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6 Ways To Spot An Illegal AirBnB

A how-to guide for how-to keep the housing in your neighborhood as housing.

a screenshot of air bnb listings next to a map of Los Angeles showing available listings with prices
Hint: they’re all illegal.

On Tuesday, October 24th, the Los Angeles City Council’s Planning and Land Use Management committee will hold its second hearing on a new ordinance to regulate short term rentals. Though listing services such as VRBO, FlipKey and HomeAway operate throughout Los Angeles, the company that dominates the market is everyone’s shorthand: AirBnB (They may technically be cotton swabs, but we all call them Q-Tips.)

AirBnB is the subject of both praise and criticism, depending on which side of the fight you are on. If you’re a homeowner struggling despite the economic recovery, AirBnB is saving you from taking on a second job just to make your mortgage payment. But if you’re a tenant who can’t find an affordable apartment (567,000 Angelenos spend half their income on rent), AirBnB and its customers are just more competition in an extremely tight housing market. If Tuesday’s hearing is anything like the last, City Hall might need to erect a grandstand to hold the droves of angry people who turn out for public comment.

The proposed law, sponsored by Mike Bonin of Council District 11 (which covers Venice, ground zero in the AirBnB fight), would require hosts to register with and be permitted by the city, limit the number of days a unit can be rented in a calendar year, as well as stop the sharing of Rent Stabilized and non-owner occupied units.

Why is all this necessary? Well, because like everything else these days, technology moves much faster than legislation. As of now, all short term rentals (anything less than 30 days) operating in a residential zone are illegal.

So how do you know if one of these illegal AirBnBs is in your neighborhood? Unlike Uber or Lyft, there’s no sticker in the window saying “SHARING ECONOMY HERE.” But if you know what you’re looking for, the signs are everywhere.

  1. It looks like a flip.
a modest white house in central hollywood los angeles as seen from google street view
a remodeled single-family home in central hollywood los angeles as seen from the street


A single family house in Central Hollywood as seen on Google Maps street view and as it appears today.

Anyone who lives in a gentrifying area knows what a recently flipped house looks like. Horizontal slat fence? Check. Monochromatic paint job? Check, check. Neatly manicured landscape? Check, check, check. Bonus points if the house has a warm-toned front door.

Now this doesn’t mean the property in question is necessarily a short term rental, but when combined with some other factors below, it’s a good indication no one actually lives there. Time to dig a little deeper.

2) It looks like a staged home.

According to public records the house above was most definitely a flip. It sold for $730,000 in September 2016. Then, following a remodel, it was back on the market 8 months later and sold in July for $1.2 Million. Now, we don’t know that it’s a short term rental, but this photo from the real estate listing tells a bit more of the story. Here’s the front porch as it appeared while staged for sale.

a front porch decorated with Adirondack chairs yellow accent pillows and an oversized white chess piece

Oooh! Those charming Adirondack chairs with cozy yellow accent pillows! A rustic side table with an artificial topiary and a statue of a…chess bishop?

Here’s that some front porch 4 months later.

the same porch as the above image only now there are no yellow accent pillows and several other decorations are missing

Buying a fully furnished home isn’t out of the ordinary, but who leaves the real estate agent’s Pier 1 Imports front porch display intact almost 6 months after moving in? Maybe someone who still has the house on the market, just not for sale.

Here’s another quaint porch set up just down the block.

an alleyway shows a concrete patio in front of an apartment and a small area has a brown rug a table and three wooden folding chairs

Looks… lived in, doesn’t it?

3) It has a keypad or lock-box entry.

a schlage keypad mechanical lock installed on a wooden door

Look, I get it. Fumbling with a deadbolt in the dark is a pain in the ass and having one of these is helpful when you leave your keys in the Uber. But when you’re a commercial operator of a few AirBnBs, this bad boy takes the hassle out of having to live anywhere near the property you’re renting and dealing with a face-to-face key hand off.

Don’t want to spend your AirBnB profits on a fancy digital keypad? The old lock-box will do the trick!

a blue combination lock on a wooden doorframe
a blue combination lock on a concrete and metal gate frame

There are three of these on two adjoining properties which would be standard fare if the house is for sale, but alas:

an empty white wooden frame standing over a wooden fence
Imagine the homeowner who takes down the For Sale sign, then leaves the frame.

4) There are instructions on how to get in.

If the lock-boxes in number 3 weren’t subtle, this one is a laughably obvious.

over a digital combination lock two printed strips of paper read Enter code. Turn knob completely to the RIGHT to UNLOCK. Turn LEFT to LOCK. If lock sticks move gate back and forth a bit while turning knob to release

Totally normal to have a step by step guide for how to get into an apartment for long term tenants.

5) It has “No Smoking” signs.

When I was doing research for this piece (by which I mean jogging around my neighborhood for 20 minutes) this was one I hadn’t thought of before.

a red door with a no smoking sign in a window and a digital combination lock

This unit ticks a lot of boxes: It looks like a flip (complete with RED DOOR!), has lock-boxes (one on the outside AND a keypad entry shown here), and now I had found it: the AirBnB equivalent of an Uber sticker on the windshield.

6) It’s listed.

See some of those signs and curious if the unit in question is an AirBnB? Time to log on and play Poirot!

the front of a single family home in central hollywood los angeles

I had my suspicions about this Craftsman bungalow down the block from my apartment: it looks like a flip, has a sterile, staged front porch (who decorates with silk sunflowers?) and no matter how many times my dog and I walk by, no one seems to live there. So I did a little sleuthing on the AirBnB listings for Hollywood and BINGO.

the front of the same home as seen on AirBnB

Ok, let’s give them the benefit of the doubt. Maybe this is an owner occupied home and my neighbor is just renting out a room to help pay off their mortgage.

a screenshot from airbnb which reads Adorable House in the Heart of Hollywood Entire house - Los Angeles 2 guests 2 bedrooms 3 beds 1 bath


Now that you know what to look for, have a walk around your neighborhood and see how much housing has been lost to the permanent, illegal, short term rental racket. If it’s anything like Hollywood, they shouldn’t be too hard to find. According to the data project Inside AirBnB, there are over 31,000 listings in the Los Angeles area.

Happy hunting!