The Art of Deciphering AirBnB Listings and Reviews

AirBnB at the top of a 22% grade in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico

In our long-term travels in the past couple of years, we’ve predominantly stayed in AirBnBs.

AirBnB relies on a mutual rating system to provide trust amongst both providers of housing and conusmers of that housing. Just like Uber does, ratings are provided both to properties as well as to renters.

Steven Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner wrote about a practice in their book Freakonomics (#aff) where Realtors would use code words to try to, as a friend of mine once described, “shine a turd.” By using euphemisms, Realtors tried to put a positive spin on the properties that they were selling so as not to scare away potential buyers.

Because renters’ ratings are also public, in AirBnB, you often get the Freakonomics (#aff) version of descriptions about properties on both sides – the people who own the properties obviously want to put the best spin on their places – but, also, the people who stay there will often use euphemisms as well for the places that they stay.


The reason is that, while there is a double blind system in place for AirBnB ratings, meaning that neither host nor renter can see each other’s feedback until both have provided them or a 14 day period has passed (in which case, one has provided feedback and the other has not), a guest’s ratings are visible to future hosts. Approximately 40% of AirBnB’s users are repeat users, meaning that if a guest has a bad experience or multiple bad experiences and is brutally honest about those experiences, that could cool a future host from allowing them to rent.

Just like Harvard doesn’t want you to graduate with a 2.0 GPA, AirBnB doesn’t want a system full of 1.7* properties and guests with bad reviews associated with them. So, there is a sense of mutually assured destruction. If a guest writes enough scathing reviews, then that guest is going to become toxic, and it’ll become harder and harder to rent, because a host doesn’t want that firebrand to damage their income generator.

As a result, I posit, not only is there rating inflation (a problem, as University of British Columbia’s Dr. Arslan Aziz et al point out, is relevant across many social sharing platforms), there is also a set of AirBnB euphemisms that, if you understand the lingo, can help you to avoid staying in that 4.8* apartment that should really be a 2.5*.

Let me be clear. Since we stay in a lot of AirBnBs, we’re part of the unwritten conspiracy. We don’t want to slam hosts when we’ve stayed in an overpriced or unsatisfactory place, because, eventually, that boomerang can come back to hit us, so we’re part of the trapped economy. Also, we may have genuinely liked the hosts and don’t want to kick them in the moneymaker, so, instead of being blunt and direct, we elide the problems by using euphemisms.

Hence, our guide (based on our experiences and opinion) to…

The AirBnB Euphemisms You Need to Know

  • Cozy: this word means that your AirBnB is going to be quite small. It may be quite cramped. There may or may not be room enough for all of your luggage to fit. A good example was an AirBnB that we recently stayed in where the end of the bed was less than one foot away from the oven. Even though it was listed as a 1 bedroom apartment, in reality, it was a studio. Not only was it a studio, it was a studio where we did not feel comfortable turning on the oven for fear of burning the building down.
  • Wifi is a little slow: this phrase means that you may find that there are times when you feel like you’re using AOL dial-up from the 1990s. If we have a very slow connection, we’ll actually post the Ookla scores of uploads and downloads to quantify the connection, but, most users aren’t that specific with their quantification. Therefore, this could run the gamut from “can’t stream movies on 3 devices at once” to “can’t send and receive e-mail.” If you are someone who depends on Internet connectivity for a living while you are staying somewhere, you may either a) consider this a red flag, or b) be prepared to find a coworking space with good Internet connectivity.
  • References to safety: This means, at the very least, that you are not going to be in a visually appealing neighborhood. For example, during our stay in Istanbul, Turkey, we rented an apartment that was advertised as being in Taksim, while, in reality, it was in the Tarlabaşı area. They are two wildly different areas. One review said “We heard some news of some areas being dangerous, but never felt a bit in danger ourselves,” and five reviews mentioned the word “safe.” Here’s what Tarlabaşı looks like. Yes, the neighborhood was fine. We didn’t have any problems, but we also didn’t walk around alone late at night. We also paid quite a premium for that apartment, which, had we known where it was, we would not have rented it. If you’re renting in Chiado in Lisbon or Innere Stadt in Vienna, then safety is assumed, and renters will not feel the need to mention it multiple times in comments.
  • Good for someone with a busy agenda: This means that you will not feel comfortable spending many waking hours in the place. The place we stayed where the bed was unsettlingly close to the stove had this mentioned in a review. A busy agenda means that you’re only going to use the place as a place to sleep, and nothing more. Sometimes, that’s fine. We often feel that way about hotels that we stay in – we’re not going somewhere to spend our entire trip in a hotel, and that’s fine. It is just an aspect of the place that you are renting to be aware of.
  • Reviews that focus on cleanliness: To us, this means that the place you are renting is pretty no-frills and basic. If the place had a lot of amenities or reasons that you would want to stay there, then the reviews would focus on that. Cleanliness should be table stakes for a place (after all a lot of AirBnB hosts charge some pretty steep cleaning fees). I expect a hotel room to be clean. I expect an AirBnB to be clean. It’s just like safety. If the neighborhood you are staying in is safe, then you feel no need to mention safety because it’s assumed. So, when someone calls out the cleanliness as a positive aspect, it’s usually because there are not a lot of other good things to say about the property.
  • Bright/eyemask: In our experience, this means that there are either no curtains, or the curtains are sheer, and, more often than not, your bedroom will have an east-facing window. We recently stayed in a place where the windows had drapes that were drapes in name only. I have 20 year old t-shirts that are thicker than these drapes, so, naturally, we were greeted by a 5:45 AM Greek sunrise, and before then, we were greeted by the car lights of every passing car. The room was very bright. However, we loved the place, loved the room, and loved the host, so we didn’t want her to be unnecessarily punished for something that could be easily remedied with new drapes; we left her the suggestion to replace the drapes and called the room bright.
  • Mentions of hills and steepness: Be prepared to get your cardio workout going back to your AirBnB or to call an Uber every time you go home. The first time we stayed in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, we stayed in an apartment that was up a 22% grade hill. While flip-flopped locals and goats (OK…not goats, but definitely chickens) zoomed up and down the hill, we were left gasping after every trip. Once, my wife tried to wash our clothes with bleach after misinterpreting the Spanish description, so I sprinted down the hill to buy actual laundry detergent to attempt to mitigate the error and then sprinted back up the hill to deliver the detergent. I’m pretty sure my heart rate surpassed 8,500 BPM. We had two separate Ubers give up halfway up the hill because their cars could not make it up.

