My Hawaii vacation rental is infested with ants – can I get a partial refund?

Maybe David and Mary Sue Conner didn’t tell their rental homeowner they were in Oahu for a family vacation of a lifetime. But when you drop $25,000 for a one-month stay in Hawaii, and the whole ohana is there, that probably goes without saying: this is a special event, and everything needs to be perfect.

It wasn’t. The problems ranged from minor, such as a faulty air conditioning unit and a broken dryer on the owner-managed rental, to something many guests would consider a real deal-breaker: insects. Lot’s of ’em.

“We noticed as we were unpacking that there were ant traps throughout the house,” remembers Mary Sue Conner. “We didn’t give it much notice since we were in the tropics and bugs come with the territory. But on the second morning my husband noticed that the window sills in the great room had piles of ant hills across the entire length. It’s almost 30 feet long. We found ants everywhere.”

That made living conditions difficult.

We had to throw food out that wasn’t covered correctly. One little grandchild went to his bedroom because the living room was too warm and took a snack with him. Bad move. He fell asleep and awoke with ants in his clothes and all over the bed.

Most of us would have checked out at that point, but when you’ve pre-paid for your vacation home, you don’t have a lot of choices. You work with what you have.

The Conners asked for help in a series of increasingly desperate emails. They forwarded about a dozen of them to me, so I could examine the paper trail.

Here’s one:

We really are getting overrun with ants. We have sprayed and put down the traps, but I think the house needs to be sprayed on the outside.

The ants are building a nest in the house. Please take care of this soon. We woke this morning and ants were in our lap tops. Please help.

Repeated calls and emails to the owner’s representative finally resulted in someone repairing the faulty AC and dryer, and the exterminator arrived eight days before their stay ended. He delivered some more bad news. The problem would take more visits to fix, and was definitely pre-existing. The owner knew about the bugs, Conner says.

It was too little, too late. By the time the dryer was fixed, one family member had already left. “They never had air conditioning, ants had infested their bathroom and they left with dirty clothes,” remembers Conner.

I know this part of Oahu fairly well, having stayed there last fall. It can get buggy, so you have to use the screen doors to keep the insects out. It’s hot, but some rental homes in Hawaii don’t even have air conditioning. You have to use the ceiling fans which, for this adopted Floridian, is almost inconceivable.

The family asked the owner’s representative to adjust their bill, based on their disappointing experience.

“She said that the owners were in Europe for the summer and would be in touch when they returned,” she says. “I thought this was the most ridiculous answer in this day and age.”

The answers didn’t get any better, despite repeated requests by email and phone. The Conners want a $2,000 refund, and they’d like me to help them get it.

I’ve reviewed the emails between Conner and the manager, and the guests are polite but firm. According to Conner, the last few requests have gone unanswered. Given her experience, and the allegedly dilapidated condition of her North Shore rental, she thinks a cash refund is “not unreasonable.”

After looking at the property listing and its reviews on, I have mixed feeling about this one. The unit looks new and in excellent shape, but it’s not entirely clear how recently these photos were taken. What’s my next step?

Should I mediate David and Mary Sue Conner's case?

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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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  • polexia_rogue

    I say yes since they are asking for less then 1/10 of the price

  • Cybrsk8r

    While I guess there are worse insects, waking up with ants crawling all over me would be pretty gross. I voted “yes”.

    Oh, and I never, ever rent thru VRBO, or any site like it. I always rent thru a real estate agent. In places like HI or FL, there is no shortage of real estate companies which also handle vacation rentals. You’re about 100% less likely to get scammed, and there is a real, local office you can call in the event of a problem with the unit.

  • Carver Clark Farrow


    The amount requested is very reasonable and it appears that the owners knew about the problem. I am also less inclined to trust the owners as it appears that they weren’t particularly interested in addressing the issue. Sounds like a take the money and run operation.

    The only downside is will these owners be responsive?

    Edited. Lots of 5 star reviews. I wonder if they are legit? Also, the owner declined to give the address so no Google maps to see the place firsthand.

  • Cybrsk8r

    But I notice most of those reviews are over a year old. A lot can happen to a property in a year.

