I slammed my Kona condo online and now it’s keeping my deposit

Write a bad review, lose your deposit? / Photo by Ken Lund - Flickr
With its dramatic black volcanic rock, stunning seascapes, and impossibly tasty coffee, Kona, Hawaii is one of the world’s most unexpected destinations. And when Lynn Regan booked a condo there last year, she was looking forward to experiencing the Big Island’s differentness.

She didn’t expect to get a different condo than the one she’d reserved – but that’s exactly what she says happened.

Although her story touches on a lot of current consumer travel problems with vacation rentals, such as reputation management, user-generated reviews and product consistency, it all comes down to a single question: Should I try to help this aggrieved customer?

Back in April 2011, she says she began looking for vacation rentals in Hawaii. She found the condos at the Royal Kahili, and did her due diligence. She read the reviews on VRBO.com, looked up the property on Google Street View, contacted the owner and then, after reviewing the contract carefully, sent a deposit.

When she checked in last December, here’s what she found:

The linens were badly stained and needed replacement, including a bloodstained bedspread which really needed a wash.

There was a great deal of corrosion everywhere, which meant that screens and windows and sliders were sometimes working or only partially working and showerheads barely worked.

The toilet in one bathroom ran a small amount of water constantly, the other toilet was not bolted down at all.

The kitchen and bathrooms were unrenovated and would be the originals from the 1970s. However, they were reasonably clean; there was a new fridge, and a new large flat screen TV, and some decent living room furniture.

And that wasn’t all. Other items included stained ceilings, and grubby patches on the carpets, including a big cut and paste carpet patch in the master bedroom. There were new living room curtains and rods, but the old rods hadn’t been taken down, giving a distinctly tacky feel.

Most important, it looked nothing like to advertised room. But Regan tried not to let her get it down.

“Certainly we made do while we were there,” she says. “I washed stuff and vacuumed, and decided not to let it bug me while I was on vacation.”

She brought up the problems with the condo manager, but it did her no good. Under Hawaii law, every owner must have a local representative, and that person couldn’t be found. Another condo manager tried to help her, but his options were limited.

Why not do a little research online or make a few phone calls?

Regan says she couldn’t. She’s Canadian, she was worried that spending a lot of time online would rack up a big cellular bill. So she let it slide until she returned home, which is when she decided to write a review on VRBO.com.

That’s when she discovered she wasn’t alone, and that others had experienced trouble with the same resort.

Then the owner responded to her complaint with a rebuttal:

Our unit is priced according to the fact that yes, the kitchen counters need an upgrade as do the bathrooms. Our kitchen features new appliances such as a fridge and dishwasher.

However, this is the first I’ve been told that there are problems with the bed linens and a toilet needing to be bolted in properly from any guests.

Had these issues been presented to me during their stay like their signed rental agreement states, they would have been addressed immediately.

These issues have already been taken care of. We did a thorough check of the unit with our maintenance and everything is up to par.

She also withheld Regan’s deposit.

“I guess I should have waited a little while before I spoke up,” she says.

Regan believes the owner is pocketing the deposit because of her write-up. Sound familiar?

She also dug further and found that the owner was involved in some basic reputation management maneuvers, which included creating a Facebook page, blog, and selling rooms through AirBnB – activities she says are meant to “minimize” the negative reviews.

Nothing illegal about that, though.

She wrote a letter to the owner and heard back from Cynthia Leporte, a reservations manager, who said under the terms of her contract, Regan was required to report any problems with the condo within 24 hours of arrival.

“Since the conditions of the rental agreement were not followed,” she wrote, “the refund is void.”

What a strange case.

As I review all the correspondence between Regan and the condo representative, I’m really torn. Clearly, Regan didn’t get the accommodations she was expecting. But whatever happened during her rental, she also didn’t report it to the right person. That makes me wonder if I’m getting the entire story.

At the same time, the condo owner’s actions make me suspicious. I believe Regan when she says the unit didn’t look right, and while I don’t have a problem with reputation management that is honest, the condo owner’s efforts seem more promotional.

I think she’s entitled to an explanation for why the deposit is being withheld. But beyond that, I’m not sure if I can — or should — push for a partial refund of her stay.

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at . Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

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  • Extramail

    Chris hasrewrittenn a story or two, I believe, that have said that rental agreements are now writing in them that you can lose your deposit if you write a bad review without first talking to the rental agent. Don’t know if that is the case here but how many of us agree to the terms of service without reading every single word nowadays?

