Was his vacation rental too good to be true?

Frank Leibsly says his recent apartment rental in London was a disaster of Olympic proportions, and he has the pictures to prove it.

His story — which involves a supposedly upscale rental unit that he claims was unfit for occupation, user-generated reviews that might have been bought, a potentially litigious property manager and a vacation rental Web site that advertised the property — may seem difficult to believe. But Leibsly, who works for a defense contractor in Washington, documented his short stay with the meticulousness of a senior engineer, which is what he is.

Leibsly’s experience is more than a cautionary tale for anyone considering a vacation rental. It’s also a by-now-familiar warning to read the entire rental contract from start to finish. You never know what rights you could be signing away.

The chain of events began last year, when Leibsly decided to plan a trip to England with his wife to celebrate their 20th anniversary. “We wanted to rent a flat in London for three days,” he says. “So we researched and chose a very nice-looking apartment in Stratford, next to the Olympic park. The pictures of the apartment were beautiful: very modern, bright and pristine.”

Any doubts were quickly dismissed when he read the online reviews, which raved about the property and awarded it five stars, the highest possible rating. He agreed to pay 548 pounds, about $850, for three nights in the apartment.

But when he and his wife arrived in late May, they found the opposite of what they’d expected. The apartment was in a depressed, crime-ridden part of London, he says. And it was a mess (see photo of bathtub, above). “It was a far cry from what was represented in the flat description and pictures,” he added. After one night, they checked out and requested a full refund from Find a Flat, the company through which they’d rented the place.

Leibsly also sent a review to HomeAway.com, the Web site through which he’d found the apartment. In it, he described the apartment’s condition in detail, including a long list of complaints: worn furniture, linens that hadn’t been changed from the previous guest, no toilet paper, mold in the bathtub, lack of air conditioning. He also sent me photos of the apartment that appear to back up some of his claims.

What happened next depends on who’s talking, and not everybody’s talking. This much is not in dispute: The apartment’s rental managers refused to refund Leibsly’s money.

Shortly after HomeAway.com approved Leibsly’s review, the entire listing was removed, he says. I contacted HomeAway and asked why. Within less than a week, the listing, along with his review, reappeared. HomeAway won’t disclose why the listing returned to the site, but it said that the one-star review Leibsly penned was in compliance with its standards.

“The traveler’s review was published in accordance with our standard content guidelines, which state that content may not be posted for the purpose of trying to force a particular response or action from another person in an unlawful, abusive or otherwise inappropriate manner,” Carl Shepherd, the chief strategy and development officer for HomeAway, said in a statement. “In this situation, the traveler stayed in the property — even if only for a night — and so rightfully may post a review.”

A representative of Find a Flat refused to comment, citing the possibility that the company may take legal action against the Leibslys.

Why sue a guest? Because in the meantime, Leibsly had self-published a blog post in which he accused the company’s owners of “preying” on guests. Late last week, he deleted that post, and his review on HomeAway.com. But there’s another reason Find a Flat might take a customer to court: The rental contract Leibsly signed included a non-disparagement clause saying that he would not publish negative comments on a public Web site.

That’s not all. Leibsly took a picture of a notice, printed on Find a Flat letterhead, that was tacked to the side of the refrigerator in the London apartment. “Please remember our special rewards and incentives,” it said. “Earn 20 pounds cash back for writing a positive review of our flat on the website, 40 pounds for two reviews on two websites.”

Although Find a Flat wouldn’t answer my questions, it referred me to Chris Emmins, the co-founder of KwikChex.com, a U.K.-based site that publishes and promotes verified guest reviews. Emmins says that his company is investigating Leibsly’s claims and trying to mediate the dispute.

“At the heart of it is the online comments, including his blog,” he told me. “In the various and multiple postings made, he has complained about aspects such as no air conditioning and that the washer-dryer did not dry. Our initial investigations seem to imply that such facilities were not advertised, so this is obviously a concern at the outset.”

The investigation isn’t complete. Emmins is also trying to verify the identities of the five-star reviewers to determine whether they were paid for their positive reviews. He says that KwikChex.com disapproves of the practice of paying guests for ratings. Emmins showed me preliminary results of his inquest, which cast doubts on some aspects of Leibsly’s story and appear to validate others, but he would not allow me to include them in this article.

“Believe me,” he said. “We will not have our own integrity compromised.”

HomeAway takes a similar position on paid ratings, although it doesn’t formally ban them from its site. “We do not approve of owners offering compensation for reviews,” Shepherd said. “And we don’t have any evidence that this is happening frequently.”

