The Conversation

Taken by tenants: Perils of the new sharing economy

Associate editor

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I like to think of myself as a good sharer.

I pay my taxes. I give to charities. My children never took a treat to school without having enough for the whole class. No guest left our Thanksgiving table without doggie bags of stuffing and turkey.

And before this year, when we discovered its dark side, you would have had to have looked long and hard to find a bigger fan of the new tech sector that California lawmakers are about to take a long, hard look at this session: the sharing economy.

I was an early and enthusiastic adopter of ridesharing apps such as Lyft and Uber. I used to gush to friends about sites such as Airbnb and FlipKey, which enable people to turn their homes into ad hoc hotels.

We once spent a whole weekend in the Airbnb guest room of a Santa Barbara photographer for less than the price of a single night in a bed-and-breakfast. I told everyone I knew about her Hobbit-like hospitality and National Geographic-quality wall art. So why is my faith in the peer-to-peer world suddenly muted?

Allow me to share.

Our family home is in a Southern California beach town. Empty nesters, my husband and I decided to lease it out in 2013 after moving to Sacramento for work.

We’re talking the traditional, analog definition of landlord-ing here, nothing techie – one year, pet deposit, no smoking, etc. Our tenant was a tax lawyer who presented himself as a family man who would mostly be using our home as a weekend getaway for himself, his wife and their grown children.

Our real estate agent vetted him thoroughly; his story checked out, from his marital status to his name partnership in a West Los Angeles law firm.

But he and his family weren’t who moved in.

We realized this when the weather grew warm and our ordinarily welcoming neighbors began complaining. There were strange parties in our house, they reported, and strange visitors.

There were beer bottles and cigarette butts and, from time to time, people asleep on the rooftop. Cars parked on the street at all angles. Heaps of trash.

When we asked the lawyer about it, he said the neighbors were petty and overreacting. The neighbors retorted that the lawyer wouldn’t know, because he was rarely around.

So we took a closer look at the lease and checked further. The woman in the house, who we thought was his wife, actually appeared to be some sort of girlfriend/ex-model. And she didn’t have adult children. She had five teenagers. And an assortment of mug shots. And a fraud conviction stemming from the theft of a Porsche with Lenny “Nails” Dykstra, the former Major League Baseball center fielder who was convicted in 2012 of bankruptcy fraud, money laundering and concealment of assets.

But I digress. More to the point, even though she was on probation, she also had a full-color ad on FlipKey, by offering our 4-bedroom home for many thousands of dollars per week as a vacation rental, violating the lease.

We gleaned this information when we drove south to see, face-to-face, what was so offending the neighbors, and found our home occupied by a semiretired dentist from Grass Valley. He said that the lawyer and his “wife” had told them they had purchased our house six months earlier, but found that they traveled so much that it simply made sense to turn it into a vacation rental.

In fact, the dentist said, as soon as his stay was up, another family was scheduled to move in for a 5-day weekend. Back-to-back bookings were fine with them, they allegedly told the dentist, because her career in “thermonuclear dynamics” was so demanding. This part of the story had made an impression, the dentist’s wife said, because she had never met a physicist who wore such high heels.

We were slack-jawed. Our tenant’s lease didn’t permit sublets, let alone hospitality industry sidelines. Part of me was impressed at their chutzpah; another part felt so violated that I could scarcely focus and my hands shook as I photographed the vacation renters’ paperwork.

Yet another part (the reporter part) only wished she could have been a fly on the wall for the duration of the whole, goofily scammy business – the married-schlump tax lawyer, the moll on probation, the celebrity sports crime, the go-big-or-go-home “physicist in high heels” gambit. The passel of teenagers underfoot. At least no one appeared to be sleeping on the roof, my husband observed, drily. The dentist’s grandkids ran past with sand buckets, their beach towels drying on the patio.

I won’t bore you with the blow-by-blow of our ensuing exchange with the tenants. Suffice it to say that after some legal correspondence and much foot-dragging, the lawyer – who first denied they had put up an ad, then said the ad was just to “test the market,” then, when confronted with the rental receipts, fell silent – eventually decided to buy his own house at the beach and let his girlfriend do FlipKeyset up shop, or not, on his own property.

FlipKey swiftly took down her ad when we told them what had happened. But emails to the site’s legal department for further information went unanswered. FlipKey’s vice president of marketing, Eric Horndahl, said this week that they do background checks on people who list, but don’t verify that they own the listing. This, he said, is because many of the rentals on their sites are put there by third-party property managers who advertise with the owners’ permission.

FlipKey’s focus, he said, was more on safeguarding the financial part of the deals, so that consumers don’t end up being fleeced for nonexistent rentals. That, he added, was a more common concern in their business. But news reports from San Francisco and New York indicate that such illegal sublets have become an increasing problem for landlords in those renter-dense cities. Even now, months later, the ease with which someone else had been able to exploit our property, without our permission or knowledge, sobers me.

Illegal or otherwise bogus sublets, of course, are just one among many sharing-economy perils that have surfaced as the sector gathers momentum. Last year, state lawmakers stiffened insurance requirements for ridesharing companies.

Horror stories abound: The Airbnb guest from hell who squatted for two months in a Palm Springs condo. The Uber driver who struck and killed a 6-year-old girl in a San Francisco crosswalk.

Once, I regarded such incidents as proof that the sharing economy was still working the kinks out. Now I think there ought to be a law requiring these companies to obtain proof of ownership or permission, up front, from anyone who rents out a car, property or other possession.

Because, as it turns out, not everyone is as good a sharer as they imagine.

Especially not me.