  • Cybrsk8r

    I found it. Do a search for Kokololio Beach Park. Then look slighty south and you’ll see a winding driveway which splits to two houses. The one on the left appears to be the one in the listing. Too much vegetation to see much from the road, though.

  • technomage1

    First, I live in a tropical climate. Ants absolutely come with the territory. I fight them nearly daily. I should buy stock in raid ant killer because I go through a can a month, easy & my place is only 1100 sf. Unless you keep on top of them you are quickly overrun. Having said that, it is the owners responsibility to ensure they have a plan in place to deal with the problem, especially at $25k a month. It’s the same with the other issues, really. At least the owners should have been contactable, given the POC was unhelpful. It seems like the sum requested is pretty reasonable, given the circumstances, though I must admit if it was me, I’d’ve picked up some insecticide and sprayed around the doors and windows myself to try and alleviate the problem. After all, they were there for a month and as the article points out they had already paid.

  • EdB

    In regards to your comment, “I’d’ve picked up some insecticide and sprayed around the doors and windows myself to try and alleviate the problem.”

    The story states, “We really are getting overrun with ants. We have sprayed and put down the traps, but I think the house needs to be sprayed on the outside.”

    It sounds like they did try to alleviate the problem. However, the owner had not kept on top of the problem and the infestation was so bad, the simple solutions available to them were not enough. Even the professional said it was going to take several visits to address the problem.

  • Kathleen Proud Keyte

    Oh dear, I would have thought a greater refund was sensible and appropriate in this case.

  • John Baker

    I’m with most others on this one. It sounds like there definitely was an issue, they attempted to address while in house, the issue wasn’t resolved and they are asking for a reasonable amount refunded.

    A classic “they got wronged” case for an advocate. Go get ’em Chris (although I don’t see the owner responding).

  • Meredith Putvin

    I cannot say more than what was already said. It is the owner’s responsibility and since they were tenants (abet short term) they could reasonably contact the Board of Health.

  • Andre_K_FL

    If I were in that situation I’d definitely be asking for more than two grand back!

  • Jeanne_in_NE

    Wait a minute – I looked at that link and the review that Mary A. posted (pretty sure it’s the same Mary Sue Conner/OP). They gave it FOUR stars!? Wow, these people must be the most patient, forgiving people you’ve ever dealt with, Chris. I say mediate!

  • Asiansm Dan

    Ants in tropical countries are normal and few things we can do to erase the problems.
    I say yes, because the owner should warn the renter as I believe the problem is known. And the claim is reasonable for the inconvenience. Of course, ants problem don’t exist in 5* Hotel in Hawaii. And if there are, the problem is addressed and corrected.

  • Extramail

    I’m so sad to hear that VRBO does not stand behind their properties and their guarantees. We used them exclusively for at least a dozen rentals over the course of several years when it was first getting off the ground. We only had one questionable experience – mold in a beach rental – but we saved a boatload of money versus using a rental agent. All I see now are complaints about VRBO, not only here but other travel sites as well. I am floored by how many properties are now listed there so its really a matter of being too unwieldy an entity. I will, however, use that money I saved years ago and spend it on a rental agent so I’m guaranteed a good experience.

    I’m frankly amazed that the renter is only asking for a $2000 refund. VRBO ought to pay that just to avoid even more negative press.

  • twnspls4ster
  • Christopher Elliott

    Are the ants included? ;-)

  • John Baker

    In that case, I really see no advantage to the owners to work with you. That really stinks for the OP.

  • Guest

    Maybe they could file a lien on the property and indicate why so any potential buyer would be made aware of the issue.

  • emanon256

    I voted yes, I don’t think they are being unreasonable in their request, in fact I feel very badly for them and think they should get more. I didn’t see the e-mails or pictures, but I think the OP was more than gracious in dealing with the problem that should have been addressed much faster and better. I read the OPs review of the property and they seem very reasonable.

  • emanon256

    I was thinking the same thing. They seem way too nice and reasonable.

  • Carchar

    Did they take pictures of the problem? If there is no fine print against it, they should post them with explanations wherever they can.

  • Carver Clark Farrow


  • technomage1

    Sure looks like it, and it’s been on the market since Nov 2012.

