David and Helen Kunz were looking forward to their summer vacation in Ocean City, N.J. They had booked a vacation rental home and sent the owners the payments they had asked for to reserve their lodgings. But just before their vacation started, the Kunzes were told that the property was no longer available – and they couldn’t get back the money they had prepaid for it.
If that story sounds familiar, it’s because the Kunzes made their booking through HomeAway.com, a vacation rental site that’s makes regular appearances on this site. The Kunzes’ story is a reminder to exercise the utmost caution when using online services to book travel arrangements and to read the smallest print very carefully, because your money may be taking a trip without you.
The Kunzes booked a property listed on HomeAway. The owners instructed the Kunzes to mail them payments for half the rent for their four nights’ stay plus a refundable security deposit, totaling $770. The Kunzes sent the payment three months prior to the scheduled date of their stay. HomeAway claims that its Trust & Security Department insured $500 of this deposit.
But two weeks before the Kunzes were scheduled to depart on their vacation, the owner called them. He had bad news: because of construction nearby, his rental home would no longer be available for the Kunzes’ stay. He promised to immediately send them a full refund for their $770 payment.
Since the Kunzes, who live in Arizona, had already purchased their plane tickets to New Jersey and didn’t want to lose their vacation, they had to scramble at the last minute to find another rental property – at the height of the rental season. They found one through a local broker, Fox & Roach Realtors, and incurred additional costs of $125 for the processing fee and rental damage coverage for that property.
Despite the owner’s promise to immediately refund the Kunzes their full $770 payment, they only refunded $377. The owner posted on HomeAway’s website that HomeAway was holding the $393 balance of the refund due the Kunzes and had locked the owner out of his account.
The Kunzes filed a claim with the HomeAway Trust & Security Department, providing copies of their documentation, but HomeAway denied the claim. They also inquired with the Ocean City Office of Licensing whether the owners had a mercantile license or rental registration on file for their property as required by local law – and found that they did not.
“We’re dealing with an unstable, ignorant man who truly believes he’s right,” says Kunz.
Although the Kunzes might have escalated their complaint using our company contacts for HomeAway, they contacted our advocacy team, asking: “How can HomeAway advertise and facilitate rental of a vacation property that is not even registered as a rental and deny our claim for a full refund of our deposit?” They asked for help securing a refund of the $393 owed them by the owner and reimbursement for the $125 they paid to Fox & Roach Realtors to rent its property.
HomeAway’s terms and conditions disclaim legal responsibility for everything posted on its site, but provide that:
Users agree that they are responsible for, and agree to abide by, all laws, rules and regulations applicable to their use of the Site, their use of any tool, service or product offered on the Site and any transaction they enter into on the Site or in connection with their use of the Site.
Members further agree that they are responsible for and agree to abide by all laws, rules, ordinances, or regulations applicable to the listing of their rental property and the conduct of their rental business, including but not limited to any and all laws, rules, ordinances, regulations or other requirements relating to taxes, credit cards, data and privacy, permits or license requirements, zoning ordinances, safety compliance and compliance with all anti-discrimination and fair housing laws, as applicable.
In spite of its disclaimer of legal responsibility, HomeAway should have helped the Kunzes secure the refund for their deposit as a matter of good customer service.
HomeAway offers a Book with Confidence Guarantee, which provides that if a customer reserves a property on HomeAway or one of its affiliated sites, books it using HomeAway’s website checkout system, and pays for it using an approved method of payment, the customer will receive protection from HomeAway in the event of a loss of funds because of the unavailability of the property.
But when our advocates reached out to HomeAway, they were told that because the Kunzes had mailed the owner their deposit,
Unfortunately, the travelers paid outside of HomeAway’s checkout and therefore are not eligible for our Book with Confidence Guarantee. We have a team dedicated to monitoring listings, and we take action on suspicious listings and those with poor rental practices. Due to privacy laws, we are not permitted to disclose any action taken regarding this situation.
In light of this disappointing response from HomeAway, we have to file the Kunzes’ story as a Case Dismissed.