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How to Decode an Airbnb Review

By Daniel Bortz
January 12, 2022
NYC Apartment Rental
Victorianl/Dreamstime
The good, the bad, the downright nasty... Airbnb reviews can range from sci-fi fantasies to dystopian nightmares. Here, a common-sense approach to actually getting the info you need before booking your next rental.

Vacation rentals such as Airbnb can save you money on lodging and provide a comfortable home base at your vacation destination. But it can be a challenge to navigate Airbnb reviews when the average Airbnb rating is a whopping 4.7 out of 5 stars, according to a recent study by Georgios Zervas, an assistant professor of marketing at Boston University’s Questrom School of Business. That’s a surprisingly high number when compared to hotel reviews on TripAdvisor, where the average rating is only 3.9 out of 5 stars for hotels with more than 100 reviews, a Cornell survey found.

Zervas suspects there’s a psychological component at play. “People might feel bad leaving a negative review because they know that many hosts are using Airbnb to supplement their income and help support their family,” says Zervas.

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Some Airbnb customers might also be hesitant to write a negative review because they fear repercussions. “Hosts also review guests, and future hosts can see every review you leave,” says Emily McNutt, an editor at ThePointsGuy.com. Translation: “if you write a scathing review, a future host might be less inclined to let you stay at their place,” McNutt says.

Another reason why Airbnb ratings are so high? For many people, it’s difficult to be critical of someone they’ve met and gotten to know—even if they had a bad experience. “If you’re reviewing a restaurant on Yelp, you’re not talking about the owner directly, but on Airbnb you’re essentially rating the host just as much as you’re rating the property,” says McNutt.

To Airbnb’s credit, a recent Consumer Reports survey found that 92% of Americans that have booked a home-sharing service say they are likely or very likely to do it again, and fans said homestays make traveling more authentic and affordable.

If you’re planning to stay at an Airbnb, you’ll want to check out guest reviews before booking a trip. But since ratings on the website are so high, it’s important to have a critical eye when reading reviews.

Take these steps to accurately interpret guest reviews and find a great Airbnb.

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1. READ THE PROPERTY DESCRIPTION

Before reading what guests have to say, look at the property description (under “about this listing”) to see what the host promised to provide. “If a guest complains about the noise level but the host said the home was located in a busy neighborhood, it’s not the host’s fault that the guest was unhappy,” says Evelyn Badia, a short-term vacation rental coach and founder of TheHostingJourney.com.

2. TAKE GLOWING REVIEWS WITH A GRAIN OF SALT

Reviews that simply lap praise on the property or the host aren’t very useful when evaluating where you should stay. In other words, you should be looking for reviews that talk about specific aspects of the property, like cleanliness, not gushing reviews that tout generic compliments, like “great place!” or “perfect apartment!”

3. FOCUS ON OBJECTIVE PROBLEMS

Some complaints from guests point out valid issues with a property, but some things just boil down to personal preference. For example, “if a guest says the Internet broke and the host was notified and didn’t try to fix it, that’s an issue,” says Badia. However, negative comments about the home’s décor, per say, shouldn’t matter all that much to you. (After all, you’re not buying the place.)

4. AVOID AGGRESSIVE HOSTS

Airbnb’s website enables hosts to post public replies to guest reviews, and how hosts communicate with guests is indicative of how the host might behave during your stay. You want to find a host that’s respectful—someone who thanks guests for writing suggestions instead of attacking the person for pointing out areas for improvement.

While checking out a 1-bedroom listing in Washington, D.C. with 4 stars, I found that the host wrote hostile replies when guests offered constructive criticism; that’s certainly not someone you’d want to rent from.

5. GIVE AN OWNER CREDIT WHERE IT'S DUE

Problems can arise that are outside the host’s control; say, the power goes out in the building, the dishwasher breaks, or the dryer won’t start. In those instances, what really matters is how the owner handled the situation, says McNutt. For instance, if a guest says in a review that the Internet shut down but the landlord responded immediately and contacted the cable company to fix it, there’s no harm done; in fact, that’s the sign of a good host. So, when reading guest reviews, try to assess whether the host is accessible and responsive when issues crop up.

6. IF YOU SEE A SCATHING REVIEW, DIG DEEPER

Some guests are impossible to please, and many of these people will write negative reviews regardless of their experience. Therefore, if someone leaves an overly harsh review on a property that has relatively high ratings, click on the person’s profile to see what reviews the guest has received from hosts in the past. If someone has consistently bad reviews from hosts, it’s best to disregard that person’s opinion when deciding where you want to stay.

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