  • Carver Clark Farrow


    Filing a lien is a very very dangerous thing to do. If the lien is ultimately stricken, the OPS and/or attorneys would be personally liable for attorneys fees and more importantly and damages resulting from the property being unsellable.

    For example, suppose the owner has an offer for 10M on the property, and the buyer backs out ostensibly because of the lien. The house ultimately sells for 9M. The OP is potentially liable for the 1M difference. You file a lien when you are on rock solid grounds.

    Does the OP have any more Hawaiian vacation plans? Small claims court would be my suggestions.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    I grew up in the Caribbean. We don’t have problems like what the OP described. That sounds like negligence. If you’re charging $1,500 per night, you should have be able to afford to hire the right people to remediate that sort of problem.

  • technomage1

    Anyone else notice the renter left a 4 star review on VRBO? It states it took hours to dry things. As I was reading, I immediately thought “lint clogging the vent” and that’s what her review says it was. So the dryer wasn’t really broken. Yes, the repair should’ve come earlier, but typically anyone can remove lint from a clogged vent. I’d’ve given given them like 2 days max then dealt with it myself. Not something you should have to deal with but better than not having the use of a dryer.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    The 4* plus asking for less that 10% refund made me think that the renter was trying to be very fair to the owner. The place was nice except for those issues.

    Depending on where the outside vent was, it may not be that easy. At my last place, the previous owner remodeled the kitchen and added a laundry room. He ran ductwork to vent the dryer outside. This was not apparent. It wasn’t until the dryer refused to dry my clothes and water started leaking from the patio ceiling that I put 2 and 2 together. It was a trivial fix once I realized what happened.

    I can think of any number of reasons in the OPs defense. They probably didn’t know what the problem was. Even if they figured it out, they’d have to know where the vent was, and is it even accessible to the OP?

  • Raven_Altosk

    Two words: CHARGE BACK.
    If the owners and their rep are too busy dealing with their oh-so-busy-lives or traveling around Europe all summer, charge back the $2K for the ant problem. That will get their attention.
    I would like some name for the rep. Is this an agency or a person?

  • Joe_D_Messina

    I definitely think they deserve something back. But as an aside, there’s no way I’d ever pay $25 grand on a place without seeing it firsthand. If I couldn’t make it there personally, I’d find somebody to contract just so an unbiased pair of eyes would have seen it prior to me making the deal. Might not catch every problem, but for that kind of money there needs to be some sort of inspection ahead of time. Also, for that kind of money I would have demanded a local contact to be on call in case something went wrong.

  • ArizonaRoadWarrior

    I voted ‘Yes’ that Chris should mediate David and Mary Sue Conner’s case.

    I know that there a lot of people that likes to rent homes instead of staying at hotels during their vacation. If I was going to rent a home especially if it was more than a week, I will find out my recourses if I ended up with a rental from hell and/or a slum landlord especially when you are spending $ 25,000 a month.
    My first question is what are the rental lawsregulationsrulesetc. for Hawaii andor Oahu? There are cities, counties and states with laws concerning rentals. For example, a landlord in AZ has three days to fix a critical problem (i.e. no AC) and ten days to fix a non-critical problem (i.e. a broken dryer)…if the problem is under $ 300, the tenant can fix it and deduct it from the rent…etc.

    In this case, I would have asked for a holdback in the rental agreement since it was a pre-pay or do a weekly payment. It will be my preference to deal with a company that deals with short-term rentals instead of dealing directly with the owner (i.e. on vacation).

  • Trudi

    I’d like to have seen some photographic evidence; did they provide some? Pictures go a long way to establish support. While I really sympathize with the rentors I know that what some people consider being swarmed may not be a matter of definition. Still, it sounds horrible; living in Florida I know how irritating ants can be. Regular exterminator visits can certainly help control the invasions, though, and I suspect the manager knows that. So, I don’t think less than 10% refund is going to break the owner’s bank. I doubt they’d pay up without some sort of intervention, and we all know by now that VRBO and HomeAway couldn’t care less about their rentors.

  • twnspls4ster

    Let’s hope not!!!!!

