We Were Soft-Evicted From a ‘Homestay’!

It was bound to happen eventually, but today we were ‘soft evicted’ from an AirBnB homestay in Penang, Malaysia!

Since launching as digital nomads we try to avoid using homestay services like AirBnB and Booking.com, preferring instead to find short-term stay apartments or guest houses on our own.

That way we can see a place before we commit.

This worked well in Chiang Mai and Da Nang, but it’s not always feasible.

So we do end up using homestay services, particularly during fast travel periods. It’s far more convenient and far less time-consuming.

Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell

In most places we have lived or visited, homestays like AirBnB are legal, but it’s up to each building to determine whether or not to allow it.

All over southeast Asia and even Australia we have encountered a bit of a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ approach to homestay services.

In Australia, Singapore and Malaysia we’ve rented flats in buildings that have large NO HOMESTAY signs. Or AirBnB logos with a cross through it.

In most cases, as the homestay renters we don’t know that the building has a no homestay policy or preference until we turn up at the flat.

Other times the homestay host will advise us to ‘be discreet’ or ask us to meet them near the building rather than at the building. In these cases we assume we’ll see those signs when we arrive.

Staying in a building with those signs makes us slightly uncomfortable but we generally just go with the flow.

And in most places and buildings, especially those without staff present, it has never been a problem.

Homestays in Penang

We love living in Penang, Malaysia. We love slow traveling there. So much so that we extended our time in Penang twice.

Homestays are both very popular and very controversial in Penang.

With the massive condo construction that has taken place on Penang and especially in George Town over the past decade it was inevitable that some would be converted to homestays.

One look at this map tells the story (feel free to click on it to take a closer look):

Booking.com

What makes Penang somewhat unique, however, is their obsession with security guards. Nearly every building, every store, every mall, every everything has a security guard presence. And typically not just one, but several guards at every entry point.

So no one just comes and goes unnoticed. This make ‘being discreet’ a bit more difficult and awkward.

The first homestay we used in George Town, Penang was really lovely and huge and had a very nice pool where we were able to swim laps nearly every day.

There were no signs at that complex expressly forbidding homestays, but the host told us (when we met him at the hotel next door) that they were strongly discouraged so we should – what else – be discreet.

At first we were nervous passing the guards at the entrance to the complex and the guard at the desk in our specific building. But we got used to it. And by the end of our 10 nights there we were friendly and chatty with the guards.

Unfortunately, by the time we decided to extend our slow travel in Penang that flat was no longer available. We’d have to move.

So we had found a flat a mile or so down the road in a building right between the two malls in Penang. It has a huge swimming pool where we could keep up our swimming routine. Perfect. Or so we thought!

Gurney Park Condominiums

Other than the location and the swimming pool, Gurney Park Condominiums is nothing special. In fact, it’s pretty dilapidated. And downright run-down compared to the gleaming new complexes all around it.

We arrived and met the homestay host a block from the property. He drove us in under a sign that read ‘NO HOMESTAY’ but assured us that we were registered visitors. If anyone asked, we were to just tell them we are his guests. He even gave us happy-looking green ‘Visitor’ cards we could show anyone who asked.

Lisa hated this. Her gut told her it was going to be a problem, but we went ahead with the rental anyway.

Things never go well when we ignore Lisa’s gut instincts.

It Was the Swimming Pool’s Fault

We moved in and then went to have some lunch at the mall.

After returning to the flat and working for a bit we decided to head down to the pool for some laps.

evicted from homestay
Gurney Park Condo Swimming Pool

When we got to the entrance to the pool there was a padlock on it and a sign that says: “Please proceed to guard station for key to pool and kindly return key when finished using.”

Hmmmm….

So we went to the guard station at the front of the complex clad in bathing suits and towels and asked for the pool key.

We were firmly told, ‘NO!’

Perplexed, we asked why not.

The guard said we would need to take it up with the building manager, whom he escorted us to see.

The manager, a tall, lean man who had the bearing of Colonel Saito from The Bridge on the River Kwai, immediately started yelling at us about the fact that he strongly suspected that we were not guests of the flat owner but actually homestayers.

He said that he had long suspected that the apartment was a home stay because “the owner has too many American and Australian friends and relatives…and he is CHINESE LIKE ME!” (Yes, yes, that screws up my description of the guy…but you get my point)

He made it clear that while he could not kick us out, he did not believe us and we were not welcome. And in any case, there was no way we were going to EVER have access to the swimming pool padlock key.

The ‘Soft Eviction’

We returned to the flat and contacted the homestay host. He said he’d pop right over and get it sorted.

When he arrived at the apartment door 45 minutes later it looked as though Colonel Saito had put him through a ringer. He was pale and nervous. His eyes were glistening.

He apologized and said we were welcome to stay but that the pool would not be available to us.

We told him we no longer felt at all welcome in the building – particularly since we’d have to pass security guards glaring at us several times a day. And that the pool was a requirement for us in any case.

We told him we would have to move on the next day.

He seemed very, VERY relieved to see us go and graciously offered us a full refund for our intended stay including the only night we would spend in the flat.

The Happy Ending

We had been eyeing a different building and flat when we picked Gurney Park Condominiums: Sunrise @ Gurney.

So we contacted the owner of that flat and were able to move in the next day. It’s a bit further from the malls. And the swimming pool is a bit smaller.

But it’s also gorgeous and comes with a stunning view!

It’s also a duplex apartment, so reminds us of our gorgeous condo we sold when we decided to become digital nomads.

Best of all, Sunrise @ Gurney has a very clear and open policy about allowing homestays!

Bottom Line

We keep telling each other that we do lead interesting lives. We live and we learn and we have experiences.

There was bound to be a time when building homestay policies bit us in the ass. So we weren’t shocked when it finally happened.

The best advice to keep this from happening to you is to ask the homestay host the hard questions in advance: What are local regulations about homestays? Are homestays allowed at this property? Are residents or managers in your building hostile to homestayers?

In the end all it cost us was an extra moving day…but we got a free night lodging for our trouble.

Oh, and did I mention that this all happened on Lisa’s birthday!? Yeeeeah.

Next time we’ll pay more attention to her gut instincts!

3 comments

  1. The replacement apartment looks great though… seems they are all 4-6 person apartments on the booking.com listing, did you book a massive place?

    • Yes…all 3 flats we’ve rented in Penang have been 2 or 3 bedrooms with 2 baths. That’s just how the apartments were all built along Gurney, it seems.

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