When Elizabeth Sterling received the latest request to rent out her luxury property on Airbnb, she agreed without hesitation. After all, the five-bedroom apartment in a stucco-fronted mansion is nestled on one of London’s safest and most prestigious streets, Phillimore Gardens in Kensington, where properties change hands for up to £60 million.
Over the past three years, Elizabeth, an elegant American divorcee, has let the immaculately maintained, £2.5 million flat to a series of paying guests, all without incident.
As requested, these discerning visitors had always taken particular care of the flat’s special white resin floor, not to mention the spectacular art collection including paintings by Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns, Joan Miro and Picasso.
The priceless silver antiques, exquisite silk rugs and crystal Baccarat ornaments were routinely left on display – a real attraction to the ‘right’ kind of clientele.
Terrified: Elizabeth Sterling, left, used Airbnb to rent out her Kensington flat, right. She later found her ceramic leopard locked in a cupboard
So when a softly spoken young lady asked to hire the apartment for a surprise dinner party last Saturday, Elizabeth, or Libet as she is known, happily agreed. She was told a small group of women would be celebrating both a pregnancy and an impending wedding and, ever the consummate hostess, Libet bought pink prosecco and pink balloons for her guests.
Yet what followed would leave her fearing for her life. Rather than the genteel ‘baby shower’ she had anticipated, her property was taken over by hundreds of party-goers, many high on nitrous oxide, also known as ‘hippy crack’. She was abused, jostled and called a ‘bitch’ in her own home, a traumatic ordeal which only ended when police secured a court order to force the drug-fuelled revellers out.
‘I feel violated,’ she says today. ‘I can’t think of it without shaking. I consider myself a super hostess and always go the extra mile for my guests. Airbnb has been an easy way of earning money while I write a book, but this has shattered my trust – and my faith in my own judgment.’
Last month, a Mail on Sunday investigation revealed how the American lettings company is inviting chaos into thousands of British homes. Properties let using the Airbnb website are increasingly being used to stage huge parties and even ‘pop-up’ brothels by sometimes criminally minded customers.
It is estimated that more than 120,000 flats and houses in the UK are being unlawfully sub-let through the site. Libet, originally from Washington DC, had certainly done well out of the system – until last Saturday, at least. Airbnb had provided a useful income while she took a sabbatical from her role as a therapist.
Then, last month, a woman calling herself Kudzi contacted Libet through the website asking to hire the apartment for a small party of no more than eight guests. Looking back, Libet, 60, accepts she had been naive.
‘I’ve travelled the world, so I think I can read people,’ she says. ‘But I was completely taken in by this young girl. She said she was British born to Nigerian parents and was very well dressed – she gave the air of someone with money.
‘She said that her sister was pregnant and she was throwing a surprise hen party – which I mistakenly thought was like a baby shower – before the wedding took place in Lake Como.
Revellers: Party-goers queue up to get into the flat
‘I was so touched I wanted to make their stay special. When she came to get the key, Kudzi looked like butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth. I was impressed by her softly spoken assurances that she would turn off any music by midnight.’
Libet showed her around and gave her instructions on how to use the oven and dishwasher in the £60,000 Pedini kitchen. ‘I took her on to the high street to buy pink nappies and candles – she didn’t correct me when it was obvious that I thought it was a baby shower.’
If Libet thought it was odd that, at 9pm, she saw huge boxes being taken up the step to the main entrance, she dismissed it as neighbours having new furniture delivered. She now realises it was a music system being set up.
Libet then retired early to her bedroom in a cottage at the back of the house. At 12.15am, however, she was woken by raucous laughter, loud male voices on the flat’s terrace and pounding dance music. ‘I saw four well-dressed men smoking joints. I was confused because it was supposed to be just women inside. I asked what they were doing there and one said, “It’s a surprise.”
‘I asked him to turn the music off, but it just kept getting louder. I was furious.’
Libet was also understandably worried about the impact on her neighbours, including the freeholder who lives in the building.
Throwing on some clothes, she walked around the building and was horrified to see a queue of people waiting to enter her home. ‘I tried to get into the house, but I was jostled and threatened as I forced my way through. Three tall girls kept asking, “Who are you, bitch?” I shouted that I was the owner of the house and asked for Kudzi.
‘The place was packed on both floors. But Kudzi was unapologetic, saying airily that “a few extra people came round as a surprise”. Then someone said: “Where’s the bitch?”.
‘Terrified, I fled upstairs, hid on my neighbour’s landing and called the police. They said it would be 15 minutes and I told them I might be stabbed or dead by then. I was trembling and shaking. I suffer panic attacks and had the most overwhelming fear something terrible was going to happen.
Crowded: The party attracted more ravers until a 2am eviction by police
‘A squad car and police van arrived but officers said there was little they could do until they had a court order to evict the ravers. They kept me protected. I kept thinking about the locked bedroom with all my silver and jewellery.’
Finally, at 2am, the closure notice arrived, a late-night court order, which gave the police power to shut down the party and clear the 120 people still inside the house. At 6am, Libet rushed into her home to survey the damage. It stank of smoke and her expensive resin floor was scratched. Some of the carpets had been burned with cigarettes and all around was the detritus of drug use. Female underwear was thrown around the flat. The damage, she says, runs into the thousands.
Even so, the guests had, bizarrely, taken some form of responsibility – another sign of how organised the deception had been. At least they had the decency to roll up my silk Persian rug and tuck it away on top of the kitchen cupboards,’ sighs Libet.
Thankfully, they also removed her art collection from the walls and stored paintings out of the way. Libet’s precious Baccarat crystals and a 1920s ceramic leopard were found locked in a cupboard.
Lisbet said: ‘The police told me that I’d been lucky because in two more Airbnb raves that evening in Kensington, the properties had been wrecked, things had been stolen and one person stabbed.’
To Elizabeth’s chagrin, she found that it was not the first time that Kudzi had taken advantage of someone’s home. Keen to find out more about the woman who had so abused her trust, she looked again at her profile on Airbnb – this time thoroughly – and found reviews left by other furious homeowners.
‘I am devastated because I was so kind to her. It’s usually a minimum of two nights for £395 per night, but I let her have it for one night for £500 because she liked it so much.’
Kudzi, meanwhile, is still denying responsibility, insisting the additional guests arrived without her knowledge. She even had the effrontery to demand her money back because the party was shut down.
Airbnb, meanwhile, has offered Libet ‘help and support’ and will also be providing money to cover cleaning and damages.
But it will remain, for Libet, ‘one of the most frightening experiences of my life’.