Mold Attack! What to do when you get a bad Airbnb

by | Apr 6, 2017

It finally happened. I was due. The law of averages had made it more and more likely, with every Airbnb I stayed in, that I would finally end up with a bad one. A mold-infested bad one. A hive-inducing bad one. A makes-puppies-cry-and-kills-baby-unicorns-with-green-rainbows-of-demon-mold-spores bad one.

And I didn’t even see it at first. Mold is like that – furtive as hell! And also, I had a late check in. The apartment was dark (bad lighting – major red flag). I fell asleep. When I woke up: mold attack! The sunlight swooped in and shone a bright light on some nastiness. You know that saying that “sunlight is the best disinfectant”? Wrong. Really powerful bleach products with chemicals ending in “-ide” and “-zene” are the best disinfectants. Use them liberally!

 After I woke up, I took inventory. I got the camera out. I took pictures. Close-ups, even, risking life and lung. There was no way I could continue to stay at that Airbnb. But I had already checked in! Was it too late to cancel on account of mold and other nastiness? Had I already waived my rights by not doing a thorough mold check the night before? Would I die silently in that Airbnb from aggravated mold spore inhalation??

No. I had to get out. But I wasn’t leaving without getting my money back, mold spores be damned.

The next five hours were a steep learning curve for me — I had to navigate a part of Airbnb’s system that I hadn’t encountered before. The complaint system. If you want to know how to formally complain about your bad Airbnb and cancel with a full refund after check-in, read on. Your bronchial health may depend on it.

When mold attacked

After my walk through that morning of the mold attack, I had two main issues and a handful of minor issues to complain about. They all fell under the “general cleanliness” category (but the mold also presented a “safety concern” that probably helped my case for a refund). The first issue was the mold. Green, spore-filled cakes of it all over the shower door. I’m not talking about general soap scum. I’m talking mold cakes, people. Mold Cakes! Growing on the shower door like tiny aliens waiting to invade my windpipe with their corpuscles of green doom! 

My second issue was the walls — they were covered in dirt marks and boot prints(!). Who puts boot prints on the wall? Come on! Have you heard of shoe horn? (Australians: was this you?). In addition to the mold and the boot prints, there were some minor issues, like clutter and “some loose trash” strewn here and there. Also there was the bad lighting (to hide the mold and boot prints, I guess).  

I even inspected the mold with a wet rag to see if it would clean. Mold cakes spore-attacked my hand and I started to get hives on my arm. That’s when I got on my computer and started going to work. 

What steps to take when you get a bad airbnb.

Before you file a complaint with Airbnb, you need to do a sanity check. 

Are you being crazy? Is it really as bad as you think, or did you just get off a fourteen-hour plane ride so everything is horrendous and smells of armpits and icy-hot? Airbnb tries to filter out wacky complaints from actual crazies and from people who have buyer’s remorse or just want to game the system. You know those people who hang dry old paper towels for re-use, or go around threatening suit, or extreme coupon? You know.

You do have the right to complain to Airbnb. But you won’t have a case for a full refund unless the reason for your complaint falls into one of these three categories: 

  • You are not given access to the apartment. 
  • The apartment is misrepresented. For instance, you booked a three bedroom apartment but it only has two. The change in the color of the sheets (English people: “bed clothes”, lol) is probably not a misrepresentation for these purposes. #dontoverreact
  • The place is generally unclean, unsafe, or there is an animal present that wasn’t disclosed prior to booking. (Rats and bedbugs count as “animals” here, as in life. Query goldfish, but I guess it depends on the particular goldfish.)

If you fall into one of the above categories, you can make a claim with Airbnb for a refund. But you must first communicate with your host to try to resolve the issue.  

