When it comes to vacation rentals, there are surprises — and there are surprises.
Good surprises, such as the one Ana O’Reilly encountered when she checked into a villa in Palm Springs, Calif., are rare. She was dumbstruck to discover the home looked better than the pictures in the listing, which was a first. The refrigerator was stocked with champagne and bottled water, and bowls of M&Ms were left in the kitchen as a welcome snack.
“It was incredible,” says O’Reilly, a marketing executive based in London.
And there are the not-so-good ones, such as the one encountered by Timothy Trudeau when he rented a home in Santa Barbara, Calif., with his family. After getting settled, he decided to take a dip in the pool.
“As we were floating around, I started to notice that the property had small infrared cameras mounted all over the place,” recalls Trudeau, who runs a music industry website in Lemon Grove, Calif. “Suddenly, we went from thinking we had our own little private slice of heaven to thinking we may be starring in some kind of Web reality show that we were unaware of. Super creepy!”
Good or bad, you can expect surprises during your next vacation rental, because, well, it’s a vacation rental. There are no real standards, as many renters are discovering. One in five Americans stayed in a rental last year, up 27 percent from 2014, according to a recent survey by Travel Tech, a trade group.
For every villa that exceeds expectations, there’s a little shop of reality TV horrors, although Trudeau admits he hasn’t seen any closed-circuit footage of his family vacation online. Companies such as Airbnb close a new round of financing every other week and HomeAway was acquired by Expedia. It seems the vacation rental industry is poised for another year of major growth. Half of all Americans say they expect to book a short-term rental.
How do you make sure you get more good surprises and fewer unpleasant ones? It’s a combination of renting from a trusted source and due diligence. It doesn’t take long, and the rewards can be great. For someone such as Trudeau, who travels with his family, the savings from a vacation rental can be considerable compared with a hotel.
Doing your homework is essential. It involves combing through user-generated reviews, scoping out the property on your favorite mapping site and interviewing the owner — by phone, preferably. If you live nearby, an in-person visit is a must. A reputable owner will let you have a look at the property if it’s unoccupied.
What if you live far away? That’s the idea behind WeGoLook, a service that will independently verify the property’s ownership and neighborhood. The company dispatches what it calls a “looker” to take new pictures of the property, street views and neighborhood views, and that person is available to answer questions. Robin Smith, WeGoLook’s CEO, says people usually turn to her inspection service, which costs $69 per report, after a rental problem. Most memorably, one customer came to WeGoLook after renting a property that had a pool without water.