  • technomage1

    I agree the renter was trying to be fair, and, as I noted, the issue should’ve been resolved much earlier than it was. But if it comes down to days/weeks of problems or a simple 1/2 hour do it yourself fix, I know what I’d pick. On a single family dwelling, they’re typically a straight pipe through the wall with a hood and a screen or flapper valve. Easy fix most of the time. That doesn’t absolve the owners, in fact I thought the 4 star rating was generous given the ant problem.

  • SoBeSparky

    VRBO + prepaid big bucks = recipe for a big scam.

    I have read here and my friends visited me in Miami Beach, peak season. Their toilet backed up every day, backed up onto the floor. Plumber said, tree roots in homeowner’s sewer line, pre-existing condition.

    So much for VRBO and paying in advance. Seems like Spirit Airlines might give a better customer service outcome for many.

  • TMMao

    In Hawaii, ants are found in the penthouse of 30-story highrise towers let alone beach houses, despite regular spraying. Our exterminator has to re-apply their 3-month treatment every 30 days just to keep on top of things. But we still get regular complaints of ants whenever a pizza box is left in the trash inside the unit. The only solution is to be fastidiously clean and keep all food in sealed containers or in the refrigerator, and all garbage outside. On a personal note, we once stayed in a vacation rental in Hana that was infested with earwigs — just part of the charm of living in the islands.

  • RetiredNavyphotog

    Photos, photos – did the renters take photos of the ants?
    I voted “yes” to mediate.

  • RetiredNavyphotog

    How do they do a charge back?

  • Jeanne_in_NE

    That’s the first thing I thought of – lint clogging the vent. But – my dryer is in the laundry room at the front of my house. My vent is at the back of my house. There are 2 90 degree angles (minimum) to vent that dryer, I have to use something like a 30′ long chimney sweep’s brush to clear the vent – and my house isn’t as big as the one that the OP rented. To access the vent from the outside, I have to get out my step ladder to reach up that high, since I have a walkout basement.

    My mom’s house has the dryer venting to the outside – a whole 6″ worth of vent. No problem cleaning that one, just keeping the outside impermeable to things that want to come in to the house and chew through the metal duct.

    Guessing that a fancy house like this is somewhere in between the two, but yeah, I would have tried a wire clothes hanger first.

  • OzJohnno

    I think of all the “complaints” from readers I’ve read this one is on the top of the list. Chris, If you decide not to mediate in this case then I think you need to change vocations. This is not a case of Caveat Emptor but a case of owners running away from their responsibilities.

  • adrienne

    We’re always so willing and eager to organize and arrange your time for you. LOL!

  • Zod

    I rented a home on the North Shore of Oahu and one of the things it mentioned in the rental agreement is that I, the renter, must take care to minimize the ant problem by not leaving any food out and exposed. The house came with plastic storage, and I went to the local grocery to purchase zip-lock bags. We saw ants, and lots of ant mounds and ant traps…even bug spray in the cabinets…but you know what? We were diligent and during our stay, we never had an ant problem…Come on people…it is not that difficult! Have some personal responsibility!

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    I would agree with you if it were a simple fix. But in this case that’s an conclusion that we do not have facts to support. It does not appear that the OP knew what the problem was until after the repairman fixed it.

    On a single family dwelling, they’re typically a straight pipe through the wall with a hood and a screen or flapper valve. Easy fix most of the time.

    That’s only true if the dryer is against an exterior wall on the ground floor. If the dryer is placed against an interior wall that’s not necessarily true. Also, if the dryer is on the second floor, the vent may not be easily accessible.

    At my last place, the dryer was placed against an interior wall. The vent for the dryer was in the patio ceiling bearing no relationship to the placement of the dryer.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    I think he means dispute the charge with the credit card company.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    Landlord tenant laws generally don’t apply to such transitory housing. They fall under innkeeper laws. The wildcard is that the rental is for 30 days.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    What about the owner’s personal responsibility in this to take care of the place? I find it particularly telling that the exterminator states that it will take multiple visits to remediate the ant problem. The owner should have had that taken care of before they rented the place. Sounds like the only people not taking responsibility is the owner, not the OP.

