I canceled my vacation rental, but they’re keeping my deposit

By | August 9th, 2013

David Smith/Shutterstock
David Smith/Shutterstock
Pat Morin’s vacation rental in Aruba is a disaster — and she hasn’t even left yet. She’s trying to get her money back, but the owner refuses. Is there any hope?

Question: I recently paid a $2,060 deposit to rent a home in Aruba through VRBO. Before I was sent a copy of the lease, I realized that the rental didn’t have enough room for our party of 10, and I notified the owner that I wanted to cancel.

The owner refuses to refund the deposit, saying she runs the rental “like a timeshare.” I don’t even know what that means. That should have been explained in rental agreement, and even more importantly it should be explained to a customer when they are making a $2,060 deposit.

I sent the deposit in good faith, and now I feel stupid for having done that and for not having gotten something in writing.
I contacted VRBO, the site though which I rented the house, but so far it has been unable to help me get my money back. Is there anything you can do? — Pat Morin, San Bernardino, Calif.

Answer: What a mess. The owner should have sent you an agreement before you paid for the rental home, which clearly outlined your rights to a refund. The contract should have also described the property in more detail, noting how many guests it could accommodate.

VRBO sees itself as an intermediary in this transaction, providing little more than a listing service. And at the time you rented your home, it offered something called the Carefree Rental Guarantee, which would have protected you if your rental had been misrepresented. But you would have had to pay extra for that.

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Still, VRBO should be concerned when one of its property owners allegedly accepts your money without furnishing you with a contract and then keeps it after you cancel the reservation, saying that the property is run “like a timeshare.” I’m not even sure if I understand what that means.

The following advice may seem obvious, but it’s worth repeating: Don’t sign a rental agreement — and definitely don’t make a deposit — until you’ve read it. If a rental owner refuses to send the contract, walk away, no matter how attractive the offer.
Look for “gotchas” like no-refund policies and nondisparagement clauses, which prevent you from writing about the rental if you don’t like it. And make sure you have the option of paying by credit card, which will protect you if something goes wrong.

I reviewed your correspondence with the property owner, and it looks as if a few other things happened that were preventable. Some of the back-and-forth happened by phone, which increased the likelihood that a detail was overlooked or misunderstood. Also, at one point you authorized your daughter to deal directly with the owner, which just ended up confusing the issue. Keep everything in writing and speak with one voice, and you’re likely to avoid this situation from happening again in the future.

I contacted VRBO about your case. It got in touch with the property owner and advocated for you. The owner refunded your entire deposit.

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  • The OP intended to rent a house for 10 people and sent a deposit without confirming the house could… let’s see… actually FIT 10 people?

    She should definitely be answering “YES” to the poll question.

  • I voted “no” on the poll, simply because if consumer advocates start getting paid by the consumer, then there will start to be ‘scammy’ consumer advocates who are in it just to collect an up-front fee, send a form letter to a company’s HQ address, and then file things in the “case dismissed” file saying “I tried, but there was nothing I could do.”

    And pretty soon, we’ll need consumer advocates to warn us about the consumer advocate scams out there.

  • Rebecca

    There is information missing here that I think is relevant to an opinion of the outcome:

    – When did the OP send the deposit and how much time elapsed before she asked for a refund?
    – How close to the intended rental date was it before she canceled (was it a week or a year away)?
    – Did the listing say how many guests could be accommodated in the house? Did she overlook this information, misread it, add more guests to her trip, etc?

    Without these pieces of information, I don’t know if she is entitled to a refund.

  • Oops, wrong poll. I’ve fixed it.

  • Poley King

    Its her fault for not confirming things in advance. You don’t just give away money unless you know what its going to. I just tried AirBNB which seems to be a better option as it clearly spells out what the money is for and what the refund policy is. Also with AirBNB, the money is held until after check in before its released to the property owner.

  • BillCCC

    I had to vote yes but.. I think someone else mentioned it but the first thing that struck me was who sends a non-refundable $2,000 without knowing if the item is acceptable? If I was one or her friends or family I would select someone else to make the travel arrangements. I would hate to find out she only bought 9 airline tickets or rented a 7 passenger van.

  • Ian Parrish

    I really want a 3rd choice on this poll (and some others), namely “Maybe — I’m missing some key details that will help me understand what happened. I also have a sneaking suspicion both parties are at fault.”

    You hit the nail on the head though with the advice that you should never, ever send money without a contract and terms in front of you. I think in the end she probably deserves her money back, as long as it’s early enough in the process that the place can be re-rented. It certainly seems that she did herself a disservice in this interaction. Good thing you were able to help.

  • Marmoset509

    Why did it take her so long to realize the property wasn’t big enough for her party? Was it advertised inaccurately or was it an oversight on her part?

  • John Baker

    Just about everyone so far has said this but … Who pays an non-refundable deposit before checking if anything meets your requirements? Who sends a deposit without knowing the T&Cs behind whatever you are doing? Sorry but this would have definitely gone down as an expensive idiot tax.

    I would have felt differently if the OP claimed that the website said it held 10 and then the lease said something less but that’s not her claim at all.

    Glad you got her her money back but I hope you didn’t just enable her for the future.

  • Raven_Altosk

    Wait. VRBO did something right?
    …well, dip me in oil and call me slick.

  • Chris Johnson

    How far ahead did Pat ask to cancel? That’s a very important detail here. I have no vote without knowing that and perhaps other information.

