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Facts & arguments

Why is it so hard to find a problem-free Airbnb in Toronto?

She's travelled around the world successfully with Airbnb. But, K. Chien wonders, what's up in Toronto?

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One year ago, my boyfriend and I packed up a minivan and drove out of Los Angeles. We were both ready to leave L.A. for different reasons. I had recently lost my twin sister and the city suffocated me with memories. For my boyfriend, his mom was moving out of her home of 35 years in Toronto and he wanted to be back to help.

We drove cross-country, staying with friends and stopping in Denver to watch a Leafs game on TV. Once we arrived in Toronto, we tried staying with my boyfriend's mom, but as writer Ella Winter would've said to us, "Don't you know you can't go home again?"

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So, we started looking for a short-term rental. Something with a kitchen. Like a lot of travellers, we turned to Airbnb and booked a one-bedroom on Queen Street West for $80 a night. It was clean, artsy and bright, with a friendly host who met us in person.

With my boyfriend's mom moved and settled in, we left Canada for the winter, travelling for film-industry work and pleasure. We used a lodging budget of $80 a night – equivalent to our rent in L.A. – and found amazing Airbnb's in Portugal, Spain, France and Turkey. We stayed in a four-storey riad in the medina in Fez, Morocco. We booked a spacious, three-bedroom apartment in Lisbon and invited friends to visit. In Morocco and most of Europe, Airbnb's are often regulated, promoted and taxed like hotel rooms. It was the perfect home-stay service for us.

But then we returned to Toronto. Again, we booked a one-bedroom on Queen Street West for $85 a night. The listing had rave reviews. We had no idea what awaited us.

I've stayed in some rough places as a low-budget indie film producer: four weeks in a no-tell motel in rural New York; six weeks sleeping on a thin piece of foam in Beirut. I've slept in vans and on countless couches. But never in a place where I felt I could lose my mind.

The only way in was via the fire escape, which was nearly crushed by a tree. Inside, the walls were painted dark red. There were no windows. Electrical wires and outlets hung out of the walls. A Post-it note on the door asked us not to mention Airbnb to the landlord. Instead, we were "friends of James" even though our host was named Andrew. It was sweltering inside; at 9 p.m., the temperature was 30 C. We ran the air conditioning for an hour – the temperature rose to 32 C.

Drew Shannon/for The Globe and Mail

Sweaty and defeated, I used travel points and booked a hotel room downtown. Then I called Airbnb. By then, it was midnight. Fortunately, my boyfriend had suggested we take photos. Airbnb asked for documentation and they refunded our payment in 24 hours. The listing disappeared off the site.

We tried again. We upped our budget to $115 a night and stayed in the east-end neighbourhood of Leslieville with an Airbnb Superhost, so-called because they are "an experienced host who provides extraordinary experiences for their guests." The home was spacious and beautifully decorated. The hosts were exceptionally friendly. But they argued about whether to change the Brita filter – a $10 cost. They apologized for not fixing the broken shower head. The WiFi was so slow we overspent the data on our mobile plans. But at least we didn't go crazy.

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Still, I was determined to stay on budget and found a cheaper one-bedroom in Little Portugal with rave reviews. But the ceiling was peeling off over the bed. The apartment wasn't clean and a mouse showed up on Day 2. There was no hot water for days. The mouse ate through all our popcorn.

Only in Toronto would we arrive to find our stay wasn't permitted by the building. A Superhost in Regent Park sent us such a complicated set of instructions for entry, that he nicknamed the arrival process, "the Amazing Race." Our objective? To avoid detection by building security. In Liberty Village, a large, tattooed security guard admonished me when I arrived, saying Airbnb was not allowed. When I texted the host, her response was "No problem!" Luckily, after a long lecture, the security guard let us stay.

From May to September, we only had one completely problem-free, comfortable stay in the City of Toronto. It was at a luxury townhouse on King West, well above our budget.

We tried unsuccessfully to find housing in Toronto. But Airbnb has decimated the sublet market. I don't blame the Toronto Airbnb hosts. Most are trying desperately to stay ahead of Toronto's insanely inflated housing prices. But Airbnb needs to instill some – any – kind of quality control. I have called and written Airbnb and pleaded with them to verify listings in Toronto. How about video listings, for example, instead of Photoshopped pictures?

In the end, we decided to go back to Europe. My boyfriend's mom was content in her new home. And we were hemorrhaging money in Toronto. It was cheaper to fly to Paris – as well as eat, drink, ride the subway, rent a car, rent bikes, basically live. Our nonstop flights were $650 round trip. And our lodging? For the same price as that "Amazing Race" room, we booked a penthouse apartment in Paris with two bedrooms, two bathrooms, a wraparound terrace and no security guards to dodge.

K. Chien is still on the road and is now exploring China.

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