Does Smart Home Tech Make You A Better Short-Term Rental Host?
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Does Smart Home Tech Make You A Better Short-Term Rental Host?

How to ensure you don’t cross the line from surveillance to spying.

By Kris Frieswick
Fri, Apr 22, 2022Grey Clock 4 min

For my money, the best horror film ever made was the 2012 movie, “The Cabin in the Woods.” A group of teenagers go on vacation to a cabin in the woods, only to find themselves terrorized, and slowly knocked off, by a series of horrible zombie monsters. Unbeknownst to them, the entire zombie monster operation is being run by a group of engineers who are surveilling their every move from a clandestine lab. The engineers are also technologically manipulating the events that trigger the release of the zombie monsters. It doesn’t end well for anyone.

I think of this film every time I try to decide whether we should install smart-home surveillance and control technology at our short-term rental property. I waffle back and forth between the advantages of having a remote view into the operation of the home, and the knowledge that I may be stepping onto a slippery slope that inevitably leads to zombie monsters.

Owning a short-term rental is fraught. The revenue is nice, but it’s a lot of work and worry. Landlords are completely at the mercy of a rotating cast of renters. Also, stuff happens in a house you don’t occupy full-time that can wreak holy havoc if left undetected. Smart-home tech, like smoke, fire and carbon-monoxide detectors that automatically alert responders, water heater monitors, and flood detectors can stop a situation going from bad to worse. This tech is firmly in the “benevolent” category.

Where I get conflicted is with the clandestine lab/evil engineer-type stuff.

Some short-term landlords have installed so much smart-home tech that they can, theoretically, observe their renters almost everywhere in the house, track who comes and goes, control the lights, air conditioning, heat and window shades, monitor their Netflix consumption, view the contents of the refrigerator, and reduce the water pressure to a dribble. They can lock renters out of the house entirely. Smart-home tech can’t unleash zombie monsters yet, but that’s probably coming in the next generation of the Amazon Echo.

While I love the idea of having a layer of oversight and protection over my rental property, I’m not sure I should possess the power that all that smart-home tech provides. Here’s why:

Obsessiontown. Population, Me: Web-enabled, real-time video surveillance, recorded on a remote server, is a proven way to reduce break-ins at vacation rentals, and, at the very least, gives landlords a chance to identify and prosecute perps.

But how do I stop watching?

If I got 24/7 access to a live feed of the comings and goings at our largest single asset, I’d never get anything else in my life done. I’d be reduced to a bleary-eyed gamer, staring unblinking at the action on my computer screen, afraid to look away lest I miss something: a criminal with a crowbar trying to break down the front door, a flurry of guests clearly dressed for a rave, someone smuggling in a pet tiger even though we have a very specific “no pets” policy, the progress on the crown of thorns plant by the front door. (It hasn’t been doing well.) Then, inevitably, I’d start going all evil engineer. How much would the renters freak out if I lowered the shades in the living room while they’re sitting there? What would happen if I made the pool really cold one day and really warm the next? How would they react to having only basic cable for eight hours? Hammer-hard water pressure, then just dribbles? I wouldn’t sleep. I wouldn’t eat. I’d just mess with them ALL DAY. Now, I am become Zombie Monster, destroyer of vacations.

Clearly, I couldn’t handle that kind of power.

It’s gross: Home-security systems are nothing new, but it’s a different ballgame when you’re surveilling your short-term rental, because you are, by definition, watching the daily activities of strangers. This is creepy. Clandestine lab creepy.

Short-term renters, like all tenants, have a legal expectation of privacy. Airbnb and other short-term rental companies have policies about what hosts can and cannot surveil at their property. Hosts are also required to disclose to renters the location of any surveillance.

But people forget about such things when night falls and alcohol begins to flow. Do I REALLY want to see what my renters are doing in the pool or on the couch at night? Nope. Don’t watch, you say? Please see the “Obsessiontown” item above.

Ignorance is still bliss: Dumb homes are more vulnerable than smart homes to many things. But I’ll bet the owners of dumb homes have less grey hair. They’re not sitting around, watching the feed, waiting for the big scary thing to happen, second guessing everything they see. Last winter, some friends of mine learned there was a raging party taking place at their rental property, complete with fire dancers juggling lit torches on the patio, which is covered with wooden furniture and other highly flammable things. It was still happening when they learned about it, but damage had already been done. If they had seen the fire dancers arrive on a video feed, they might have been able to get their property manager there fast enough to shut it down, but the only way they could have done that was to be glued to a video-surveillance feed at all times. That’s no way to live.

I’ll keep my home dumb. I will let the campers frolic unobserved at my cabin in the woods. That way, if some zombie monsters do show up, I can honestly say I didn’t see them coming. And I know I didn’t send them.

Reprinted by permission of The Wall Street Journal, Copyright 2021 Dow Jones & Company. Inc. All Rights Reserved Worldwide. Original date of publication: April 21, 2022.


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