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Airbnb nightmare: Pregnant host’s home destroyed after guests flood property

Erika Gemzer stands in her kitchen while offering a tour of her damaged home. | Source: Juliana Yamada for The Standard

San Francisco homeowner Erika Gemzer is nearly a week past her due date.

Instead of resting with her feet up, the expectant mother is in the middle of a six-month ordeal that has forced her to move out of her home, send hundreds of emails and swim in a sea of multicolored spreadsheets as she attempts to repair her home—which was destroyed after her upstairs Airbnb guests clogged her toilet and completely flooded the property.

On Friday afternoon, she walked through the halls of her gutted home with floorboards torn up, dismantled drywall and personal belongings stacked up in disarray. It’s become a familiar routine for her and her husband as they’ve dealt with a virtual army of contractors, plumbers and claims adjusters.

READ MORE: San Francisco Airbnb Bookings Plunge as City Battles Bad Press

“When does it end? That’s the unknown I live with every day,” Gemzer said. “How long am I going to think about this and replay this moment in my life?”

Erika Gemzer inspects the walls of her Airbnb unit while offering a tour of her damaged home on Friday. | Source: Juliana Yamada for The Standard

Gemzer, who detailed her story in a viral Twitter thread, said that instead of offering aid, Airbnb has given her a monthslong runaround with an eventual offer of only around 10% of the financial losses she estimates the issue caused.

She added that the company’s AirCover policy, meant to provide “top to bottom protection” for hosts during catastrophic events, fails to live up to that promise.

“We offered to pay the loss of bookings, her insurance deductible and additional reimbursement as a gesture of goodwill – we have been in continuous contact with the Host, including speaking today, to continue to support her,” an Airbnb spokesperson said in a statement.

The two-unit Edwardian in the heart of the Mission District was a stretch for Gemzer and her husband to purchase in 2018, but it allowed them to set roots in the city. The decision to purchase was due in part to their ability to help offset the cost of the mortgage with rental income.

Erika Gemzer looks at photos of her friends and family in her sewage-damaged home. | Source: Juliana Yamada for The Standard

After the property’s long-term tenants moved out of the top-floor flat in fall 2021, the couple decided to rent out the unit on Airbnb to earn revenue while keeping the place open for visiting family members.

Other than the occasional broken appliance or repair, hosting on the platform went relatively smoothly until this past April, when two visitors from Turkey booked to stay in the flat for a month.

Gemzer and her husband had just started telling close family she was pregnant with their first child in April, when soon after they woke up to a dripping sound and discovered water flowing in through the ceiling and fixtures.

They alerted their upstairs Airbnb guests, and when her husband went inside, they found the unit vacant and water covering the floor. The source of the water became evident quite quickly as he saw a streaming toilet with fecal matter still in the bowl before he rapidly shut off the water to the building.

When they opened the door to their underground storage space and saw five inches of water flooding, they started to understand their home was virtually uninhabitable.

“That’s when we realized just how much water had traversed the three floors,” Gemzer said. “Doing a quick water calculation, you’re like, volumetrically, this is really, really bad.”

Since her social media post went viral, there have been some people who have taken aim at the guests, but Gemzer said she does not believe the guests intended for this level of damage.

“I don’t want them to be harassed,” Gemzer said. “It’s a crappy thing to do to abandon the clogged toilet, but there’s no way in their mind they thought they were going to ruin the house.”

The toilet in Erika Gemzer’s Airbnb, which she calls “The Murderer,” caused extensive water damage to her property. | Source: Juliana Yamada for The Standard

Gemzer estimated that around 50% of the square footage of the property received water damage from the flooding. The family called in a water remediation specialist, who set up deafening dehumidifiers around the house.

Without any certainty about insurance coverage, Gemzer and her husband stayed among the ruined wallpaper and warped floorboards for a week, before ironically—decamping for an Airbnb with their Chihuahua mix. Their orange tabby cat, however, wasn’t allowed, and the couple went back and forth daily to check on their pet.

Drying out the house took a total of seven weeks and cost a total of $130,000. When they were able to finally get a construction estimate, that total came in at just shy of a quarter of a million dollars.

While the bulk of these costs are being shouldered by her homeowners insurance, Gemzer said she hopes Airbnb will help her pay for a number of costs, including revenue from lost bookings, insurance premiums, mortgage payments for her inhabitable home, additional water damage demolition not covered by insurance and the gap between the approved amount for repairs and the actual cost charged by her contractors.

Light beams in through an exposed ceiling in Erika Gemzer’s home. | Source: Juliana Yamada for The Standard

Left without a permanent home, the couple moved from short-term rental to short-term rental before signing a seven-month lease at a house a few blocks away. Repairs, which are expected to take another half year, have yet to be started.

The process with Airbnb first required Gemzer to ask the guests to foot the bill, which was unsuccessful. The company then assigned someone to her case and eventually connected her with a third-party adjuster, who asked for additional documentation over the course of weeks in an effort to determine liability.

“We take Aircover requests incredibly seriously, including in this case, where we tried to send a third-party investigator to review the damage, but the Host declined, stating that her homeowners insurance company was supporting her with the damage as well as temporary accommodation,” an Airbnb spokesperson said in a statement.

The Standard viewed dozens of emails between Gemzer and the third-party investigator Crawford & Company, who eventually would send a plumber to diagnose the issue.

“I was continuing to spend hours and hours and hours a week justifying what had happened,” Gemzer said. “Literally, our house was empty at this point, we had to beg them to leave the toilet, which was uninstalled and sitting on the ground upside down.”

The damage left torn-up floors and baseboards in the rental flat. | Source: Juliana Yamada for The Standard

The plumber snaked the line and found baby wipes and paper towels lodged in the pipes but was unable to comprehensively determine the cause of the flooding.

“The cause of the problem was from abuse of drain and toilet internal parts not functioning properly,” the plumbing report stated.

The issue was caused by a combination of the toilet bowl clogging, the wipes and paper in the pipe and the float valve in the tank allowing the toilet to continue to run and flood the home.

Unable to gain traction through the normal process, Gemzer was able to connect with a former Airbnb employee who told her about how to find someone inside the company who could elevate the case internally.

But Gemzer said Airbnb required her to get individual quotes for items prior to being told if they would be covered by the company’s policy, meaning a continual hamster wheel of finding a vendor, getting a quote and sending it to Airbnb before being told if it’s covered.

Over the course of her entire communication with Airbnb, Gemzer said she never was able to speak to someone over the phone. After her post went viral, Gemzer said an executive called her husband, but she has yet to hear directly from the company.

Instead of having hosts just rely on their limited policy, Gemzer said she hopes that Airbnb could partner with other short-term rental insurance providers to offer negotiated rates for additional protection and educate hosts on the limits of their baseline coverage.

“I just want to stop the bleeding and know that the mountains of financial losses are not going to continue to mount,” Gemzer said. “You advertise that we got your back when things go really wrong, but you don’t, and you know that you don’t.”