Why can’t I leave a review about my vacation rental from hell?

Stephanie Frey/Shuterstock

Diana Younts’ problem isn’t her vacation rental from hell. That one, she fixed on her own.

It’s trying to warn the rest of the world about what she believes are the unscrupulous owners — and an intransigent website that appears to be protecting a shady customer.

Before we get to the details, a few facts about her rental in Ashland, Oregon, which she found on VRBO.com.

“The day before we were supposed to arrive, the manager told us the house was uninhabitable,” she says. “We later learned her son was living in the house, that it had no plumbing, and that it was trashed.”

Younts asked for a refund, but the manager stalled until she “wised up” and disputed the purchase on her credit card.

End of story? Not really. Younts clicked on VRBO.com and left a review of the property in an effort to warn other customers about the rental. But the review never posted.

Then she got a terse email from VRBO.

“We received the review you submitted for vacation rental listing #347557, but this review does not meet our Content Guidelines. To submit a review, you must have stayed at the property.”

Younts wrote back, asking for an explanation. After all, she was a paying customer and had an experience she wanted to share.

That prompted the following answer:

Thank you for your reply. I am very sorry that you did not have a good experience with your vacation rental reservations.

Reviews are posted directly on listings for the benefit of future travelers that are reading ads on our website, trying to find the perfect property for their vacation. Once travelers have stayed at a property they are allowed to submit a review. Our traveler review eligibility guidelines state the following:

The traveler reviewing a property must be able to provide evidence that the traveler stayed at the property displayed on the listing (which must be the same property being reviewed).
Prior to the review being posted on the website, it is moderated to make sure that it meets the requirements defined [by] our policy.

One of the requirements is that the traveler actually stayed there – “stay” being defined as “physically visited” the property. Being a public forum, the intent of reviews is that they describe the property – not the owner or property manager or their booking procedures.

There are a variety of legal reasons that your personal dealings with the owner are not the focus of the posted review. The HomeAway legal department has given us strict guidelines and procedures to follow in the area of traveler reviews. Our system’s guidelines are not arbitrary; each facet is a legal requirement.

That being said, we take all complaints very seriously. Personal interactions during the reservation process that result in an unpleasant booking experience can be processed as a property complaint. When our Trust and Security department receives a formal complaint, they document the traveler’s and vacation rental owner’s or property manager’s information about the stay. Then they give the owner or property manager an opportunity to resolve the dispute. The documentation related to formal complaints is strictly internal and is not made available for public view.

That makes no sense to Younts. Why would any part of the customer experience be censored and the results kept “strictly internal”?

“It’s outrageous,” she says.

Younts wants me to persuade VRBO.com to post her review.

I see no reason — legal or otherwise — to censor her review. Insisting that a customer actually stayed at the property, as opposed to being a paying customer — can only protect VRBO’s customers, the owners and managers who are paying to be listed on the site. But you could argue that it protects the wrong ones: those who abruptly cancel a reservation or who kick a guest out of a property.

At the same time, Younts is trying to do much more than ask VRBO to post a single review. She is essentially asking it to rewrite its review policy. I don’t think that’s unreasonable, but I’m not sure if it’s realistic. VRBO has not been the most responsive company lately, at least to my queries on behalf of their customers.

Should I mediate Diana Younts' case with VRBO?

View Results

Loading ... Loading ...

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.

More Posts - Website - Twitter - Google Plus

  • MarkKelling

    I must be on vacation then. I didn’t make up my bed this morning and all of the meals I will eat today are prepared by someone else outside my home. Don’t tell me boss, he might dock my vacation time! ;-)

  • TonyA_says

    Well they denied to bake a cake for a gay couple’s wedding. WTF? This is 2014.

  • VoR61

    In the context of this site, your comment fits the design model. Yelp, like other is a REVIEW site, and as such should be reserved for comment by those having conducted (or at least attempted to do) business with said merchant.

    Reviews are exactly that: reviews, and not comments from those having no contact with the service provider.

  • TonyA_says

    Oh dear, this is social media at its finest :)
    Do you really expect people to follow instructions nowadays?

  • VoR61

    I guess I don’t, but I DO expect the site monitors to remove content that is unrelated to an actual review (which is an “after the fact” comment). If I want opinion on social issues, a review site is not where I look. In the case of this OP, it’s clear to me that her wish to post on VRBO is legitimate. It should not reflect poorly on VRBO, but rather the homeowner.

