Wherein I Have Another Great Product Idea Too Late

We increasingly use VRBO to find rental houses when we go on vacation.  The key transfer process seems to be the most awkward.  Either the owner or their representative has to meet you (a hassle for them) or they have an old style mechanical lockbox where a fixed combination opens the box and gives you the key.

All of this strikes me as both a hassle and tremendously insecure.  Most folks do not change their lockbox combinations very often, so I could probably go back to most of them today and get back in the house.  Also, since the owners tend to leave only one key, and my wife and I prefer to have two or three for us and the kids, we tend to go immediately to the local hardware store to make copies.

It would make a lot more sense to have an electronic combination lock whose combination changes automatically, over the Internet, with each rental.  I figured developing such a thing would be pretty easy and the first step I would take would be to try to cut a co-branding deal with VRBO, AirBNB, etc.  You can imagine something like "VRBO Secure" where a home owner would buy the lock via VRBO and would then get a little icon on their listing.

Unfortunately, as is usual with my product brainstorms, someone is already there.  But no one yet seems to have cut a co-branding deal with VRBO or airBNB.  Seems like that would be a win-win for both the lock company and the rental agency.go.


  1. morganovich:

    actually, this has been around for years. schlage makes a great set of networked locks. i have had them on my whole house for 18 months. you can establish one time codes, give people access, take it away, set date and times, etc.

    there are lots of lock makers doing this. it's a bonanza for them as it's an actual reason to upgrade and many of the networking systems require a monthly subscription.

    it's a big new revenue opportunity and they have been pushing it hard.

    google "networked home door locks" and you'll get a half dozen manufacturers.

  2. slocum:

    Auto-changing the lockbox code wouldn't do much good, since somebody planning to rob the place later after their rental could simply make a copy of the key IN the lockbox. So you'd have to have the electronic combo lock on the door itself. Which means you've got to have a battery backup system just to be able to get in the house during a power outage. Also, any other doors would need the same electronic locks or they would have to use keys that weren't given to renters, which is not handy. And if the thing glitches you have the potential for angry customers. How many times do the electronic keys/locks for hotel rooms fail to work properly? In that case, you can just head down to the front desk, but with the lock-boxes, there is nobody handy (or else you wouldn't have a lock box). Is burglary by ex-vacation renters really enough of a problem to go to the trouble and expense?

    BTW, at our last rental recently, there were two extra keys inside the place, so the lockbox key was only used to open the door when we got there. It was a nice touch.

  3. Old Dude:

    You won't have to worry about this problem for much longer as San Francisco has come up with the perfect solution. Just make renting the home or apartment illegal. Problem solved! I expect it will only be a matter of time before this rolls out across our great nation.

    This regulation has not yet been enforced against free standing homes but the law seems pretty clear. "San Francisco bans all residential rentals of less than 30 days unless the hosts have a conditional use permit - an expensive and cumbersome process that virtually everyone ignores. The ban applies whether the hosts own or rent, paying guests visit frequently or once a year, or hosts rent out a room or an entire dwelling."

  4. Elam Bend:

    I run a few VBROs in Chicago, these are useful, although we like the key exchange because we can meet the guests and remind them of the rules. (We always try to have at least one interaction - also helps for return users).

    We initially did it illegally, but are going legit. The process is a joke and is actually costing us lost money in lost time. At one property which is a recent rehab, the city keeps changing its mind in what types of inspections it wants. The actual application process seems straight forward when you look it up online, but nearly every time I went in I was asked for something else that was not in the instructions.

  5. Douglas2:

    Just to be clear, this is a replacement door lock that is opened by entry of an aphanumeric "key", so there is no physical hardware key for the tenant to copy.
    And it is not a networked lock, it is standalone, and works because the start and end time of the permitted tenancy is encrypted in the "key" code that is sent to the tenant.
    I think it would be even better and much more convenient if the lock contained a scanner for QR-type code, which could be read from the screen of their smartphone.
    Of course, it is only as good as
    a) the quality of the electronic lock mechanism, many of which can be opened by holding a large magnet in proximity, and
    b) the quality of the encryption -- since the key-generation is done by a stand-alone computer program held by the lock owner, anyone with one of these locks has an infinite number of daughter-keys to examine for decryption clues.

  6. Daublin:

    Hotels use electronic keys routinely; they reprogram the keys when a new person checks in. As you say, it would seem reasonable for rental property, too.

    Power outage does sound like a tricky problem, though. There are real advantages to solutions that involve dumb chunks of mass.

  7. Todd Ramsey:

    Sorry about this missed opportunity. Is there still time, however, to start a company to harvest the coins from public fountains?

  8. morganovich:

    or to start a company with private fountains that have "make a wish" signs.

  9. rxc:

    I think that UPSs for house/apartments are going to become a great growth market, as the telcos eliminate copper local loops and go wireless. I have one friend who signed up for Fios, and found that the telephone service went down with the power. So if you need a UPS for phone/wired internet service, why not hook it up to the door locks?

  10. Eric Wilner:

    Digging around the site a little, I find that the locks are battery-powered; the manufacturer claims a 3-year battery life, though presumably that depends how often the door is opened. This seems much more reasonable than trying to run AC power to the door.
    Also, it seems that the actuator is a motor, not a solenoid, so the old "wave a magnet at it" trick shouldn't work.
    I agree with Douglas2 that the quality of the encryption is a big deal. If it's done right, it should use a standard algorithm, with each lock having a unique key, so access to one lock gets no information about any other lock's crypto key. This leaves the problem of distributing the keys such that only the buyer of a lock gets the key for that specific lock, or use of the key on the vendor's server. The technical side needn't be difficult; integrating it with customer service is the killer.
    Anyway: clever idea, and, as with so many clever ideas, blindingly obvious in hindsight.

  11. DOuglas2:

    But they say if you have two locks, say for front and back door, it is easy to set them to the same base code so that they will operate with the same key.
    Also, any user (owner, cleaning crew, etc) can choose a short PIN, but for auditing each pin may only be in use by one person.
    So I'm renting this beach house with two doors, and I get my single 10-character pin. Using this pin I get 40 tries with each lock to guess a pin that would get me access beyond my authorized end date.. If I guess wrong, I've just set a personal pin on the lock that expires with my credentials. If I guess right, the lock emits a "sorry charlie" tone, and won't let me use that combination as "my" personal pin. It has, however, inadvertently alerted me that this number is a personal pin of someone with access authorization simultaneous to mine, such a person having access that is likely to extend longer than mine.
    If I return later and access the cottage using this pin, then the lock audit would identify this person as the one who entered, rather than me.