A shabby vacation rental and a missing refund

When Carol Swartz tries to check in to a condo in New Hampshire, she finds the unit in a state of disrepair. Now the site through which she booked the rental is refusing a refund, despite a written guarantee. Can it do that?

Question: We just had a frustrating experience with HomeAway and I need your help. I recently rented a condo in Laconia, New Hampshire, that we found through the site. It was advertised as a “luxury” condo, and we paid a total of $1,886, which included $49 for HomeAway’s “Carefree Guarantee Rental” program.

When we arrived at the condo, we found the exterior was in a sad state of disrepair. We did not even feel safe climbing the stairs to find our unit. The unit was clean but shabby and clearly not luxurious.

We felt so uncomfortable we did not take occupancy. We called HomeAway immediately to advise them the unit was misrepresented. The service rep advised us to find other lodging. The following morning we emailed photos to substantiate our claim that the advertiser misrepresented his condo and we requested a refund based on the guarantee program.

So far, we have made three attempts to collect a refund from HomeAway; all have been denied. The reason? HomeAway says the photos we took are “insufficient” proof of the property’s misrepresentation. I’ve also contacted the owner, to no avail. Can you help me? — Carol Swartz, Austin, Texas

Answer: If you rented a luxury condo, you should have received one. But how do you define “luxury” — is it having a certain set of amenities, like a hot tub or a gourmet kitchen? Unfortunately, there’s no commonly agreed-upon definition of “luxury” that I’m aware of.

A better measure would be comparing the property’s listing on HomeAway against the photos you took. Based on the images you sent to HomeAway, I don’t think anyone’s going to mistake that property for a “luxury” condo — let alone spend $1,886 on it. That seems like a misrepresentation to me, and HomeAway should have stepped up and sent you a refund.

HomeAway sees itself as a classified listing service for vacation rentals, but that’s not how consumers like you view it. When you book through the site, you see HomeAway as a trusted intermediary that vets the listings and that you can lean on when something goes wrong. In my experience, HomeAway has done little to dispel that perception.

HomeAway shouldn’t just stand behind your rental — it should stand behind all of its rentals. (You shouldn’t have to pay extra for it to guarantee its products, either, but that’s beside the point.)

I’m impressed that you took so many photos of the shabby condo and that you documented your dispute in writing. Unfortunately, your next step would be to either dispute the credit card payment to the property owner or to take that person to small-claims court.

Neither of those options sound like fun, so I contacted HomeAway on your behalf and asked it to review your claim a fourth time. It did, and after taking another look at your photos, it decided to honor its rental guarantee.

Does HomeAway vet its rentals closely enough?

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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 chris@elliott.org. Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

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  • Kevin Mathews

    Anyone that reads your column enough will know that this isn’t the first one of these types of posts about HomeAway. So your question today almost seems like a waste…

  • John Baker

    To answer Chris’s question … Nor should it. HomeAway is a glorified version of the old newspaper classified ad. Nothing more or less. Last time I checked, 10 years ago no one expected the newspaper to vet every ad that was placed. Ultimately, the money does not pass through HomeAway’s hands so their not even a party to the transaction.

    Now the guarantee is another issue. Once HomeAway includes that guarantee, they need to act quickly when a property doesn’t live up to the ad. According to Chris, this one wasn’t even close. The OP should have had their money returned without needing to contact Chris and the media.

    Looks like HomeAway and their useless guarantee are off my list.

  • EdB

    Where’s the “Hell NO!” option on the poll?

  • Nica

    If it looked anything like the picture above, I would be screaming, “No way!”

  • BillCCC

    The last few weeks have seen a few of these questions that we cannot possibly answer. I do not know how they vet their properties and I really do not know whether or not they do it closely enough. I am unsure if they have the resources to ensure that all properties match what the owners claim.

    After reading about the “Carefree Guarantee Rental” program I do not know if this property would qualify. All I do know is that Home and Away honored its guarantee to avoid bad publicity from a consumer advocate.

  • Bill___A

    I think it is a little late to avoid the bad publicity.
    Clearly, if they have a guarantee, they should not give so much trouble about it.
    Once again, I find the question irrelevant in the quiz.

  • ExplorationTravMag

    I still shake my head that people use online places like this and still come out surprised when they’re shafted like this. Do they not read reviews? Don’t they look into a company/website before they make an expensive (or inexpensive purchase)? Caveat Emptor still exists in today’s world, particularly since our buying power has gone as international as it has.

  • NakinaAce

    I own several properties that are rented out short term to folks that find us on HomeAway and other such sites. Most of us that rent our places go to great pains to make sure the property is accurately described and that the photos are real. Unfortunately that is not everyone involved in renting properties and you just have to be really careful. I can tell you for a fact that neither HomeAway or any of the other agencies ever see the properties. That take the money from the owner and publish what they provide.

    In this case though since they accepted money for their guarantee they should have paid out promptly.

