The past week has been very harrowing for me – we had a company retreat, and as with most things in 2359, you can barely confirm anything in advance. I spent 2 weeks planning for our first ever BotCamp, where new colleagues from Vietnam and Indonesia were due to fly over and join us. The idea was to get us all in a small space where we could live and work together for a week. And the fiasco all started with this Airbnb host.

I sent in an enquiry stating my requirements for the space on 26 May 2017, to which he replied that he would be able to meet my requirements.

All good so far! The space looks very enticing, I mean, look at the interior design.

It looks like a classy condominium (I should’ve known, no condominiums in Singapore are really that classy) and seemed like the perfect space. Not enough tables and chairs? No problem, we can rent. Cleared the roadblocks one by one to make sure that everything would go smoothly.

I was worried about the number of pax in the apartment though. We had 10 people there in the day, but expected only 4 to be sleeping over, so I communicated this to the host and he said it was okay.

He charged me for 8 pax staying – I guess with the additional pax coming in the day, I could overlook this. I made the booking and started putting everything else in place for BotCamp.

Along the way, he kept assuring me that we could make use of facilities. As I requested in my first message, I would want to have access to the pool, etc. for the team to go work out together. Or else, I would book a meeting room which would be much more conducive for our retreat, with whiteboards, TVs, etc. It’s a corporate retreat and I would never risk it by booking a place that had even the slightest chance of issues cropping up, if I could pre-empt them. If I couldn’t, well, we’d improvise. The host was very reassuring though, and I decided to go ahead with this plan.

He even offered me a full refund for cancellation if we couldn’t use the space!

The issues started hours before we were about to check-in. The host messaged us roughly 12 hours before check-in, telling us we needed to stagger ourselves out. This made me a little alarmed and curious because.. why? But I went along with it anyway, didn’t want any issues. I just got my colleagues into different cars, paced them out, and got them to come to the Airbnb.

So we all arrived at the Airbnb. Hong Ting and I were the first to arrive in, because I have never been able to get into a condominium successfully on my own, I have a phobia of keypads with screeching alarms and all. So we got in, tried to set things up, and found that one air-con wasn’t working. Just as I pulled out my phone to call the host, my colleague called me saying that the property manager doesn’t allow us to go up. Hmmm. Okay. Maybe a misunderstanding.

I called the host, let’s call him R, and told him that my colleagues were stuck downstairs and the property manager wasn’t allowing them to come up, and that there was an air-con unit in the living room that wasn’t working. He said to just go to them and tell them that we were R’s friends. Only then did he tell us that there was some issues with building management, but if we said we were R’s friends we would be OK. “It will be OK.” is a recurring theme in this story, you’ll see why later.

Just when I called my colleague back, the door opened and they came in, telling us that they were briefly stopped, and that it turned out to be okay. Guessing it was a misunderstanding, we continued setting up, and then waited for the last car to arrive.

Then another call came. My colleagues were stopped at the gate of the property and not allowed to come in, with the property manager shouting at them and accusing them of trespass, illegal renting. He threatened to call URA. He said he wanted the tenancy agreement. He said he didn’t care if we were friends, he said knew we were following the host’s instructions to say so and we were not friends, or rented for Airbnb (odd that he would say this because none of us mentioned Airbnb), because we were in the wrong and that he didn’t want to talk to the host, he would just call URA on us because we were committing an offence.

Wow, strong words.

When I came down to see what I could do, the security guard directed me to the property manager’s room. I went in, tried to talk to him (or talk as best as I could over his railing at me) and offered to call the owner, which he refused. I called R anyway and told him to talk to the property manager now, because we were stuck. We were on a schedule, we had been shouted at, so he better move quick.

R called the property manager. The property manager, who had shouted at me to “Excuse me, I have things to do.” just a few minutes ago, now walked out and had the full shouting match with R over the phone, in front of us. He kept demanding a tenancy agreement, and kept saying that this was illegal, he could call URA, (all the above). It was loud, nasty, and honestly, we didn’t sign up to be caught in the middle of a conflict like this.

After the shouting match was over, the property manager walked over, scolded us for renting the place, then started asking questions about where we were staying, what this was for, etc. He only allowed us to go up after we reluctantly agreed that only 2 of us would be staying (which defeats the purpose of me renting a condominium for my foreign colleagues anyway), that we would stagger ourselves (with 10 pax leaving at 15 min intervals in pairs, that takes an hour) and that we would not use the facilities. So essentially, two big uses of the property were gone. We still needed to go on with the agenda, every hour we burn is money, so we went up, and I called R to ask why that fiasco happened, while the rest of them settled in the living room and worked.

My exact question to him was: “If you were me and you had known that there might be issues with the property management, and you were organizing a company retreat, would you have rented the place?” His initial apology and explanation went like this: it had been rowdy Korean tourists who stayed over the weekend that had caused residents to complain to management, and that his property agent lost the tenancy agreement, so they hadn’t been providing it to the management office when they asked for it, but they would be producing it before close of business the next day (I can only hope that they successfully find the agreement, in other words). When I asked him why he didn’t tell me this, he said I had made my booking way before. Fair point, but over the weekend, we were corresponding, why couldn’t you have told us? Even if we had burned 50% of our monies on cancellation, we would have done so, because it is a corporate retreat and you shouldn’t be making the decision for us on whether we’d risk it or not. All he said was that regardless of what the issues were, they had been resolved, oh, and he assured us that it was OK again. What is so OK? His initial explanations quickly segued into full-blown aggressive argument when he realized I was going to ask for a refund. We didn’t want to get involved in this fracas between him and the building management, so we wanted to move out. We said we would be out by 7pm, give us some time to find a new place. His reply? “No, no, I’ve already settled with the building manager. Regardless of the initial issues, it’s already settled, it will be ok, there is no reason for you to move.” When I said we would move out, he said either we get out now, or he would take up our first night’s money. I mean, dude, that’s exactly what you said BEFORE THIS WHOLE SAGAYou really have very little basis for credibility.