  • emanon256

    I interpreted the land lord’s response to the other review to say that she violated the rental contract by not immediately informing her of the toilet being broken.  This despite the tenant saying they informed them the first day, but the land lord excuse is that their e-mail was hacked, so they are not responsible.  Also when that guest complained about the TV not working, the land lord says the prior tenant violated the contract by not telling them the TV was broken.  Then the land lord complains they should not have given them the deposit back because they used too much electricity and violated the agreement (In reverence to the toilet).  The land lord also states that the toilet is now fixed as they were told by the next guests.  If the land lord only knows what works and what doesn’t work based on guest feedback perhaps they should hire a local property manager.  It sounds like they only respond when they are repeatedly nagged and depend on renters to tell them what’s going on and anyone who doesn’t tell this is in violation.  Maintaining their condo should not be the tenants responsibility, it should be the land lords.

  • TonyA_says

    Here’s an interesting article (maybe self serving ad) on supposed to be legal Transient Vacation (Units) Rentals
    http://mauiownercondos.com/vacation-rentals.html

    Note how it says the legitimate ones are those that are zoned as hotels!

  • TonyA_says

    How about the TAX, John? Did you forget that?
    Are these Transient Vacation Units paying Hawaii TAT, General Excise Tax, etc.? Doubt it.

  • john4868

    @TonyA_says:disqus My discussion was limited to the link you sent that states that the issue there is a Honolulu ordinance. Since this was Kona, it didn’t apply.

  • TonyA_says

    Dang I agree with you 100%. I also have a close relation in Hawaii. But I find that place too commercial and the beaches are not anywhere near as beautiful as the Asian ones. Also as you said the fare to Asia is cheaper and you can take the best airlines of the world (CX, SQ, OZ etc.) I think Americans should discover Asia more for their own good (wallet).

  • Lindabator

    Most of the ones we travel agents book are part of a hotel chain generally, and are always booked by as little as a day at a time, so they have to have all their ducks in a row.  :)

  • TonyA_says

    A lot or REAL Hawaiians really don’t like this whole Transient Vacations Units (TVU Rentals). Here is a decent site that discusses issues in Oahu  http://www.sonhawaii.org/

    There is similar discontent in the other islands. The “natives” are getting squeezed out of affordable rentals and homes. I wonder if tourists ever consider that.

    Aside from probably not paying HI’s Transient Accomodation Tax (TAT) and HI’s Excise Tax, they may also have broken the law that requires all rental units to have a LOCAL contact in Hawaii.

  • sanibelsyl

    I have no “no disparagement” clauses in my vacation rental contracts and would never consider them as either an owner or a rental guest.  The OP may have agreed to sign one, and to do so would certainly have been foolish.  But if there is no way to enforce disparagement clauses, what is the point of including them in the first place?  As I say, I would never have one as so doing certainly appears to be censorship as well as a red flag that the property may be less than what it is advertised as.  Yet people do have them and I’m not sure that they could even legally be upheld —-as it is suggested here.

  • Brian

     She tried to contact the local representative.  As far as I’m concerned, that’s contacting the owner’s agent.  Since that was within 24 hours, they owe her a deposit, and something for her troubles. 

  • ClareClare

    I’m wondering whether the fact that the OP is from Canada influenced the sleaze-bag owner’s decision to keep the deposit?  Said owner may very well be betting that someone living in another country won’t take all the time and trouble to file a lawsuit.  Betcha she wasn’t expecting the OP to turn to Chris!

    The very same thing happened to me years ago when renting a car from Hertz in Ireland.  They invented false damage and charged my ccard the exact amount of the deductible–long story, but they managed to carefully arrange everything so that my only recourse was to physically fly back to Ireland and sue them in Irish court.  Uh, like that’s going to happen?  Wish Chris was writing his column back then…

  • jennj99738

     I reread it after reading your response and I agree with your interpretation.  I read this sentence differently, “I find it interesting she would write the review almost a month after their stay & after they received the deposit.”  It read to me, “if only Lynn (the renter) had written her review earlier, I (the owner) could have withheld the security deposit.”  Anyway, nothing in the owner’s litany of complaints against the renter in this other review was valid. 

    It’s clear that if the owner is not inspecting the property after a renter moves out, he or she does not get to withhold any portion of the security deposit because he or she doesn’t know who did the damage.  Maintenance is never on the tenant in any event.

  • Joe Farrell

     The ONLY way the Chris becoming involved is if the property is identified.  Chris will identify airlines, hotels, car rental companies and all sorts of third party companies but will not identify the specific Royal Kalihi unit or the owner?  Why not?

    The power of the press only works when the provider of the product or service knows that they are going to be made public – if we don’t know the owner and unit number name – whats the point?  At that point it does nothing for me –

    You see – if an ombudsman gets involved and the owner tells him to kiss off – then I want to know to avoid that seller of services.  If the owner explains themselves and makes the OP whole – then I want to know that too so I can perhaps rely on that person’s character in the future when I am choosing a rental.

