Updated: Dec 15, 2021
Staying in a vacation rental can be riskier than staying in a hotel, which is part of the heavily regulated hospitality industry. The fantasy of escaping the impersonal, sanitized trappings of ordinary hotels is appealing, but leaving behind those tightly controlled, often cookie-cutter accommodations sometimes comes with its own risks — horrible hosts, dysfunctional bathrooms, and lots and lots of bugs. And there’s no front desk to call. But a little prep and research ahead of time is going to pay dividends.
Vet and verify the host.
There have been well-publicized incidents of vacation rentals being owned or hosted by convicted criminals and sex offenders. Some (AirBnB), but not all, of the well-known booking sites conduct background checks of owners for felony convictions or sex-offender registrations. More cities are passing laws requiring owners of vacation rentals to have a criminal background check first. Individuals with verified profiles have shared their Facebook account or provided government-issued identification. Host reviews can reveal a lot about the person you’ll be staying with or renting from. Most states have a searchable sex-offender database. If you’re traveling with children or if you’re alone, you should check the database for the state in which your rental is located.
Avoid the phishing scam.
This is how it works: you think you’re booking a beach house for the week. You’ve been e-mailing with the owner for months and have even wired her your payment. But when you get there, you discover that the real owner had absolutely no idea you were coming. What happened? Either the owner’s e-mail was effectively hijacked by someone who directed all communication—and payments—to himself. Or the scammer had re-created an otherwise legitimate listing on a competing site, drawing prospective travelers to himself.
The best way to avoid getting duped is to do some research on your chosen property and its owner before paying your deposit. Conduct an online search for the owner’s name, the property address, images of the property, and, if possible, who owns the rental website and who pays the property taxes. If you notice any discrepancies, or if you find the same advertising text or photos posted by two different owners, think twice about renting the property, especially if you have been asked to pay the rent in full by wire transfer or a similar method.
You should also be wary if the owner asks you to conduct business away from the vacation rental website’s communication system. Scammers try to lure prospective renters away from the official communication platform to fake websites so the renter will not realize that a scam is taking place. Check the URL of any website you are asked to switch to and be especially wary of owners who want to conduct business away from the vacation rental website’s official payment system. Direct all your correspondence through the booking site’s own secure e-mail system and never, ever wire money for a rental.
Instead, use the site’s own payment channel when available, or pay with a credit card that offers fraud protection.
The bait and switch.
So what happens when your dream rental doesn’t live up to expectations? What if it’s downright uninhabitable? Most of the major rental sites offer some sort of guarantee against rental fraud or serious misrepresentation of a property—for example, it doesn’t have as many rooms or bathrooms as advertised, it’s in a different location, or it’s unclean or unsafe. Most sites offer rental protection automatically when you use their payment system; at some you can pay for additional coverage. If a site doesn’t offer any such protection, be cautious. Most travel insurance policies won’t cover you either.
The terms, conditions, and payouts for these policies vary from site to site (so read the fine print carefully). But the basic procedure is similar: take photos and contact the owner and the booking site immediately. Simple problems like a broken appliance can often be addressed quickly, especially if you’re renting from a management company with on-site staff. If the situation is more serious, the rental site or agency should help you find alternate accommodation or get you a refund.
If you’re in the midst of a vacation rental nightmare or recovering from one, our attorneys can help. We can write a letter or make a phone call on your behalf to unhelpful rental owners or management companies to get you the attention that you deserve. If you are a LegalShield® member, you have an attorney in every state available to help you. You don’t have to take “no” for an answer and you don’t have to settle for “not good enough” when you and your family are experiencing a vacation rental nightmare.