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Things to look out for when booking an Airbnb

Booking with the rental service can be a great way to shave cost off your upcoming trip. But it doesn't offer the assurances of a hotel. Here's what to look out for to avoid a nightmare vacation.

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Airbnb

There's a reason Airbnb is such a phenomenon: it's cheap. People put their unused spaces up for rent, make a little cash while they're out of town, and the total cost of your vacation can be cheaper than if you stay in a hotel -- or you can get more luxurious. It's a win-win for everyone involved...except when it isn't.

You're leaving quite a bit to chance. How do you know the person you're renting from is legit? How can you be sure the apartment or house you've booked doesn't smell or have noisy neighbors?

Here are some things to look out for when you're booking to avoid having a nightmarish experience with Airbnb.

A lack of pictures

This one may sound like a no-brainer, but photos are a vital resource for anyone looking to book on Airbnb. They're packed with information.

The more pictures there are, the better idea you get of whether a potential listing is exactly what you're looking for. It also gives you other important information, such as the general cleanliness of the host. Photos can typically give you a better feel for whether you're going to have to do some sanitizing on your own after you arrive, which is something you obviously want to avoid.

Keep an eye out too for photos with Airbnb's verification watermark. This means that a professional photographer has been sent by Airbnb to take the photos and lets you rest easy knowing that, for the most part, what you see is what you get. Of course, the point of sending a professional photographer is to make a place look even better than it does in person.

Either way, try to gather all the information you can and avoid any listing with few photos.

Anything but stellar reviews

Reviews, like with anything you buy online, are going to be your most valuable resource. Not every location on Airbnb is going to be loaded with reviews, but be sure to read the ones that are available. If you see more than one or two less than stellar reviews, move along. There are typically plenty of rentals to choose from in any major city, so weed out the ones with mediocre to bad reviews first.

It's true that a perfectly fine host could just be new to Airbnb and still trying to build their reputation. But if it's your first time around with Airbnb or you're still getting a feel for the site, stick with someone who has a longer history of nothing but positive reviews.

You can dabble with newer hosts on Airbnb after you've gotten comfortable and learned the ins and outs yourself.

A lazy or rude host

If you've found a listing that you're serious about booking, try to generate some conversation with the host. Don't expect instant replies for all your questions or concerns, but if they constantly take hours to respond, you can anticipate similar treatment once you're in the place. If you run into an issue after arriving, it might be hours before it's rectified.

Also, asking questions of the host can give you a better idea of their personality. You can't expect them to be your personal concierge, but if they're not willing to help with some general questions about the surrounding area or the listing itself, they might not make a great host, regardless of whether they're on the property when you're there.

It pays off to shop around a bit and find not only a listing that suits your needs, but also a host you feel comfortable with.

Rental agencies and scammers

Due to the popularity of Airbnb and its typical cost savings, rental agencies have started infiltrating the service and posting as hosts. A tell-tale sign of a rental agency is one particular host popping up countless times in your search of a particular city, each with similar-but-different listings.

While a legitimate host could have multiple listings in the same area, if you're not dying for a specific listing, it's better to stick with hosts who post a single listing with a great reputation.

Scammers have long been a problem on Airbnb too. Watch out for hosts asking for information that seems entirely too personal or asking for payment outside Airbnb. All transactions should be done through Airbnb itself. Anything outside that is either a scam or breaking Airbnb's terms and conditions.

No actual savings

While Airbnb is often cheaper than staying in a hotel, you don't always save money. Hosts are looking to make money, and so is Airbnb.

Unless you specifically want to feel the coziness of being at home while still on vacation, it's better to shop around and check nearby hotel pricing to make sure you're getting the best deal possible.

And if your stay is going to be longer than a few weeks, look for listings that do special pricing for long-term reservations, which are billed monthly.

Rejection

Just because you find the perfect spot to stay for your vacation and request to book it doesn't mean you'll get the reservation.

Hosts can and will reject you. They do this for a number of reasons -- primarily, their own protection. For instance, maybe your profile isn't completely filled out, or they didn't like your tone or personality when exchanging messages.

If you want to avoid this, search for listings with the Instant Book feature enabled. Using this option reserves the dates for your trip and allows you to discuss the check-in details with the host later. The catch is that your profile must be completely filled out before you're able to use Instant Book.