User-generated ratings, he noted, “are supposed to be independent, and [Leibsly’s] seems to be strongly so.”

In hindsight, a closer look at the rental listing throws up a couple of bright red flags. There were only a few reviews, and all except for Leibsly’s now-deleted rating rave about the flat. What’s more, 548 pounds for three nights in what Leibsly believed was a “luxury” apartment during high season in one of the world’s hottest destinations seems almost too good to be true.

A further flag: the rental contract, which required a prospective tenant either to wire money or use PayPal and which included a non-disparagement clause.

When I mentioned these warning signs to Leibsly, he acknowledged that he should have paid closer attention to the listing when he was selecting the apartment. But he says that the listing also misrepresented the property.

More troubling is the fact that Leibsly’s experience lifts the veil on the lightly regulated, standards-free rental industry and suggests that a property’s reputation may be bought and sold almost as frequently as it’s earned.

And that’s a problem for anyone considering a home rental for their next vacation.

Update (7/28): Emmins followed up with additional comments.

The photos of the property on HomeAway are real and represent the apartment very accurately, as does the description provided.

The reviews are real – and we will be in a position to provide further verified reviews shortly.

As Mr. Leibsly would have found during his research, the location is part of the regenerated Olympics area and the effects in terms of new housing, retail, jobs, landscaping, leisure facilities and inward investment can be seen by simple use of Google Street View. Westminster has a higher crime rate and I believe that the crime rate of London overall is considerably lower than that of Washington D.C.?

Mr. Leibsly withdrew the comments he made on various online platforms.

We could find only one definite instance where there was genuine room for complaint – the mildew in the bathroom. Findaflatinlondon insist that had he contacted them immediately, this would have been immediately rectified – and he could have raised any other issues that he was unhappy with too.

He chose not to do so and instead left, citing a ‘family emergency’

If Mr. Leibsly wishes to pursue a claim, we would be pleased to assist the proper process to take place, so that the areas of dissatisfaction can be properly assessed and evidenced in accordance with UK consumer laws, which as I am sure you will know are very robust and do not tolerate forms of misrepresentation.

We can assist him in the process of filing a claim and in contacting the other proper authorities, such as the local Trading Standards officers and environmental health. This will obviously then be a fair and impartial process, will unequivocally rule on a point of law and decide if any breaches have actually taken place and decide on any form of compensation that might be due if a claim is proven.

It will also not incur the risks of either unfounded disparagement or defamation proceedings. We will also see to it that Mr. Leibsly does not incur any costs in filing his claim – and the process of reporting such matters properly for investigation is free.

I would be grateful if you would make it clear that these processes of establishing the truth of the matter and ensuring that all appropriate actions are taken have been offered and will be supported.

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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  • Rosered7033

    Who to believe? And it is STILL disturbing to find a contract that contains a clause for taking legal action against a customer for a negative review (relative to your column of a few weeks ago). Is Mr. Leibsly the victim or the perpetrator? And why did he remove his negative reviews? It seems he reviewed the property in good faith, based on his experiences and then was bullied into removing them, based on the contract he signed.

    To the larger question of whether any company should reward positive reviews, that’s a slippery slope, particularly in light of the non-disparagement clause.

    What exactly IS a “travel company”?

  • http://elliott.org Christopher Elliott

    Good question. I mean any company engaged in a travel-related activity — hotel, airline, car rental company, etc.

    I don’t know what to make of the story, either. I report, you decide.

  • sirwired

    The non-disparagement clause would likely not be worth the electrons taken to display it in the U.S. Such a clause can be included as some part of a settlement down the road, but as part of a pre-transaction agreement? No way; it’ll almost certainly be judged “contrary to the public interest” and invalidated. But UK law may be different in this regard; certainly their libel laws are infamous the world over for being crazily loose.

    That said, if the photo of the mildewed caulk was the worst he could come up with, I’d say the unit is just fine for that price. And the most basic research would have revealed that Stratford isn’t exactly Kensington.

  • Alan Gore

    The idea of being sued for a negative review may sound bizarre to us, but under British law, truth is not a defense against a libel charge: post a bad review with proof, and you can get sued anyway.

    British libel law is just as bizarre and horrible, and as much of a worldwide joke, as American liability law.

  • SoBeSparky

    Of course, travel booking sites should never pay or award bonuses or points to people who post reviews. Some sites, such as TripAdvisor, will investigate complaints and remove reviews and/or rankings upon presentation of promotions by travel vendors. Yes, a greedy vendor or two will always try to game the system.

