What are these “inaccurate and excessive” fees on my vacation rental bill?

By | March 14th, 2016

When Lisa Unger checked out of a vacation rental in Sedona, Ariz., she was shocked to discover several hundred dollars in unexpected fees.

These extras, she argues, are “inaccurate and excessive” and should be removed

A lot of our cases start like that: with a mysterious bill, featuring an “occupancy fee” and a “BBQ fee” like Unger received. It ends with an email from the property management company explaining she agreed to pay said fee in her contract, even though it’s a junk fee to which no reasonable guest would agree.

“I would like the charges removed,” she says.

I’ll get to the details of Unger’s case in a moment. But first, let’s put her story in context. Times are changing in the vacation rental business. Industry consolidation has created just two dominant reservation sites for vacation rentals (three, if you count Airbnb) and in order to boost profits, they’ve now taken a page out of the airline playbook.

Instead of competing on price and service, they’re competing on fees.

This makes perfect sense if you’re a business, by the way. If you can’t get more than $120 a night for your home, the only way to get more is to tack on a few additional fees.

It works best if you attach these amorphous junk fees to the unit’s rental agreement and don’t offer a grand total until after the customer checks out. That way, the customer will just say, “Oh, I shoulda read the fine print. My bad!”

Unless you’re Unger.

As she explains it, her rental was far from perfect.

Related story:   Fees, fees, fees and more fees -- where will it end?

“I quickly discovered several minor issues, about which I did not complain, but some of which I documented with photographs,” she says. “On my departure, I followed the available information in the property manual — which referenced an additional checklist which was not present, also photographed. A few days after my departure, I received an email detailing three charges against my deposit.”

They were:

Exit Clean: 160

BBQ Usage : 50

Occupancy : 238

Unger searched her rental terms and conditions to determine what the charges meant, and concluded that some of the extras were flat-out wrong.

A BBQ fee? They hadn’t even used the barbecue. And the occupancy fee was only supposed to kick in when they had extra guests, according to her reading of the contract.

By her math, the unit had 7 people for 3 of the nights, 3 people for 4 of the nights, and 2 people for the entirety of their stay. But the vacation rental company counted them separately, rather than on a per-night basis. So, by their count, they hosted 9 guests. Hence the fee.

“My partner sent an immediate email and one of the charges was removed — the smallest,” she says. But efforts to recover the remaining $238 in charges have been in vain.

“I twice requested the name and phone number of someone with whom I could discuss and receive explanation of the charges, and initially received no response,” she says. “I then sent an email to their compliance department and received a response with a refusal to take a phone call.”

So, could our advocacy team help?

I’ve asked her for details, including emails to the vacation rental company. I’d like to try to assist.

Related story:   Hotel or vacation rental? New site says: How about both?

But I have to be realistic. These small companies with only a few rental units sometimes don’t care about their reputations. They don’t have a brand to protect. Once they have your deposit, they know they can keep some or all of it and, since you, the customer, live far away, a small-claims action is unlikely.

And that has me really worried. When an airline adds a junk fee, at least it’s accountable to the flying public or the Transportation Department. But when a vacation rental company quietly imposes a nonsense fee, hiding the disclosure in a rental agreement, who will say anything?

I mean, besides me.

Should we advocate for Lisa Unger?

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Update (March 31): This case is resolved. Unger reports:

I just wanted to thank you for contacting National Equity Consultants (the landlord on my recent Arizona vacation rental) on my behalf.

I don’t know what you said to them, but after getting the “silent treatment” on the reasons for nearly half my deposit being withheld, yesterday in the mail I received the remainder of my deposit.

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