  • Jeanne_in_NE

    Woo hoo, Google-Fu!

  • sanibelsyl

    Guess I missed where it says they have an F in the BBB. Does it say that in the article?

  • anacoluthon

    I don’t know how germane this is to VRBO and their policies, but yes, Yelp will hide reviews if you can’t be identified as a reliable contributor. I have a very active Yelp account and none of my reviews have ever been hidden, even if I am the first to review.

  • TonyA_says

    No wait. The example you gave on Yelp was caused because of the owner’s discriminatory beliefs. Therefore it is obvious the public is incensed about what he had done and used Yelp to voice out their disgust. The comments had nothing to do with cakes and anyone reading it would get it.

    With VRBO and the rental listing, the comments of the OP are related to ones being able to rent the 2BR house. This kind of information is important for would-be renters to gauge whether the rental owner is trustworthy. It is not irrelevant. The owner still has other rentals in VRBO.

  • TonyA_says

    No I did some basic research and found it. (See below or somewhere in my other posts).

  • VoR61

    It sounds like you misread my last comment. I AGREE that the VRBO post is relevant (my word was legitimate). Others here used Yelp as an example of a review site that prunes it’s reviews. My point with the original post is to challenge that assertion. Review sites are supposed to contain content about products, services, and providers posted by those who have purchased or attempted to purchase said items.

    Yelp is not, in my opinion, an appropriate place to “rant” about political/social positions. Same for Amazon, TripAdvisor, Zagat, etc. Most of those sites require that you have some DIRECT exposure to the actual products, services, and provider in order to post.

    If I am mistreated (or believe I have been) by a provider, then I should be allowed to post away as long as I adhere to the decorum set forth in whatever site. If, on the other hand, I read someone else’s post and wish to express my opinion, the review site is not the place to do that.

    The compelling factor is the meaning of the word “review” …

  • bodega3

    If your review was negative, Yelp charges the business $300 (or that was the charge recently) to move, not eliminate, your review to the bottom.

  • TonyA_says

    Yes I agree that ranting has no place in Yelp, Amazon, TA, Zagat, etc. I’m just explaining how people have used any kind of “social media” to vent or rant. Maybe no one is paying attention to them at home. I think there is really no way to FULLY control who does what in these “extended” social media sites since it might be too expensive to do so.

  • bodega3

    Yelp likes cash :-(

  • VoR61

    I see your point. One thing I have set as a guiding principal for my life that applies here is this: the difficulty of a thing does not, by itself, negate the need to get it done. That has kept me on track so many times when I wanted to give up.

    So, to all the review sites I say, be a review site or do something else. If someone has direct exposure to a product, service, or provider then let them comment (i.e. review). Even if it’s just to say that they’re supposed to be open until 8 but close at 6 (or that the owner of a VRBO-advertised property failed to deliver or refund the fees paid).

    And in the end, it’s the review-er who is responsible for any criticism.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    That’s the point. They were trying to imply that they didn’t. Which is of course, BS

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    The person was dumb. I can’t fault her for cancelling the rental under the circumstances. But the ethical thing to do would have been to make you so happy that you didn’t care. That’s what hotel do with overbooking. They pay for the first night. If she had offered to pay say half of the cost of comparable accommodations for the original rental period, say 1 week, thus reducing your cost by maybe a thousand or so, would that have made you happy. Could you be bought :-)

  • Cybrsk8r

    Of course, if I saw no reviews at all, I’d have to reach one of two conclusions. One, it is a brand new listing, or two, it’s a real dump and ALL the reviews were negative and therefore, not published.

    I wouldn’t take the risk in either case.

  • emanon256

    That would have made me very happy. She was not as nice as she seemed. I can’t fault her either, but she should have done more. Either way, the place we ended up getting was much nicer, but also cost more.

  • mizmoose

    I see your point. With Yelp, unlike a few other review sites, nobody pre-screens the reviews before they are posted. They depend on regular users identifying improperly posted “reviews” (and photos) and *then* the site goes through and investigates. If they feel your flag was legit they will remove things.