  • teddybeargraham

    odd that they would leave a 4 star review for a property that they clearly disliked?

    also I think if i spent 25k, i would wait a day or two and then call pest control myself and send the owners the bill.

    also this is odd, there are tons and tons and tons of reviews and they are all good, is someone playing you Chris?

  • MarkKelling

    It was probably a wire transfer.

  • Zod

    Perhaps..But if this owner is not getting clear information on just how bad the infestation really is…they don’t have much to go on. It’s not as if the owner lives there. If previous renters said that they “saw” ants, or there was an “ant problem” without relaying just how bad it *REALLY* was, the owner has no reason to suspect that it is nothing but an occasional issue. The house I rented clearly had ants in the yard. There were fresh mounds every morning (the ocean usually wiped most of them out when the tide came in) but I am a responsible renter and I kept the ants at bay by making sure that I didn’t leave any food out for them. Ants only come out when there’s a reason…

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    Couple things…

    We don’t know If the previous owner ever stays there. I have tons of clients with vacation rentals and they all stay at the property at some point, usually several times a year.

    The owners have a management company that presumably does periodic inspections between tenants during the cleaning.

    But again, if we are talking about personal responsibility, isn’t it the owner’s responsibility to proactively ensure that they are not negligent or blissfully unaware in renting out a high end property.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    I seriously doubt it. It doesn’t bear the indicia of a scam. I suspect that someone playing Chris would ask for a lot more than an 8% refund. Also, if they were being dishonest, they would give a lower rating to bolster their claim.

  • technomage1

    Metal mesh with large holes – say 1/4″ can easily be screwed onto the hood, be it plastic or metal. This help keep the larger creepy crawlies out who can chew through metal.

  • technomage1

    I still think it would’ve been worth a shot. As you point out, we don’t know what the system looked like. It could have very well been easy. Frankly, with the time investment they spent drying towels, it would’ve been worth the $100-$150 to pay someone to come out if it was a complicated vent system. Plus that would’ve been a lot easier to recover from the owners than the $2k. Sometimes you just have to accept the situation and do the best you can to fix it, then move on.

  • technomage1

    I agree. Sometimes it’s easier to take the bull by the horns as it were.

  • Christopher Elliott

    I’ve contacted VRBO on the customer’s behalf. I’ll have an update soon.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    Lol. The 2k was mostly for the Ants, not the dryer.

    But again, you’re benefitting from hindsight. They didn’t know what was wrong with the dryer. For all they knew, a new dryer was needed. And from a repair perspective its the HVAC as well. They’re probably looking at hundreds if not thousands.

    Besides, who spends money to diagnose and fix some else’s appliances, especially one they can’t take home with them. More likely they’re victims of creep. Constantly being assured that the repairman will be there “tomorrow”

    What I would have done regarding the dryer would have been to buy cheap towels and make a semi-weekly trek to the closest laundry mat.

  • Daddydo

    No! Refer to your next article. The Connors went through phase 1, should I shame, phase 2 Copntoct CEO (owner). For a $25,000 ruined vacation, I would want a total re-imbursement from penney 1 of the trip plus pain and suffering from lost food, bites, etc. So phase 3 – SUE.

  • Christopher Elliott

    Just an update. I contacted VRBO and a representative this morning told me, “The traveler has already connected with our customer service team and left a review; thus, gone through the necessary and appropriate steps.”

    In other words, we’re just a listing service for by-owner rentals and we aren’t responsible for insect infestations.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    Good luck with that. The exterminator stated that it would take several trips to remediate. $$$. And if you don’t follow the rules of the jurisdiction with care and precision, your bill is worthless. Actually it’s worthless anyway unless you plan on flying back to Hawaii to pursue small claims.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    I was curious to see if the guarantee would have protected the OP. The short answer is no. I skimmed it. It’s full of limitations and hoops to jump through. The biggest hoop is that you must leave the property within 2 hours of taking possession or the guarantee is void. It also specific disclaims AC malfunctions.

    I also note that VRBO calls the homeowners advertisers in the guarantee section. That’s very telling in that it reveals that VRBO considers its relationship with the owners to be comparable to someone advertising in the classifieds or Craigslist.