Can you trust a vacation rental?

Your next rental? / Photo by Loren Sztajer/ Flickr
The two-bedroom apartment in the trendy Tunali neighbor-hood of Ankara, Turkey, that Richard and Ellen Lacroix rented through Airbnb fell dramatically short of their expectations.

It was, they say, infested with mosquitoes, smelled of cigarette smoke and had the general appearance of a college dorm room. The bathrooms weren’t stocked with toilet paper, the doors didn’t close all the way and the promised WiFi signal was dead on arrival. “The place was a dump,” says Richard Lacroix, a retired engineering consultant from Arlington, Mass.

Lacroix knew that he was taking a chance by booking a rental apartment online through Airbnb, which matches people who need a place to stay with people who have one to rent and which doesn’t operate under the same standards as a hotel. But he thought that making a reservation through a trusted intermediary meant that there’d be a minimum level of service and that he’d have someone to turn to in case the accommodations didn’t live up to their billing. It turns out that this isn’t necessarily the case.

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The $24 billion vacation rental industry is struggling to reassure customers like Lacroix that it can be trusted. This fall, the Vacation Rental Managers Association, the 27-year-old trade association for vacation rentals, set out to change its image. It wants to convince travelers that a professionally managed vacation rental property can be just as good as, and maybe better than, a hotel. Steve Trover, the association’s president, calls the group a “new brand” in the lodging business.

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The dominant home-rental Web site, HomeAway, recently rolled out a new program called HomeAway Secure Communication that offers a safer way to book, similar to the way you book at hotels. Its goal is to protect owners and customers from phishing, a form of online fraud that involves criminals who pose as property owners and fraudulently collect rental payments. “HomeAway would be able to ensure the legitimacy of the owner or property manager and the traveler,” said Tom Hale, the company’s chief product officer.

And Airbnb, expanding its role beyond that of just a broker between homeowner and renter, last summer introduced the Airbnb Host Guarantee, which covers hosts for up to $1 million for loss or damage due to theft or vandalism caused by an Airbnb guest.

These varied moves share a common goal, industry-watchers say: to assure renters and homeowners that they can feel confident about their next vacation rental.

But we’re not there yet, to hear Lacroix and other guests talk about it. When he called Airbnb from Turkey, a representative told him that the problems were merely “cosmetic” and helped him fix the WiFi signal. The company agreed to credit him only $13 – 25 percent off the nightly rate – to compensate for the broken WiFi connection.

Lacroix contacted me for help after sending Airbnb photos of the rental and again being rebuffed. I asked Monroe Labouisse, Airbnb’s director of customer service, to review the complaint. “It was clearly not a good experience,” he agreed.

An investigation revealed that Lacroix’s host hadn’t really offered sufficient details about the rental online and “didn’t provide enough care and attention to preparing it for Richard’s visit,” Labouisse says. Airbnb issued Lacroix a full refund and a $25 coupon for a future purchase through Airbnb.

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Like many other guests, Lacroix wasn’t looking for a cookie-cutter, chain-hotel experience, just a reasonably tidy apartment that didn’t smell bad. Hotels can impose standards on their franchisees and owners, but rental owners and managers can’t be controlled in the same way. (For example, Airbnb’s policies say only that a unit must be “properly cleaned,” but they don’t define “clean.”)

And that’s the thing. Although the vacation rental industry wants your trust – wants you to think of it as if it were a kind of hotel – it doesn’t hold itself to the same standards that most hotels do. To some observers, that makes HomeAway’s and Airbnb’s recent changes, as well intentioned as they may be, look like window dressing. “I don’t think a vacation rental can ever be a hotel,” says Christine Karpinski of Austin, author of the book “How to Rent Vacation Properties by Owner.” She says that “having standards in the transaction process is a good thing. But you can’t standardize the business.”

The fact remains that when you book a vacation rental, you’re usually dealing directly with an owner or property manager, not with a sophisticated reservation system controlled by a corporation, as you would with many hotels.

The vacation rental association is working on setting industry-wide standards for how vacation rentals are searched and booked online through a system that will be called the Vacation Rental Switch. But there are no broadly accepted standards from one vacation rental property to the next. Even basic amenities such as toilet paper or sheets on a bed aren’t a given.

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“It would be nice if I could know if I need to bring my blow-dryer,” Karpinski says. “That’s not gonna happen.”

All the guarantees, promises and new systems won’t change the basic vacation rental product. And with more homeowners trying to cash in on their residences through services such as Airbnb, guests still have to engage in diligent research before they book a rental property.

As more travelers consider short-term rentals, they’re discovering a new and often unpredictable world in which a different set of rules often applies. In that world, a professionally managed property might be more likely to have upscale amenities than one that you book through a bare-bones Web site. Or you could get lucky and find an unmanaged property on Craigslist at half the price and with ideal creature comforts. You never know.