    I never heard of Find a Flat or Homeaway. Anyone can create a website anytime. If people do not understand this, then they need a complete education on the internet.

    A serviced apartment is my choice in cities for longer stays, as I know a full service hotel stands behind the maintenance, condition and amenities. If my internet goes out, or the sheets are dirty, I call the front desk. You give that up when you try to save a buck or two. Paying almost USD$300 a night from an unknown owner on an unknown website for an east-side London location is no bargain. What was the engineer thinking?

    PS A little mold in the bathtub is common, although not pleasant. I have found it in Marriotts as well as Days Inns, among others.

  • Harry Baxter

    If it’s too good to be true, don’t take it. I saw a listing this week for an apartment in New York’s Greenwich Village, close to transportation, entertainment, great restaurants, etc. $88 per nite. It sounded wonderful, but for that price, the guy advertising it might not even own it.

  • TonyA_says

    I was thinking about the same thing – why would any tourist stay in the East End of London for that price?

  • Cybrsk8r

    Yet another reason to NEVER, EVER, rent thru HomeAway or any of their ilk. I ALWAYS rent thru a local real estate agent, and in 15 years, I have never,ever had a problem.

    Whose the one dill-weed who voted yes? Oh, I guess that would be Mr. Emmins.

  • http://ladylighttravel.com/ LadyLightTravel

    Leibsly may have removed them for several reasons:
    * He realized that the “non-disparagement clause” did bind him, or at least had the appearance of binding him to say nothing.
    * He works for a defense contractor who requires him to keep a low profile on the internet
    * He realised that it was becoming too much of a hassle (pick your battles)
    * He realised that while the “truth is the best defense” works in the US, it may not work in the UK.

  • Raven_Altosk

    I trust these sites about as much as I trust a guy in NYC selling Rolexes on the street.

  • http://mytimetotravel.wordpress.com/ mytimetotravel

    Truth is a defense, provided there was no malice. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/English_defamation_law

  • Nikki

    I think I trust that Rolex guy more – at least I know I don’t stand a rat’s chance in hell of getting a real Rolex. These AirBnB types are killing any ideas I’ve ever had of ever renting through them.

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

    Barely. The onus is on the speaker to prove the veracity of the words. That’s a very high burden. In the US its the opposite. The defamed person must prove the falseness of the factual allegations.

  • mbods

    Wow, I have used HomeAway twice in the past, without incident but never again. I like Cybrsk8r’s suggestion to use a local real estate agent. Thanks!

  • Raven_Altosk

    Trufax. :D

  • http://www.vadimoss.com/ vadimoss

    Try http://www.rentini.com – All reviews are authentic and verified, which means only from those who stayed at the property and paid through the site. Good thing is reviews go both ways, for the homeowners and for the guest. Nowadays there is a very popular trend when guests would threaten homeowners to write a negative reviews unless they receive a refund. By the way I would not bash homeaway for negative experience and say calling a local agent would save your odds. All these local property management companies advertise on all possible sites amongst individual homeowners.

  • http://www.talestoldfromtheroad.com/ Dick Jordan

    Chris, the most surprising thing about this story is that even 1% of your readers would have voted “Yes” in response to your poll question “Should travel companies pay guests for their reviews?” Perhaps they are the same people who make up the “1%” referred to in political dialogue in the U.S.

  • http://elliott.org Christopher Elliott

    I’m surprised by the “yes” votes too. But I think there are some vacation rental managers and/or hotel owners who think it’s fair game. And they’re allowed to vote, too.

  • http://www.talestoldfromtheroad.com/ Dick Jordan

    I figured that some or all of those “Yes” votes might have come from property owners, or companies that sell owners favorable reviews written by people who have never been guests at the property.

  • Londoner1936

    Why rent an apartment in east London, however near it maybe located close to the Olympic site, one year before those Olympics. It makes no sense, and if the OP had done even the most minimal research, he would have known what a foolish choice he was making.

    On the other side, the descriptions of the area and it’s proximity to central London are equally absurd; the external views are ridiculous, you are nowhere in sight of the City of London, nor is the Stratford area within the City in spite of the listing heading. You might be only 20 mins from the City, but most of the tourist attractions are beyond the City coming from Stratford – you are not well located for a 3 or 4 day visit to London. The OP needed to do a better job here of researching a good rental location.

