How to Screen Renters on Airbnb, VRBO, and Other Short-Term Hosting Sites

How to screen Airbnb and other short-term guests to avoid problems.

By , J.D. · USC Gould School of Law

When you rent your home or apartment to short-term guests through Airbnb or a similar site, you're always taking a risk. You're allowing strangers into your home, and there is always the possibility that things could go terribly wrong. For example, the guest could trash your home and/or steal your belongings. In one widely reported story, for example, a woman who rented her apartment for one week through Airbnb returned to discover that her guest had punched a hole through a locked closet and had stolen her birth certificate, Social Security card, passport, at least one credit card, and other valuables.

Having a short-term guest trash, damage, or steal your belongings is bad, but rare. Moreover, many companies that operate short-term rental websites offer various degrees of financial protection to hosts who suffer such incidents. For example, Airbnb has a "host guarantee" in which Airbnb promises to pay up to $1 million to a host for property damage. And, you'll have the guest's security deposit to defray the cost of fixing any damages.

Far more common problems are guests who disturb neighbors by making too much noise, blocking driveways, partying at all hours, and otherwise disrupting the neighborhood. Complaints from neighbors are the surest way to run afoul of your landlord, if you're renter; or your city or other local government if you own your home. If you own a condo or townhouse with a homeowners' association, you may run into trouble with the association. A landlord who receives complaints from neighbors may force you to stop all short-term renting of your unit on pain of eviction. Neighbor complaints may also cause your city or other local government to fine you if your short-term rentals violate local zoning or other housing laws.

The best way to minimize the potential for such problems is to carefully screen your guests. Remember the old saying: "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure."

Screening by Short-Term Hosting Companies

Many short-term hosting companies do a certain amount of screening before they allow potential users access to their website listings. How much screening varies from company to company. Typically, short-term hosting companies attempt to verify that each user is a real person with a valid address. Other companies will verify that users have a valid ID and physical address. However, hosting companies ordinarily don't do through background checks of their users, such as running credit checks. For example, Airbnb says that it "does not routinely perform background checks on its users, although we reserve the right to do so."

Hosting companies also typically allow hosts to post on their websites reviews of the guests they have hosted, which are made part of each guest's profile. Such reviews can be a helpful in screening tenants. But not every potential guest will have reviews.

Screening You Should Do Yourself

The best approach is to be proactive and do your own screening before you agree to let anyone stay at your home, even it's only for a few days.

Telephone Screening

The best way to screen any potential tenant is to talk with him or her on the phone. You should obtain at least the following information:

  • the purpose of the trip
  • whether the guest has stayed in a short-term rental before (and if they can provide references from other stays)
  • how many adults and how many children will be staying in the rental
  • whether they smoke, and
  • whether they have pets they'll be bringing with them.

However, there are some things that you are not allowed to ask a potential renter. These questions may violate federal, state, and local anti-discrimination housing laws. The Federal Fair Housing Acts prohibit discrimination on the basis of race, religion, national origin, gender, familial status, physical or mental disability (including recovering alcoholics and people with a past drug addiction). Many state and city fair housing laws also prohibit discrimination based on age, marital status, or sexual orientation. Thus, you can't ask questions, such as:

  • In what country were you born?
  • Are you Hispanic?
  • Are you disabled?
  • Are you married?
  • Are you gay?
  • Are you pregnant?
  • How old are you?

You can't ask a guest whether they have ever been arrested. But you can ask if they have been convicted of a crime—they are two different things.

Families with children under 18 years old cannot be denied a rental. However, you can let prospective guests know that your place is not "kid-friendly" and let them decide to go elsewhere.

You can use the phone conversation as an opportunity to make clear that your home is not a party house, and you expect all your guests to be considerate of your neighbors. Explain any other rules you have as well. For example, let prospective guest know that you have a no smoking policy.

In addition to going over your rules on the phone, put all your house rules in writing and leave then in a conspicuous place in your home.

Social Media and Other Screening

You can to attempt to learn more about prospective guests by searching online. For, example, try a "reverse phone number" or "reverse address" search to see if the person's phone number and/or address match his or her name. Use potential renters' names and/or email addresses to find their Facebook or LinkedIn pages. Of course, not all the information you can find online about a person is accurate or necessarily useful in determining what type of short-term tenant someone will be.

How about credit screening? As a rule, this is not feasible for a guest who is only staying for a short time. Most prospective guests will balk at providing their Social Security numbers to complete strangers to obtain a rental for just a few days.

Security Deposit and Rental Agreement

Finally, before you agree to let anyone rent your home, be sure to have them sign a written rental agreement and provide a security deposit you can use in the event of damage. Before you book potential guests on Airbnb or similar sites, be sure you alert then of these requirements before they book with you.

More Information on Renting to Short-Term Guests

For more on the subject, including how to prepare detailed instructions, see the Nolo article How to Prepare Your Home for Airbnb, VRBO, or Other Short-Term Guests.

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