Don’t be swayed by promises and pledges, though. The most important thing is the contract, which you should – as always – read carefully.

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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 check out his adventures on his family adventure travel site. Contact him at

  • Sherry K

    I’ve had good and bad experiences with vacation rentals via VRBO. My most recent experience, however, left a bad taste in my mouth. The unit was not well-cleaned, which I chalk up to the cleaners hired by the owner. There was an exposed electrical outlet (never good with a toddler). The walls were scraped up pretty badly. The carpets were stained and the tile floor felt sticky. The balcony door didn’t lock. A few of these things I could overlook, or be content with the cleaning folks coming back in to do additional cleaning, but the exposed outlet and unlockable balcony door were an issue. I immediately contacted the owner and the manager of the rental. I wanted to just pay for the first night and find a new place to stay the next day, but the owner refused to return my money. The manager did agree to return our cleaning fee and deposit. We ended up staying the week as we couldn’t afford to throw away the money we spent and pay all over again for some place else. The cleaners came the next day, and at least the floor was no longer sticky. I realize that not every unit will be perfect or pristine, but the pictures were a pretty far cry from the reality

    I wrote an objective review on VRBO, but the owner tried to portray me in a poor light in his response. He seemed upset that I waited a while before posting my review, but I wanted to make sure that I got my deposit back before I wrote the review. I didn’t want him to keep it out of retribution.

    I have had one other negative experience when renting from an owner online. The owner got mixed up on the dates of our reservation and our unit had not been cleaned when we arrived late at night. The previous occupants sheets were piled in the center of the bed, their towels were in the tub, their used soap was on the vanity, and their hair was in the drain. It took hours for us to get in touch with the owner. We ended up going to Walmart in the early morning hours to get some basic cleaners so we could clean the shower. We laundered the bedding, and got to bed around 4 am. At about 7 am the cleaning guy came to clean. We were exhausted. The condo ended up being one of our favorite rentals, though. The location was great, and the condo was nice after it got cleaned up. Plus, the owner was apologetic and refunded the first night and cleaning fee.

    Otherwise, we’ve had good experiences when using VRBO to book rentals for ourselves, my parents, and my sister’s family. So, it’s just a roll of the dice. I do try to only stay at places that have several positive reviews, and I don’t trust “Owner Entered Comments”

  • Dutchess

    Sounds like Airbnb did the right thing here. One of the reasons I like Airbnb is they hold the money in “escrow” until you check in. Once you’ve confirmed that the place is to your liking then they will release the funds to the property owner. If there’s a problem, this makes the owner do something it fix it before they get paid.
    It does sound like these were mostly cosmetic issues that could be fixed.

    Glad airbnb did the right thing.

  • NakinaAce

    I own several apartments in Prague, cabins in the mountains of North Carolina and a villa on Ambergris Caye, in Belize.

    Here are my tips for renters using any of these sites (I am very familiar with VRBO/HomeAway/FlipKey/TripAdvisor) that act as middlemen. First you should pay attention to how much effort has been put into the listing itself. You can usually tell if someone is trying very hard to give you an honest, if favorable, view of their property. Second, always, make sure that there there will be someone on hand to take care of any problems that come up as this will invariably happen no matter how hard you try and prevent it. Third only pay the deposit in advance and never the full amount. That way once you are there and you can see the place with your own eyes and inspect it you can decide whether or not to pay the balance. This is probably the best protection you will have.

    Finally, and I can’t overstate the importance of this – you, generally speaking, get what you pay for. If the place is too much of a bargain it probably isn’t.

    I know that I work very hard as do my property managers to insure that my properties are always spotlessly clean and everything in tip top condition and working as intended.

  • Richard Gordon

    Rented once through VRBO.
    Never again totally misleading.

    Photos were false and misleading.
    We left went to a nice resort
    Lost about $1,000

  • scaredycat’s mom

    We have had good experiences so far. But, we always know in the back of our minds that something could go awry. I have used airbnb, homeaway, VRBO, as well as individual owner ads. We have stayed in places which ranged from spectacular to fairly basic. We adjust our expectations to the country we are visiting. I did not expect our house in rural Azores to be as upscale as the apartment in Lisbon. And, I have a clear idea of how much money I am spending. My only dealbreakers would be filth and safety issues. A balcony door which would not lock would be huge RED FLAG. Who knows if the guy next door has a part time business robbing or pilaging vacationers? I also write to the owners several times with detailed questions. If anything seems off I keep looking for another place.

  • TonyA_says

    Where are you? Where do you live? You mention several properties in three different continents. Do you consider yourself an absentee landlord ? How can you ensure the property managers are doing a good job when you cannot be there to check all locations?

  • Joe_D_Messina

    Can you trust a vacation rental?