  • Trudi

    I rarely use Home Away, they ripped me off royally a couple years ago. I’ve learned from that experience a couple things: if the photos don’t show the inside of the house, don’t go there; if the photos are more than a year old, don’t go there; if there are negative reviews, read them thoroughly; if all the reviews are positive, but more than 2 years old, don’t go there; if the renter is the owner, and they don’t take a credit card, don’t go there. Home Away and it’s subsidiaries are no better than Ebay, Craig’s List, or Amazon when it comes to listing vacation rentals; they all take their owners on as clients for listing puposes only. They will almost always side with their owners in a dispute. Renters are just income. Their rental guarantee is worth the paper it’s wrriten on, and don’t forget when you print it, that’s your own paper, they didn’t provide it; their guarantee is just a lot of words on a screen. All that said, I’ve had good experiences with vacation rentals from Home Away, too; not all their homeowners are con artists.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    I suspect that you are correct that’s HomeAway basically like a newspaper ad. But it’s not a slam dunk by any means. The initial look and feel of the website implies a closer relationship between HomeAway and the properties than merely an advertiser. The fact that they don’t touch the money is not dispositive, but merely one of the many factors that would be considered by a court in determining whether HomeAway is a party to the contract.

  • Daddydo

    You get whom you book through. Homes, condos, rental cars, resorts. What happened to research? Check with BBB.org to see if a company is legitimate. Your job as an advocate has appeared to assist those that are really screwed over, rather than those that don’t want to do their homework. When you spend $2000.00 -$3000.00 on a vacation, isn’t is worth a couple of hours researching. I assure you that my home looks a lot different when there is company around against being by myself. That’s when I take pictures. So do the pictures on HomeAway.

  • emanon256

    I am going to say No. However, I don’t see where Home Away claims to vet them either. In fact, from reading their site, it sounds like they don’t vet them, but if you purchase the “Care Free Guarantee” package and it turns out its not what the owner said, then and only then will they give you a refund. So they don’t stand by their product, but if you buy protection and it turns out to be bad, then they will intervene.

    I think the real problem here is HomeAway not vetting its refund policy enough, and charging for the policy. It’s not like the OPs pictures changed from the third to fourth review, and it shouldn’t have taken Chris’s intervention to refund them.

    I also agree that luxury is very subjective and there is a big grey area between luxury and shabby. But this sounded like it was not even in the grey area.

    Chris, I wish you would post the advertised pictures, and OPs pictures in cases like this. I dont doubt the OP at all in this case. But I just want to see how bad it is for my own amusement :)

  • emanon256

    I use HomeAway and its parent VRBO quite often and have never had a problem. They are actually very good services, we only see the problems on this site. However, I always read the reviews and speak to the owner. I believe its a very small percentage of bad owners who use these sites to rip people off.

  • Rebecca

    On this site in the past, HomeAway has used the “Carefree Guarantee” as an excuse not to refund rentals, saying its not fair to provide a refund when there are those that have chosen to purchase this guarantee. This customer does purchase the guarantee, documents proof of misrepresentation (I believe her), and then still won’t provide a refund until the fourth review. And I’m willing to bet she wouldn’t have received the refund without Chris’s involvement. Ridiculous.

  • Joe_D_Messina

    I’d have loved to have seen pictures. I’m not doubting the place may have been shabby and below the level of “luxury” but my eyes rolled at the “we did not even feel safe climbing the stairs to find our unit” line.

  • pauletteb

    My thought was that the stairs were rickety and in disrepair; no eye rolls required.

  • Joe_D_Messina

    No, eye rolls definitely required because if I truly fear for my family’s safety and we can’t even see where the unit is, they’re not going up the stairs with me to find it. Highly unlikely this place was that bad given there are photos for basically every listing on HomeAway.

  • Joe Farrell

    Having to shame companies into honoring their advertising puffery is always a challenge . . .

  • Joe Farrell

    I have lots of clients who are in various industries who do not pay for membership in the Better Business Bureau. The BBB is merely a membership organization – how can you tell a company is legit because they pay a membership fee?

    I could set up a dozen great looking condos and homes that don’t exist, join the BBB, create false reports from travelers about how wonderful the condo or house is – don’t schedule anything for 3-4 months out or more and sell weeks in the units without having any units – I pocket 50 grand and move on to the next scam – and all the while I’m a member of the BBB cause I paid a fee. . . . .

    You are a prime target of a scam because you rely on a third party organization who have no responsibility to vet who decides to pay the fee –

  • SarahJ89

    Contact the NH Attorney General’s office. This is a small state, heavily dependent on tourism and these blokes just gave us a black eye. Our AG has a tradition of being very consumer oriented.

    I am sorry you had a bad experience in the Lakes Region. It’s a beautiful area.

  • SarahJ89

    I totally agree. I wouldn’t book anything on any sort of online clearing house, including Priceline, Expedia, etc. I want to deal directly with the vendor.

  • Daddydo

    You do not have to be a BBB member to call and see if a company is legit, has complaints about them, or cleans up their act if a complaint is filed. When I had never heard of the Patrician Hotel in Myrtle Beach, I called BBB to find out that is had plenty of complaints. When I checked on a used car dealer, I found dozens of legitimate complaints with no reasonable responses. It is all about researching and getting the VALUE for your purchase.