  • Londoner1936

    Second post: having checked the HomeAway listing for this apt., I see at once hoe there little misleading features in the listing. The agent groups 3 apts together, one near Aldgate, the other two listed as at Bow and Stratford; but the map which comes up is the location of the Aldgate area one, and although the agent notes that fact, it does not indicate that the other two are much further east. Then the text says nearest underground station is Russell Square, which is miles away near the British Museum, and adds in parenthesis also Aldgate East and Whitchapel stations; OK for the Penthouse, but totally inaccurate for the two east London apartments. And the listing claims ithese listings are in the City of London, and while the term “city” may be used loosely in the US, it has a precise meaning in London, a legal small unit of government and usually referring to the financial district – the equal of Wall Street in New York.

    Having used the HomeAway and similar sites, this kind of confusion occurs frequently, particularly by listings containing multiple units. The web sites could police their listings more to at least clarify things like map location and geographic descriptions.

    I remain mystified why anyone would pay so much to be so remotely located, but the reviews seem genuine enough, and seemingly some visitors like being next to a huge shopping center and plenty of Macdonald fast food establishments. Two reviews for the east London.group were in French, good correct French, and that seems even more surprising. I do not think the OP has much of a case; most of his problems stem from his poor research, and that in spite of spending a year preparing for this trip. Three or four nights in a comfortable hotel in central London would not have cost much more. No case to be taken up here, even though I agree you need to be wary of sites like these, including the new baby growing fast: airbnb.

    Finally why did the OP wire the money ? It clearly says the agency will take credit cards, a much better way to protect yourself against fraud or similar, but in this case I doubt the dispute would have gone anywhere

  • Nica

    I think it is absolutely wrong for a company to put in their contract that customers are not allowed to write negative reviews. To me, that just means that you know you are doing some grimy stuff (I want to use another word, but that would not be nice) and you do not want anyone to know about it. Any respectable company would go out of their way to provide the best customer service in order to prevent any negative reviews (at least in an ideal world – lol). To put that in the contract before I even arrive is suspect.

  • pauletteb

    I would never consider a property with a “non-disparagement” clause. That sets up a big red flag that the property owner/manager has something to hide. This seems to be the norm in the UK, however, where property owners/managers routinely threaten to sue people who write negative reviews. Don’t they even have a “professional” organization that helps them do it?

  • SpareRoom.co.uk

    Please change your mentions of FindAFlat in this article to the company responsible for the booking – FindaFlatinLondon.com – FindAFlat is an entirely different company and has no bearing on this issue. It does not deserve to be defamed for the actions of an unconnected company. Thank you

  • betsy514

    Speaking of reviews, I had an interesting situation yesterday and I’d love to know what other readers (and our friend Mr. Elliott) think. Three years ago I had a critter in the walls of my house. I hired a company to come take a look via Angie’s List. They charged me $75 to come and check out the situation. Long story short I was less than pleased with the guy (wanted to work under the table outside the company, told me what he thought was wrong without even looking at the problem, tried to upsell me an expensive solution without examining the house etc..) that came and posted a fair and descriptive review on Angie’s List. I even made it clear that I don’t have any experience with pest control companies so readers should take that into consideration when reading my review. Never heard a word from the company which was fine. Now it’s three years later and the company called me yesterday to offer me a refund of the $75 I paid stating they just saw the review. I have mixed feelings about this. I appreciate that they reached out and made the offer but am uncomfortable taking the refund. I count on consumer reviews and the BBB when hiring contractors and if I post one that’s not so stellar, it’s to inform fellow consumers not to try and get my money back (unless i really believe i’m owed a refund – in this case whle i didn’t like the contractor, he did show up). My friends and family think I should take the refund. I’m leaning towards not taking the refund, but posting a follow-up to my review to tell people it was offered. Maybe I’m thinking too much about this, but I think it’s important to keep the consumer review process “pure” and I don’t want anyone to think that when I post a negative review it’s only to get a refund. What do others think?

  • Rosered7033

    Wow, 3 YEARS? I wouldn’t take the refund, but I think it would be kind of you to amend your review with the offer. Similarly, I just wrote Tripadvisor, recommending they allow addendums to reviews. Specifically, I reviewed a local restaurant, and sent an email detailing my experience directly to the owners through their website, but didn’t, of course, mention my TA review. I have not heard from the restaurant, and I think it is pertinent and that it should be mentioned in the review. I know I can request the review be removed, but why should I have to go through the extra step, just to rewrite it with the addition?