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

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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.

“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.

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.

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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  • GEMDlady

    Hope she paid by credit card. If not, good luck and publicize the name!

  • Joe_D_Messina

    ““I quickly discovered several minor issues, about which I did not complain, but some of which I documented with photographs,” she says.”
    _____________
    Sounds like a legitimate case, so definitely advocate. But a word of advice to others when presenting a case like this: Get to the meat of the dispute and concentrate on that. Don’t do this above because it just takes attention away from your legitimate complaint. The real gripe is about the fees so this bit above is totally irrelevant to anything. Stay on point and don’t distract from the important stuff.

  • AJPeabody

    Was this rental listed on a site or through an agency? Couldn’t they help also?

  • Harvey-6-3.5

    Even for a small rental unit, I think publicizing the name would help other travelers who search find negative information that they can then use to decide if they want to risk booking that location. I usually do a quick check of any place I am planning to stay (including major hotels) to analyze the negative/positive information.

  • Mel65

    Ugh just like resort fees, ANY FEE that is NOT OPTIONAL should be included. Period. “Optional” fees that are tacked on based on your usage or consumption of something should be clearly delineated. “If you use the BBQ there will be a $50 cleaning fee.” There should NEVER be a surprise like this at the end. I’d like to know who the OP went through for this rental so I can poke ’em with my 30 foot pole of “Never.”

  • Alan Gore

    Yes, fees like this should always be disclosed in advance. If it was a resort, of which there are many, Unger could complain to Corporate. If it was a residence, was the rental for less than 30 days? If so, he could threaten to call the city at (928) 204-7200 and report an ordinance violation.

  • AAGK

    I don’t know. It is hard to imagine a 2 person rents that will accommodate 7 people for half the trip. That seems excessive. I don’t see an extra $238 as out of line for 9 extra people, regardless of whether they stayed the same night.

  • F.Sankoh

    Honestly, you should name this company so we can avoid it like the plague.

  • Ruth Carson

    Important information is missing: what was the maximum occupancy of the unit? Did they disclose to the rental company that there would be 9 people there? If the maximum occupancy of the unit was exceeded, as I suspect it was, they were lucky not to be have been asked to leave immediately. The $238 charge is not out of line if this is what happened. I suspect that the rental company was very upset with this tenant for having so many people in the unit, and that’s why there were extra charges and they won’t speak to them about it any further. There is often 2 sides to every story!

  • AMA

    Totally agree. Occupancy of a 2-br is usually four people. If she had nine (nine!) additional guests, she should make them pay the $238 extra, which seems like a totally reasonable amount to me.

  • Name and shame please.

  • cscasi

    Two big issues I see. First. what size unit did she rent? Second, what does her rental contract state as far as the maximum number of occupants that are allowed to stay in the unit? Was it stated in the rental agreement/contract that if the unit was left in a mess there would be a cleaning fee charged? Any mention of a charge if the renter had extra people staying in their rental? We do not have access to the terms of the rental agreement/contract, so how can we really advocate this properly?
    If it turns out that there is no verbiage in the contract that limits the number of persons that can occupy the unit and nothing that speaks to a cleaning fee, then I would say they have a case that should be advocated.
    Can Chris find out what the rental agreement/contract actually states?