Want to avoid a vacation rental surprise? Read this

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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.

There’s no substitute for on-the-ground intelligence, Smith says, “especially when you’re sending large deposits that can be lost.”

Another service that helps you avoid surprises with a “by-owner” rental property is Pillow (pillowhomes.com). Pillow screens the properties it manages, sending a supervisor to interview the owner and ensure the property meets its standards. Those include curtains, kitchen supplies and enough utensils for the maximum number of allowed guests and enough pillows and blankets for each sleeping surface. You can find Pillow listings through HomeAway (homeaway.com/pm/Pillow-740813w). “Pillow validates the property for guests,” says Sean Conway, Pillow’s CEO.

VaycayHero (vaycayhero.com) promises to help avoid surprises by adding another layer of service: a 24-hour concierge who can mediate any issues between travelers and vacation rental hosts. Among its successes is salvaging one customer’s vacation rental on Hawaii’s Big Island that didn’t have wireless Internet access, which it turns out was a deal-breaker for the guest. VaycayHero’s concierge team quickly arranged for a wireless Internet connection to be installed.

How about the professionally managed vacation rentals? There are differences there, too. Companies offer guarantees and promises that the only surprises you’ll find will be positive ones. Wyndham’s Vacation rental bill of rights, for example, promises a guest service team to assist with questions you may have during the booking period, around-the-clock maintenance assistance during your stay and access to local representatives “with expertise and knowledge.”

The implication is clear: You have the right to a surprise-free rental — specifically, a rental without any negative surprises.

In an industry that has precious few standards, it’s nice to know someone cares that you’re having the rental experience you paid for.

How to avoid a negative surprise when you rent

Rent with names you trust. Airbnb, VRBO and FlipKey have legitimate rentals and higher standards, says Andrew McConnell, co-founder and CEO of Rented, a vacation rental marketplace. “Stick to trusted and verified brands,” he advises. “It’s your best bet for avoiding unpleasant surprises.”

Assume nothing. Every vacation rental comes with linens, right? Wrong. Ryan Lockhart discovered that when he rented a house in North Carolina. When he checked in — surprise! — no linens! “I had to drive 45 minutes each way to buy linens from Walmart, which we had to wash and dry before we could even sleep,” remembers Lockhart, who owns a digital marketing agency in Bluffton, S.C.

Never wire money. “Do not pay for a vacation rental with cash, money orders, Western Union or other money transferring services,” advises Isaac Gabriel, founder of the online timeshare rental portal EZ Resort Vacations. Wiring money can lead to the most unpleasant surprise of all: a rental that doesn’t even exist.

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 chris@elliott.org. Got a question or comment? You can post it on our help forum.

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  • sparkytrav

    I’ve gone with my sister and family the last 2 New Year’s holidays to rentals via VRBO. My sister had also used them for a few years when she owned a condo in Boone NC. She had no problems with them as on owner and the rental we did (a home w/parts dating back to the 1600’s) in Dec 2014. That rental exceeded all our expectations. One of those rare ones you described where it’s better than what it looks like on the website. It was fabulous. She had also used VRBO for a rental in NYC w/friends that was fine as well. This year we did it again through VRBO, renting a 100-year old renovated farm in NC. Our experience this year was the complete opposite. I can give details if requested. Bottom line is that once my sister got her deposit back, she posted a very honest review on the VRBO website giving the property 2 stars. The owner contacted her apologizing and making excuses for everything and then offered her $100 if she would remove her negative review. I was appalled! She did not reply and left her review as it was. She was then contacted again by the owner who again offered her $100 to remove her negative review and had the gall to give her the link to the site to remove it and then the number she should call afterwards to make sure it had been deleted. After two bribes to remove her review, my sister decided to call customer service to complain. VRBO is now part of Homeaway that you mentioned in your article. I was sure they would remove her property and they would be appalled as well at an owner trying to bribe a renter. Well that’s not what happened. She was told they had no control over the owner’s communication. My sister asked if they thought it was wrong that she was not only being bribed but also harassed by this woman. They said “Of course we think it’s wrong but there’s nothing we can do. Now would you like to remove your review?” Wow! They were basically backing the owner and also trying to get her to remove her negative review. She did not remove it but we will never use VRBO again. How can you possibly trust a site that lets owners and property managers bribe people to keep only good reviews on their site? We had wondered why there were so many good reviews and no bad ones once we got there and now we know. Obviously some people had taken her up on her offer and removed their bad reviews. My sister had used VRBO for years as both an owner and a renter with no problems. I don’t know if it’s their merger with Homeaway or what it is, but I’ve noticed the same grammatical errors on their website that were used in many of the responses my sister received. It was especially disheartening after the fabulous rental we had the year before, and now we can never trust reviews on their site knowing they allow owners and property managers to harass and bribe renters. I then found this website, http://www.consumeraffairs.com/online/vrbo.html and you’ll see that both owners and renters both vehemently complaining about their business practices. I’ve always recommended VRBO to others and of course now I’m warning them away. When I saw VRBO listed in your article as one of the names you can trust, I thought I should share our recent experience with them.