    Not telling us the unit or the names prevent us from making use of the information provided above.

  • emanon256

    You know, the unit we rented in Kona was listed like a hotel, even though it was a condo.  I always thought that was odd, but this explains it.  I would rent a condo again in a heartbeat.  I think we paid $80 a night, and while it was dated and not at all fancy and had a lout air conditioner, we also could cook our own meals, walk to the beach, and had a lot more room than at a hotel room.

  • emanon256

    People should use agents, not VRBO.  That’s all there is to it.

  • TonyA_says

    I don’t understand why people complain their rental is “this and that” without first checking if the rental is even legal. If everything is in the up and up, the city will and can inspect the place and make sure it is safe. This is why I like hotels. At least I know they have a license to do business and collect taxes. I have nothing against condos or B&Bs provided they stay legit.

  • Asiansm Dan

    I still love Hawaii and Florida but I travel to HI and FL less frequent, once every 2 years. In year 2000 and before, I fly to Miami once every 3 months. But now it’s quite expensive. Every instance try to squeeze the money from us: Several level of Governments, Airport Authority, Added fees and extra charges in Hotel, Car-Rent. Recently, I have my European friends and relatives complaint about Highway Automatic Payment Scam, they received charges and penalty from the Toll Highway they are not aware and nobody tell them when renting the car. They are ticketed by using the highway and they see it like an intentional milking practice used on innocent tourists.

  • Raven_Altosk

    Just re-read the listing. The owners are such idiots they say “service dogs MAY be allowed.”

    Um, no.
    Service dogs are allowed everywhere and if you don’t like it, don’t run a business in the US.

  • Ann Lamoy

    Not to mention the review posted just a week after her review-giving the property 5 stars. And coincidentally they stayed the same day as she did? I get that most people probably post their date of stay as the start of their stay. And it might be entirely possible that one of them posted 12/10 as the start and the other the end.

    But honestly? I find Steven’s review a tad bit suspicious. Okay, more than a tad bit. I am willing to bet good folding money (what I have set aside for my Vegas trip) that this is either the owner or a friend of the owner posting a positive review to pump up their ratings.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_H6PILMKHNNJGSWQMZBFDJYWBA4 Spaz Daffodil

    You should mediate, but you won’t get anywhere.  The landlord knows that the renter will never return, so why return the deposit?  The chance of the renter returning to Hawaii to file a small claims court case is very, very small.  It is a form of theft.  How much was the deposit?  Maybe she could sue in Hawaii for the return of the deposit plus travel expenses?  (I’m not an attorney)

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_OEPJGQPIEB75YYDE5CJY6R3VFE Carver Clark Farrow II

     With all of these questions, most of which I think are irrelevant, why wouldn’t you want Chris to mediate, if for no other reason than to get to the truth?

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_OEPJGQPIEB75YYDE5CJY6R3VFE Carver Clark Farrow II

    She won’t get her travel expenses

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_OEPJGQPIEB75YYDE5CJY6R3VFE Carver Clark Farrow II

     Interesting thought. Why not the return of her deposit?

  • sanibelsyl

    The major reason is that Chris must get many more requests for assistance than he has time to provide.  I think (answers to)  these questions are relevant in assessing whether he should get involved. There are too many unknowns here for me to vote for his pursuing this.  Chris, himself, has reservations in researching this without more information (“That makes me wonder if I’m getting the entire story.”) and I agree with him completely.  In the vacation rental business, falsehoods abound, some from owners, some from guests.  Why would I want Chris to get ensnared in a tangle of lies and end up, eventually, wasting his time?

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/2NZAJ6KPWUWJV23TTE3TNBMJZI Trudi

    I think she tried to get some help through the condo management. If she didn’t want to use her cell phone to call, she probably should have looked into using a local phone. If she read the contract as thoroughly as she claims, then she knew she should have contacted someone immediately. However, the name and number of that person should have been left in the condo unit. All the places I’ve EVER rented have had a local name and number to call for assistance. If she left the condo in reasonable condition, and it seems she did, then keeping her deposit for reporting the bad issues seems petty. The owner has the opportunity now to fix the issues, and not have to deal with another unhappy renter. Once again, VRBO is useless except as a resource company; they sincerely don’t care if a renter is ripped off or not. If you can help her, I hope you will, Chris.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_OEPJGQPIEB75YYDE5CJY6R3VFE Carver Clark Farrow II

    I take a different tact.  The default position is that a deposit should be returned to the guest.  The onus is on the landlord to present credible reasons to withhold the  deposit.  Every ambiguity is therefore resolved in the favor of the guest.