    Absolutely not. Every time I’ve ever told one a secret the whole town knew about it the next day. Totally untrustworthy…

    Seriously, what a strange article. There are tons of excellent vacation rentals with updated photos and current reviews online, giving you an extremely good idea of what you’re getting. (Try finding a photo of the individual hotel room you’re going to get. Or a hotel website with current photos.) Of course some people will end up disappointed, but Chris gets tons of letters from people who are disappointed in the hotels they booked. Yet this article holds that industry up as the standard the rental industry should aspire to?

  • Joe_D_Messina

    Conversely, I’ve used VRBO countless times and have never had a dud. I concentrate on places with current reviews and owners I’ve come to trust from past experiences.

  • jerryatric

    While some were not bad others rentals were awfull. Without exception all were in need of upgrades. Many must show photos of when the place was new. I no longer book through any of these agencies. I trust only a reference from people I know

  • Nikki

    You know the sad thing about AirBnB, HomeAway and those kind of groups/companies beefing up their security like that… is that they have good intentions, but somehow there’s still going to be that one person out there that didn’t bother reading anything out there on how to protect themselves from stuff like phishers…

    Must be true, then… “The road to hell is paved with good intentions…”

  • TonyA_says

    Joe, he paid 52 bucks a night. That is much lower than the average 3 star rate for a hotel room at Maybe the rate of the apartment is too good to be true?

  • I’ve had two experiences renting an apartment in Paris and both have been positive. However, I always plan for the worst … bring a roll of toilet paper, a towel and washcloth, some soap, find out where the closest internet connection might be … vacation rentals are a gamble. If you want guarantee, you should be at a hotel where everything can be “fixed” on the spot. And always, always use a credit card to pay so you have some leverage in case of disaster.

  • TonyA_says
  • EdB

    “And Airbnb, expanding its role beyond that of just a broker between homeowner and renter, last summer introduced the Airbnb Host Guarantee, which covers hosts for up to $1 million for loss or damage due to theft or vandalism caused by an Airbnb guest.”

    Until they implement a program for the RENTER to help them with problem rentals, without having to get someone like Chris involved, these problems will never be addressed. Until Chris got involved, Airbnb wasn’t even willing to see if his complaints were valid. That is the real problem. Places like Airbnb don’t give a [fill in what you want here] about the renter unless there is a possibility of bad press.

  • How are doors that don’t close cosmetic? That is a safety issue. If you have allergies, cigarette smoke is a deal breaker. If you are counting on WiFi for staying connected to home/work that is a promised service. It provided. None of these are cosmetic.

  • Jeanne_in_NE

    If you’re not on a mobile app, try this:
    Poor guy. The 2 reviews that showed before his review must have been friends of the owner, since 2/4 reviews said this place was a dump.

  • commentfromme

    I rent our house under vrbo, homeaway and airbnb. This house value and what we offer is as good as, and likely much better, than any upscale hotel. I suggest that any renter read all the reviews of a rental. Any property, like ours that has tons …yes tons….of 5 star reviews, all detailed, is a safe booking. We are highly rated on Trip Advisor/ Flipkey. I also suggest, that the renter CALL ME to talk! It is very easy to PICK UP THE PHONE and ask questions. Yes we are reliable, immaculately clean, well stocked, fabulous setting…and we are not inexpensive. Use common sense and the experience can be fabulous and wonderful. Also, we require all bookings to be fully paid in advance. $500 to reserve, payment at 75 days prior, and full payment 30 days prior. I do not want to be showing guests around, and collecting fees. I get this business out of the way in advance and detailed in the agreement and terms. If a guest / renter objects to paying in advance, then we dont want them. It is a 2 way street when dealing with a fine high quality rental. I do not agree with advising renters to “never pay in advance” in order to protect yourself. Just do the homework to get a better rental.

  • Dutchess

    Wifi was fixed and it was interior door it sounds like. Thus cosmetic.

  • Dutchess

    Looks like the other reviews for the other shabby apartment they own!

  • mbods

    I have never rented a property and been able to actually go there and inspect on the deposit alone. I’ve always been required to pay in full before arriving. Have I been misled?

  • NakinaAce

    I am not sure what you mean by absentee landlord but I live in Florida and as I said the properties are elsewhere. I monitor all the email traffic between the property managers and the guests as one of my quality control measures. Certainly, I try and visit each property at least once per year – unannounced. I read the reviews carefully and I also occasionally use a mystery guest (a friend I am going to let stay for free) to validate what kind of job the property managers are doing and the condition of the property.

  • NakinaAce

    Well, most reputable property owners would be satisfied with a deposit and then pay balance on arrival. Of course if no one is there to let you in, show you the property, and explain things like the appliances, etc then do you really want to rent that place?

  • pauletteb

    The Airbnb Host Guarantee protects the host, but it doesn’t seem to offer much security to the renter. For me, the risk (based on significant bad press) of such rentals simply isn’t worth it.

  • Each and every people should enjoy their vacation and also there are many popular places where people can go for that.

  • Delima

    Thanks for sharing…


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