While we've heard plenty of horror stories about poorly-vetted short-term rental guests wreaking havoc on their hosts' homes, when you're the one looking for an out of town rental, you'd be forgiven for wondering what, exactly, your hosts can find out about you, and if your "pending" requests means they're taking some time to cyber-stalk your entire existence.
So how much, exactly, can a rental owner find out? In short: It depends, and quite a bit comes down to what you choose to reveal about yourself in your profile, however inadvertently. Even if a host only has your first name, city, and profession, they can likely do some creative Googling to find out more about you, and if they have it, use your email address to find your Facebook profile. (Because of this, among other reasons, digital security expert Nick Paras suggests setting up a new email account for these transactions, if you're concerned. "Create an email address through a free site like Gmail or Hotmail, so there won't be a one-to-one connection with the rest of your personal information," he tells us.) Similarly, if you're using the same profile picture you use on all your major social networks, do so with the knowledge that a tech-savvy host might plug it into reverse image search to find you on other platforms.
"I try to search the name and profession, if they've said it, to see what comes up," says Cree Quaker of Catskills brokerage The Machree Group, who also rents out properties of her own on short-term rental sites. "Guest profiles don't reveal much, but often there is enough information that allows a host to further research the guest. Most people tend to give a lot of information about themselves in their introduction, and that makes getting more details on them easier."
In fact, more than ratings or personal information, most hosts seem keen to suss out exactly how you plan to use their house. (This is particularly true in areas like Montauk and East Hampton that've become overrun with groups of young partiers over the past few years, says Elliman Hamptons broker James Keogh. In general, you'll have a harder time finding takers if you're renting with a large group.) "I look at the activities they've mentioned—do they want to go hiking, or are they throwing a party to celebrate finishing grad school," says Quaker. "Sometimes their pictures even make it clear if they're partiers—say, in lederhosen at Oktoberfest." It doesn't mean you should lie about your vacation plans, but if it's a party house you're in the market for, prepare to have to look a little harder.
If it's maximum privacy you're after—after all, you don't know these potential landlords, either—your best bet is likely Airbnb, which essentially forces users to communicate via its own platform, blocking information like phone numbers and email addresses if you try to send them. (Conversely, this is probably why you usually hear about nightmare guests who've rented through Airbnb as opposed to, say, VRBO.)
But even on Airbnb hosts can see reviews from your past hosts, and will be looking through them for red flags. "I take the good reviews with a grain of salt, because their friend could have written that, but I do look for bad reviews, and to see how long they've been with the site," says Liz Cohen, a NYC-based therapist who uses Airbnb to rent out a vacation house in Pennyslvania. Many hosts are skeptical of first-time users who have no proven track record, and may be harder to deal with if they're inexperienced in the world of short-term renting. Thankfully, you won't be taken by surprise here: on Airbnb you can see your past reviews and respond to them if there's negative feedback you'd like to clarify.
In the end, while you might want to go light on certain personal details, both sides of the short-term rental equation require a certain degree of trust in order to work. "The profile is really what you put out, and you can put whatever you want," says Amy Zaltzman, another city dweller who's used Airbnb to rent out her Hudson Valley home.
And lest we forget, the same thing is true of your host. So while they're busy Googling you, your best bet is likely to do the same, and brush up on telltale signs of a vacation rental scam.
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