  • Lively neighborhood/street noise/bring earplugs: This means that unless you have an extremely loud white noise machine, you are going to hear noises all night long. The kitchen/bedroom place we stayed in was also right next to a busy street. So, at 3 AM, we got regaled by drunken Dubliners having their loud arguments or revelers coming back from the Garth Brooks concert. Since there was no air conditioning and no fan, we were faced with the Sophie’s choice of sleeping in a very stuffy room or opening up the window to get fresh air (except when smokers hung out on the stoop and chain smoked) and listen to high decibel urban noises.

Those are some of the “gotchas” that we look out for both in the listings and the reviews when we are looking for AirBnBs.

What are ones that we missed? Let’s talk about it in the comments below!

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Jason Hull was the co-founder of Broadtree Partners, a firm that acquires $1-5MM EBITDA companies. He also was the co-founder of open source search consultancy OpenSource Connections, a premier Solr and ElasticSearch firm. He and his wife FIREd (financial independence retire early) at 46 and 45, respectively. He has a BS from the United States Military Academy at West Point and a MBA from the University of Virginia Darden Graduate School of Business. He held a CFP certification from 2015 - 2021. You can read more about him in the About Page. If you live in Johnson County, Texas or the surrounding areas, he and his wife are cash buyers of Johnson County, Texas houses.

2 thoughts on “The Art of Deciphering AirBnB Listings and Reviews

  1. I feel fortunate to say that we have had mostly positive Airbnb experiences. The few outliers that were misrepresented were always reviewed appropriately. I was sure to list both positives and negatives. I feel a responsibility to leave honest reviews for other guests on the platform. Hopefully, the host takes it as constructive criticism and an opportunity to improve their accommodation and the platform. A trend I’ve been noticing lately is the overuse of the word “luxury”. In some places, it would seem that as long as a place isn’t a total shit box it can be considered luxury. It turns me off to a listing just seeing it now. Fortunately we have become pretty good at identifying red flags and engaging hosts before booking. Safe and happy travels to you.

    1. That’s a good point about luxury in listings. It’s sort of like Realtors saying “will sell fast.” We used to joke that any apartment complex in the DFW area that had the word luxury in the sign was anything but.

      I do think we’ve struggled with the gray areas, like our Istanbul listing. It was clearly not in Taksim, even though that was the headline, but we adored the host and generally liked the place. We wouldn’t have stayed there without the misleading headline, and, resultantly, we wouldn’t have seen that side of life and enriched our experiences. Maybe that was just an edge case? We were much more specific for our Dublin listing, for example, including the 1.4MbPS up and down speeds.

      The other lesson we haven’t really learned, which you bring up, is engaging hosts before we book. We need to get better at that.

      Thanks, and enjoy your travels! We love seeing your pictures!

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