    On Yelp, I’ve flagged hate speech, “reviews” consisting of nothing but “I heard the owner is a jerk,” photos for a business that are ‘selfies’ (with no items from the business included, just a user’s face – for a hairdresser, sure. For a restaurant…?), photos that claim to be from a business but are stolen from another website [and some of these clowns actually say, “I took this from (site)”], and more. All have been removed for TOS violations.

  • VoR61

    Using two (2) browsers, I see no option to flag reviews. Must I be logged in with a Yelp account to do that?

  • innchfromnj

    if the website won’t change their policy, those who are here, can spread the word.
    How about boycotting the site altogether.

  • innchfromnj

    That’s highly unlikely.

  • PsyGuy

    I’m sorry we disagree. Granted the contract was likely drafted by VRBO, but it also needs to be an attractive deal to the property owners. It can give them nothing and be of any value.

    It actually makes a great deal of difference. Property owners sue, even if their claims are meritless, they still require the time and cost of counsel to fight the suite, and perhaps would actually go to trial costing more, even if VRBO prevails, its work and effort they don’t have to do, because denying the review costs them zero, they lose nothing and it costs them nothing.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    Hey

    There’s not wrong with disagreeing, as long as we’re not disagreeable :-)

    Here’s where I think you are in error. VRBO and AirBnb are the 800lb gorillas in this market. As such, the bargaining power is incredibly lopsided and there is a take it or leave it mentality, much like with a Walmart supplier contract. So the contracts don’t have to be the most evenhanded.

    On the legal side, as I mentioned before, whether the OP stayed at the property or not has no bearing on a defamation suit. So preventing the OP from writing a review is an ineffective way to CYA by VRBO

    As someone who litigates corporate contracts and advises corporations, I can assure you that VRBO is not concerned in the slightest about being sued under these circumstances. Just put yourself in their respective places. The very legitimate concerns you raise on VRBO’s side are the same concerns that a not-so-deep-pocket small property owner would have. He or she would have to hire an attorney. Unlike VRBO, that property owner doesn’t have an insurance company to pick up the tab.

    Moreover, a defamation cause under these circumstances would not motivate an attorney to take it on a contingency. That is because 1)the case will probably be dismissed on any number of grounds and 2)even if its not tossed, it would fail for failure of proof, i.e. the OP would have to show that because of that review, someone elected not to rent, an impossible task.

    That means the property owner would have to pay an attorney’s hourly rate. I would conservatively estimate the property owner would incur no less than 5k in the first 45 days. Companies are more fearful when the case can be taken on a contingency, e.g. employment, injury, etc.

    The property owner would be out 5K in the first month alone.

  • PsyGuy

    The contracts don’t have to be even handed, but they cant be one handed either, there has to be some value benefit to listing with VRBO, and BnB. They cant have a value add of zero. To that end, there are property owners who have premium properties, to which the BnB and VRBO give much better terms for, because those premium properties drive business to the site. “Oh your prefered property in unbookable, what about these options”. Those properties get very nice terms.

    Regarding the legal issues, property owners do have something to defend and that the reputation of their revenue stream, it may be expensive, and have minimal return, and is improbable, but the comparison is only trivial when compared to the the posting of the review. While the potential liability to the property owner is minimal, the liability of refusing the review is zero, its not near zero, or improbably zero, negligibly zero, or a trivial zero, its and absolute zero. There is no concern that VRBO incurs by denying the review.
    So weighing the options on one side of the scale we have a small probability of damages, and on the other side of the scale we have zero probability of damages. I’ll take the zero and decline the review.
    Unless there is some negative value to denying the review I am overlooking.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    The obvious negative value is the negative publicity that VRBO is receiving here and presumably among other travel sites. 129 comments suggests it’s a story that has received traction with this audience. 870 voters (73%) are in favor of mediating this case. None of that is good for VRBO’s reputation.

    The legal risk mitigated by VRBO denying reviews by the OP and others like her is negligible; not small…negligible. It would require scientific notation to represent a number that tiny. It would not come close to justifying the reputation hit.

    Think of it this way. The risk of you getting a speeding ticket by going one mile over the speed limit on the highway is negligible. According, you probably don’t drive exactly the speed limit. If you did, the chance of getting a speeding ticket is zero. But you still speed. In real life, even the most risk averse person takes some risk.

    Since VRBO is in the business of making money, we must conclude that it makes rational business decisions. If this were based on any calculus involving the legal risk of defamation someone needs a new calculator.