  • Kathi C

    I don’t believe Elliott.org ever ever said you could Trust VRBO. You have to do your Due Diligence, read reviews, how long has it been available, Google the property and look for other sites with same property. If you can find the address Google some some. Talk to the owner! Listen to the little voice in your head.

  • sparkytrav

    Oh I did not mean that Chris Elliott said you could trust VRBO so apologies if that’s how it sounded. He had posted that Andrew McConnell said book with names you can trust such as VRBO. The main purpose of my comment is to let people know that the VRBO website allows owners to bribe renters to remove bad reviews. That is my complaint. My sister did a lot of research and again, read many good reviews which is what led us to choose that property. We still had fun and knew we would have stories to tell for years to come of all the bad things we encountered. We always have fun when we’re together. My main complaint is the review system and that you cannot trust it. I never thought the company would think it was okay for an owner/property manager to harass and bribe a renter to remove a very honest negative review. My sister definitely did her due diligence and spent months planning this trip before choosing this property. She had numerous conversations with the owner before committing. Our trip and the bad experience is not my complaint. It’s the treatment my sister received after giving her honest opinion. I’m just shocked that they tried to bribe her with $100 and it seems many people have taken her up on that offer.I believe you missed the point I was trying to make (or maybe I just didn’t word it properly), but my sister is definitely not the one at fault here.

  • sparkytrav

    Chris i would love your opinion on the review process as described below. Again, my complaint is not about how horribly the property was represented or how many things went wrong. My main complaint is that the VRBO website not only allows owners/property managers to harass and bribe renters to remove negative reviews, but that they actually support them. Would love your take on this situation…Carol

  • Grant Ritchie

    Hi Sparky,
    Since this article was published several days ago, Chris may or may not see your comment. To make sure he sees it, please send it to him as a “Letter to the Editor.” Here’s a link:

    http://elliott.org/letter-to-the-editor/

  • sparkytrav

    Chris, I’ve tweeted you and know you are busy but please give me your opinion on the bribes & harassment from owners for renters posting honest negative reviews. I’m happy to provide more details if needed.

  • judyserienagy

    Nobody can trust VRBO. You have to trust yourself, your ability to research, your ability to read between the lines, your intuition. I’ve rented 3 properties through VRBO which were MUCH better than expected. They are out there, I’d dare say that 85% of VRBO listers are honest, caring people who want you to enjoy yourself while they make some money on their property. But if you can’t commit to the research and time, book a hotel.

  • sparkytrav

    I obviously did not get my point across clearly. My sister spent months reading reviews and doing research on this property. She also had numerous conversations with the owner prior to our stay. And, I will say again, my complaint is not the misrepresentation or the problems we encountered. My problem is the VRBO site allowing the owners to bribe and harass renters for honest reviews. Do you honestly think that’s okay? And your comment about booking a hotel was rude. As I mentioned in my post, we have had wonderful experiences with VRBO in the past – both as an owner and a renter. I DO NOT think it’s ok to bribe or harass someone because they want to give an honest negative review (which we have never done in the past because they were all great). You are the 2nd person to blame my sister for not doing her research. Please read my posts again and you will see you are wrong. I’m actually shocked by your response.

  • sparkytrav

    Thanks Grant. I’ve received 2 other responses to my posts and they don’t seem to understand my complaint. Even with all that went wrong we had a great time as our family always does when we’re together. My complaint is being bribed and harassed about an honest negative review. I’m repeating myself, so forgive me. I would love Chris’ take on this so thanks for the info.

  • sparkytrav

    If you read the 1st few lines of my 1st comment, it says how the rental we had thru VRBO exceeded all our expectations. You are the 2nd person to blame my sister for not doing her “due diligence” and I am repeating again that she did everything expected and more in researching this property.