How to file a complaint with Airbnb

Step 1:  Start the claim process through Airbnb within 24 hours of “check-in”

  • As soon as you’ve discovered an issue with the apartment, do a complete a walk through and make an exhaustive list of your concerns.
  • Start the claim process through Airbnb within 24 hours of “check-in.” Note that the verbiage is a little tricky here. It probably means 24 hours from your actual check-in, but it could be interpreted to mean 24 hours from the host’s listed check-in time (usually around 2-4pm). To play it safe, default to the earlier time. But you probably have a case if you start the claim process within 24 hours of your actual check-in time. (It’s a good practice to arrange a check-in time with your host through the Airbnb message system — that way, Airbnb knows what time you checked in. Spooky, but probably helpful.)

Step 2:  Take photos

  • You need to have good photos of each and every item you are formally complaining about. Grab your phone, turn on all the lights, and snap away.
  • Import all the photos to your laptop and annotate the photos as necessary (e.g., to make it clear what’s at issue in the photo).
    Moldy shower from Airbnb fail. You must document any defects you find.

    One of many photos that I snapped from my mold encounter.

    Airbnb fail. The apartment has bootprints on all of the walls. I even found a blood stain.

    In Haiku: Boot prints on the wall; somebody didn’t shoe horn; bad Airbnb.

Step 3: Send an email through Airbnb to your host

  • In your email, make sure that you are clear about which parts of the apartment are unacceptable. Make sure your complaints are specific. You might also note your intent to formally complain to Airbnb if the issues cannot be timely remedied. Try to be reasonable and professional.

Here is a sample email that you can adjust to your specific needs for your first communication to your host regarding your issues.

“Hello, (host name),

I was just looking through the apartment more closely and I note that it is very dirty. The small bathroom shower door in particular is very dirty and covered with mold. The walls in the bedrooms and hallway are quite dirty with boot prints, etc. One of the bedrooms has a pile of boxes, bags, and some loose trash stuffed into one of the corners.


I hate to complain, but I think my expectations were somewhat different given the nice-looking pictures online. I noticed a bit of dirt on the walls when I first checked in last night, but now that I’ve had a chance for a closer look with better lighting, the dirt and mold stand out. I even found a blood stain on one of the walls. I wanted to let you know in part because I am aware of your policy on charging for additional cleaning if needed. I will take photos of all of this now so you can see my concerns more clearly.


Can we please discuss? It might be good if you stop by the apartment so we can do a walk through and discuss a remedy.  Please note that the lack of cleanliness noted above and in the attached pictures constitutes a “travel issue” under Airbnb’s Guest Refund Policy terms. To reserve my right to cancel my reservation and receive a full refund, I would need to contact Airbnb within 24 hours of my check-in. Therefore, can we please discuss before that 24 hour period has expired?

Await a response from the host. Depending on that response, inform the host that you are filing a complaint with Airbnb.

  • This must go through the Airbnb message system. CYA.
  • Log into Airbnb and click on your reservation. Press: “File a complaint.” That part is easy.

Step 4: Respond to the Airbnb compliant message

  • You will receive an automated message from Airbnb. This message gives you the opportunity to share the photos that you have taken and annotated. The more photos the better. Do not leave any reasonable complaints out — small complaints aggregate. You will not have another opportunity to send in additional information. Note that the photos will be forwarded to the host, so mind your manners. These are professional annotations, not memes. 
  • Make your case well and with civility. As much as it may be hard to do, try to make it as devoid of emotion as possible. Stick to the facts.

Step 5:  Share photos with your Airbnb host

  • On the Airbnb message system, inform your host that you have submitted photos to Airbnb, and offer to forward the same photos to them via their personal email. This is a courtesy and overall just good form. 
  • Go ahead and send the photos to your host through personal email. (This is the only time you should use personal email — the Airbnb system won’t allow you to send attachments through the message function.)
Airbnb fail. Steps to take if you got a bad Airbnb.

Sample annotated photo. This was one of about twenty photos I submitted. Be sure to be clear about what the photo is showing.