  • http://www.go-eat-do.com/ Stuart Forster

    On a wider note, do you think we are in danger of becoming a society in which critical comments simply aren’t desired?

    Personally I think it is important that we can exercise our right of freedom of speech and air our opinions and viewpoints when we thing something is seriously wrong.

    Also, to what degree does the fear of a potential law suit result in a site erring on the side of caution and censoring comments?

  • mizmoose

    Yes. You don’t have to use a real name or even a non-throwaway email address (although experienced Yelp users will tell you that they put more value on reviews from users with real names and pictures), but to flag something you have to be a registered user.

    Otherwise businesses would get legions of anonymous trolls to flag reviews they don’t like. (They still get legions of non-anonymous trolls to flag reviews they don’t like, but that’s another can o’ worms.)

  • Marcin Jeske

    Back in my college days, there was a group of students who rented a house near campus. They were informed by their landlord that they were breaking the lease early as the house was going to be demolished to build condos.

    I don’t know the specifics of how early, or whether there were provisions for that in the lease, or how much warning they had… but it would have been very difficult to find a new place quickly due to the tight market around campus. I also don’t know how good as tenants they were up to this point.

    Needless to say, they were mad as hell… and they threw a giant party straight out of Animal House (no togas, though). Inspired, and probably encouraged, by the circumstances, many attendees engaged in destruction of the property, under the assumption that it didn’t matter given that the house was slated for demolition. Massive holes in walls, broken windows, etc.

    That house stood there for at least a year longer, rented to other people, before finally being demolished for condos… I can’t imagine what the repair costs must have been to restore the house to a rentable condition.

    Obviously, those who actually did the damage are at fault, with responsibility resting on the hosts who set the mood and didn’t rein their guests in. But I think (assuming the broken lease story is true) there is a lesson that it is always better to fully communicate and not to antagonize people in any relationship, whether a rental home, a hotel reservation, a plane ticket, car rental, etc.

    When people feel wronged, they may act disproportionately, and ultimately cause more harm for everyone. Perhaps if the landlord had worked with the students to ease the burden of finding new housing, or found a way to let them finish out the lease, everyone may have been happier (well, except those with lifelong ambitions of Animal House parties where they kick holes the walls).

    That came to mind, not necessarily because I think emanon could have done anything better, but because it is a similar example about how a civil dispute about a lease can escalate into much higher costs for everyone, including property damage and so on.

    From a cold logical accounting in hindsight, whatever the six months rent was, was it more than the combined cost of the property damage, the litigation, the stress, the penalties? If it had been possible to run a little simulation, count up what each side would have lost, then settle for that percentage of the rent due… everyone would have been so much happier.

  • emanon256

    Wow, that is scary. In my case, they simple sent me a letter stating they found a cheaper house, and after figuring out what my house would have been for all 24 months at the price of the cheaper house, I owe them and they won’t pay any more. I called them and asked what was going on and they said they refuse to pay and intend to stay until their lease is up. I offered them a reduced rate and asked that they just try to keep the house tidy so I can list it, they wouldn’t budge. They said they won’t pay and I can take them to court if I want. I did list the house first, and try to be nice to them and they started demanding I owe them money. Then when people viewed the house they reported the damage and that’s when I filed for eviction. It was only a few hundred total for the eviction hearing and travel. At the end, they owed $7,500 in back rent and just over $2,000 in damage. Total travel for all of the trips was around $1,400. I think no matter what I did, they would have damaged the house as they did it before I did anything. Yes it was a lot of trouble, and it still is, but I am glad I took them to court.

  • Marcin Jeske

    Perhaps reviews only get evaluated by the “actually stayed” criteria if the owner objects to them. That is, someone who books can post a review (as long it passes some basic criteria like no swearing), but the owner can object based on several additional criteria.

    The owner would never object to a positive review, and VRBO doesn’t remove a review unless the owner objects.

  • Marcin Jeske

    That ratio of reviews is common across the board… satisfied customers whose expectations were met often don’t bother posting a review (I know I usually do not). Unhappy customers are more likely to post a review.

    This can vary based on the type of business, repeat customers, or what is more common recently: owners begging for reviews.

    All in all… I take negative reviews with a chunk of salt, try to read between the lines, and remember that some people will never be pleased.