I called Airbnb for help, and initially they said they would call R. They called him, and they believed him when he said it was OK, so they refused me the refund as well. They also said that they would be able to process the refund if any further issues arose. What, do I have to wait for us to be shouted at again to get a refund?

We didn’t manage to find another place in such short time, so we asked our foreign colleagues to stay for one night, and we took 1 hour to dismiss everyone, staggering ourselves in ones and twos. After that, Airbnb called and had a long chat with me, said they would only refund the following 4 nights, and advised that if I really wanted to contest it, I could use the Resolution Centre. Okay, I’ll take what I can get, deal. I asked if it was illegal, what recourse would I have? He said I could call the authorities and the host could get a fine or imprisonment, but, in his words, it was “not cool”. Like I really gave a damn what was cool or not. You infringe the law, and not out of ignorance, but wilfully, for profit, you damn well pay the price for taking that particular risk.

Here’s the particular penalty:

Source: The New Paper

And the host was so nasty to me knowing that I had this as my recourse.

The next morning, I got up early to go back to the flat to check-out. I asked my colleagues to double check the appliances, made sure everything was switched off. And here comes my biggest mistake – I didn’t take a video of the appliances after they were switched off.

After we left, I placed a report with the Resolution Centre. 

R declined the request (expected) and then threw a curveball. He requested for S$100 on the premise that I had neglected to switch off all the appliances, in what he alleged was done “on purpose”.

I further petitioned for Airbnb to step in and resolve the matter, but it ended with this as the last message:

Separate resolution thread: R’s request for S$100.

And lastly, Airbnb’s stance on this, that they would not be helping us because I had agreed (which I have not, please go and listen to the recordings of the conversations with the CSO), we rounded off the whole issue:

The Aftermath

I am a very big believer in the whole gig economy concept. I believe it allows us to use resources that would otherwise be wasted, like car seats, space. I believe it allows us to profit, break even on our purchases, and reduce our carbon footprint in the long run. I have historically had very excellent experiences with Airbnb, from my stay in Seoul, to a very nice five-room apartment in Paris that was really next to the Louvre. Those experiences were irreplaceable. But then you have hosts like this who ruin your experience from start to end.

At the end, I gave up fighting for the S$430 I paid. This includes the fees paid to Airbnb. The whole fiasco was very emotionally charged, and I was getting drained by the day having to deal with a he-said-she-said volley. I wish I had the video of us switching the appliances off, but so what if I did? The host could have easily accused us of faking that video. There is just no way to prove innocence in this case, and the host can say whatever he wants to. I don’t even know why I’m masking so many of his details when he could easily out me and blacken my name on the internet, but at this point, I just want to warn all tourists that there are new regulations in Singapore, and if your host was as unscrupulous as mine, make sure you check, or you might end up paying for his infringementI’m still toying with the idea of taking further action, but for now, I just want a break from this whole tiresome argument. I don’t expect the host to apologize or even refund me any more. I’ve more or less resigned that it will be a he-said-she-said battle that I cannot prove to Airbnb, whereas if I report him then my stance is very clear. I don’t have any intention of running anyone into the ground, but I think if he has been so adamant and self-righteous, then my only real course of action left will be to take it up with relevant authorities. We’ll see, we’ll see.

If anything, I am most upset with Airbnb for siding with the host. When the host has everything to gain (including a one-night’s stay fees), why would you side with the host? We lost so much more: time, a ruined company retreat, monies to rent a new place at last-minute notice. While I don’t dispute the Airbnb fees as I understand how these gig economy companies work (and the platform has done its job), I’m disillusioned by how Airbnb can choose to side with an unscrupulous, dishonest host.

I’m not saying I will never use Airbnb again. I probably will in Seoul, because I’ve had such great experiences there. Yet as a frequent traveller, I cannot imagine if I had been a tourist, or this had been the treatment my foreign colleagues received on their trip to Singapore. I cannot imagine being in a foreign land, having words like ‘illegal’, ‘trespassing’, ‘call URA (the authorities)’ used on me, especially if I didn’t speak the language of the land, on my first day. We’re talking wasted monies, holiday ruined. There is no way for guests to know residency regulations in every country, so the prerogative should be on the host to make sure they comply with the local regulations. So here’s what I will do differently from now on: I will assume a no-trust position, and take down every single kernel of proof I can, just in case something like this happens. I will outrightly ask if the renting is legal, I will clearly ask if my requirements are explicitly allowed, and will not allow for gray areas. I would love to trust all my hosts, and believe that they have my best interests at heart, especially since I’m staying under their roof, but this incident has made me realize how much can be misconstrued, and how people can twist reason and logic just to win, or profit.

For your information, here’s the official Airbnb statement on the URA policy.

Source: Airbnb

Take note, beware, and may everyone travel safely this season.

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