Step 6:  Respond to Airbnb’s automated email

  • Because it is in the interest of Airbnb to protect the hosts, you will receive a message from Airbnb in which you will be given three options.  A. I still need help.  B. The host is working on it.  C. Nevermind. 
  • Choose your response. Airbnb makes this a very simple back and forth. Wise hosts will respond and act quickly to any complaints. If you do not have a resolution from your host or you are not in progress to a resolution after one hour of making the formal complaint to Airbnb, you may be given the option to cancel your booking for a full or partial refund. (Airbnb has discretion to deny you a refund if it thinks you don’t have a valid claim). 

Step 7:  Hustle to find a new place to stay

  • You got your refund. There is no going back. It is time to leave the apartment.
  • Look for “Instant Book” places on Airbnb — make sure the lightning bolt feature is turned on.
  • If you have accepted the refund, do not linger in the apartment. If “you” are actually “two,” one person should be working on your next living arrangements while the other coordinates the responses to Airbnb and the host.

Why would a bad Airbnb have “amazing” reviews?

Even if an Airbnb listing has five stars and great reviews, it could still turn out to be a bad Airbnb once you check-in.That’s what happened in my case — the reviews were all pretty good. How did that happen?

First, you need to consider who is giving the review. Not everyone has the same standards. A group of college students will most likely have different expectations than a mature couple. An apartment with some mold and an errant blood stain is probably fine if tequila is flowing morning and night. Also, families with young kids might not mind so much if there’s dirt and scuff marks all over the walls — more license to treat it like a jungle gym. In my case, all the reviews were from college-aged groups or families with young children. I will watch for this next time when I choosing an Airbnb.

Second, a kind of “grade inflation” might be in play with some Airbnb reviews. People may be reluctant to leave a bad review. They might think it will hurt their chances of receiving a good “renter” review from the host, or make it more difficult down the road to get accepted by hosts if they complain too much. Or maybe some people are just really really nice and they don’t want to do things like send back undercooked steak at Lonestar, or complain about the ridiculous lack of cubed ice in all of Europe. Folks like that might give a pass to a place with some soiling on the walls. And who knows! Maybe some people don’t care about mold! Good for those people! It’s America — you can do what you want. Feel free to cake yourself in mold spores like it’s talcum powder if you’d like. I really don’t know what you’re into.

Third, note that canceled stays due to complaints are not granted the right to write a review. If the last review was from more than a year ago, write the host requesting updated photos before you book. That way you can see the current condition. I personally wish Airbnb would add a metric to the review system that would show the number of booked stays versus completed stays. 

The bottom line is: read the reviews, but also try to “read through” the reviews. Look for potential red flags. This goes in the other direction, too: if you see a bad review on a place, you might not need to rule it out right away. Evaluate the bad review and ask the host about it before booking.

Don’t let one moldy apple spoil the bunch

You’ve made it through a bad experience, but that doesn’t mean that you should swear off Airbnbs entirely. I basically live in Airbnb apartments and only sprinkle in hotels during transit periods. One bad experience after more than a year of constantly using the system isn’t so bad. (Also, Airbnb made it relatively easy for me to make a claim, and I got a full refund.) If you haven’t signed up to use Airbnb, I encourage you to do so. If you click here, you can get a discount off your first stay. A gift from my family to yours.

So what happened with my Mold Attack?

After I tried to spot-clean the mold and I broke out in hives, I e-mailed my host. The communication from my host blew me away. He admitted that the “strange colour [sic] on the shower” had developed last week and the cleaners had tried unsuccessfully to clean it. But he swore in the next sentence that the shower was actually “clean.” He continued by noting that the owner of the apartment was aware of the dirty walls and was in process of finding a painter to paint the entire apartment. He said that the walls had continued to soil over the past two years, which was the last time the place had been painted (and photographed). The host was kind and professional but didn’t seem to understand how big of an issue the lack of cleanliness was. He offered to have the apartment re-cleaned the next day, but he noted that painting could not be done any time soon. Airbnb deemed my claim to be valid. They offered me a full refund. I took my refund and booked a place in another part of town. That second apartment was absolutely heaven on earth.

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Airbnb fail? Do you know what steps you need to take to get your housing situation resolved?

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