes to home visits, I imagine Airbnb would resist offering these, given the problems it might pose for liability as well as the cost and complexity. But if Google can photograph every surface of the earth and the U.S. government can conduct a census, couldn't Airbnb peek inside 1,000,000 properties if that would make its "community" safer?

Hiring safety inspectors itself would indeed open up the company to massive liability claims.

But what if someone else were to do it?

Airbnb could fund, or otherwise encourage the development of, a third-party entity that performed safety audits and awarded compliant hosts a certification they could display on their listings. Travelers could choose to include safety certification as one of the variables in their searches, or not. One obvious candidate to take up this mantle would be Peers, an Airbnb-backed nonprofit that organizes sharing-economy participants and offers insurance and other services.

This is far from a simple, and there remain all sorts of devils in the details that would have to be worked out. But if mass scale is no obstacle to improving photo quality, it shouldn't be an obstacle to improving safety.

 

*Correction: The original version of this story said Airbnb offers secondary liability insurance for homeowners whose policies don't cover commercial activity. An Airbnb spokesman says the company's Host Protection Insurance is primary coverage, not secondary. 

Published on: Nov 9, 2015