  • Trudi

    After being scammed in another instance by VRBO, I understand this delimma. I faced a simlar situation, but in my case the owner promised a full refund no matter what the reason. The configuration of her house was mis-represented and there wasn’t room for the number of people she said the house would sleep. VRBO didn’t care at all, and owners are NOT penalized for sticking to THEIR side of the contract. I still use Home Away now and then, BUT only when a rental agent with appropriate contracts is handling the rental. Owners may be the salt of the Earth, but my trust in VRBO has been permanently marred.

  • emanon256

    I am going to go with a no on this one. The very nature of a deposit, is that they will hold the house for you and not rent it to someone else, however, if you cancel, they keep the deposit. Its a valid two way agreement.

    What I don’t think the OP should have done was paid the deposit before reading the agreement and/or before knowing how many people the house sleeps. I rent from VRBO at least once a year, and I have yet to see a property listed that didn’t clearly disclose how many the property sleeps. I understand a party may mis-represent their property, but it sounds like the OP didn’t even know how many it slept until after paying the deposit, and didn’t read the agreement until after paying the deposit. That’s just nuts to me.

    I too am confused by the “Time Share” comment. What is the owner talking about? Its not a time share, and that’s not even how time shares work.

  • emanon256

    I think the pool changed since you voted “Yes” Now I wish I knew what the old poll said.

  • Miami510

    Without anything in writing, the renter is in a precarious position. Sometimes things are legally right, and ethically wrong. As someone once said, “A verbal contract isn’t worth the paper it’s written on.”

  • It said something about should people pay for the services of a consumer advocate.

  • emanon256


  • Joe_D_Messina

    Cases like this leave me shaking my head. Who on earth puts money down on a place without figuring out if it will fit the number of people they’re taking with them? Sheer idiocy. (And if there were latecomers to the trip, there’s always the option of renting a second place rather than totally canceling or deciding to make the best of it and just crowding in.)

  • Joe_D_Messina

    I’ve had excellent luck with VRBO. Sticking to places with plenty of photos that have lots of reviews has worked well for me. But Home Away owns VRBO and they’re essentially interchangeable, so not sure how you could still be happy with one but turned off by the other. That’s like saying you love your Chevy pickup but hate GMCs even though they share all the same parts.

  • Joe_D_Messina

    Worst of both worlds in this case: Clueless renter meets bad owner. Grab some popcorn and watch the fun!

    Wild guess, but I wonder if the timeshare statement comes from the owner only having this property for part of the time and having lost their window with this deal falling through. (Like they were renting out their slot to the OP and when that fell apart they didn’t have time to re-rent or use it themselves.)

  • Dutchess

    I know right! I’ve always steered clear of VRBO but I decided to give them a try for a property in Mexico this fall. Less than $500 for the week so if it blows up, there’s not a big loss. I have back-ups on Airbnb which I love!

  • emanon256

    Oh, that makes sense. I have heard of people taking a time share, and renting it to someone else.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    A deposit can be to show you’re serious, not just a lookie loo. Sometimes it’s refundable.

  • Trudi

    I know they’re owned by the same place, I started using them back in the late 90s. However, with VRBO only the owners are doing the contracts. They are given incredible leeway and faith by their home company. Home Away is more likely to be handled by professional agents – who may or may not know what they’re doing, but have proven reliable. There are 3 owners I’ve rented with in the past who I totally trust to be upfront with me as I am with them; but that’s it. In my case, a vile cheating owner promised a refund for any reason – I gave her good reason MONTHS before, and nothing I said, or VRBO, or Chis said would make her turn lose the down payment. Because she and her husband had divorced during that time, she claimed HE was the one who made that promise (not true) and she didn’t have to honor it, but VRBO didn’t give a hog’s breath about my money. The ONLY reason I rent with Home Away is when their agents are professional and their contracts are based on general rental agreements. They’re just easier to deal with than owners. I’d buy a Chevy in a minute over a GMC IF the dealer offered me a better deal with a better warranty in the color I wanted. It’s not about who owns which company, it’s about the dealer at that moment.

  • emanon256

    But if the OP were serious, wouldn’t they have found out how many it sleeps before paying? I worth with VBRO at least once a year and have never sent a deposit before getting details and the contract. Typically, I have to send in the deposit with the signed contract. So it seems off to me that they would pay the deposit first.

  • TonyA_says

    Me, too. I’m leaning on NO on this one. I find it too incredible that someone would send that much money without looking at pictures and reading a description of the rental.
    I have a suspicion the travel party got bigger at some later time and she wanted a larger home. So she use the best way out of a contract – a travel advocate :)

  • bodega3

    Was the deposit nonrefundable? Why is this important piece of the booking informatiom missing?

  • Joe_D_Messina

    It’s not just timeshares, either. Fractional ownership is becoming more popular, especially in high tourist destinations. (Like you and 3 other people each buy a quarter of a property.) It actually can work out pretty well with the right mix of owners who all respect each other and take care of the place. But if that doesn’t happen, it can be a total hell.

  • Joe_D_Messina

    Or she just decided to cancel the trip and needed some excuse to get her money back. I’m kind of lost in her story about how she found out the description was wrong if she didn’t actually make the trip. The owner would have to of admitted to her that the VRBO description was false.

  • TonyA_says

    Reminds of the the common phrase – “No perfect crime” :)

  • Annie M

    How people can be so stupid just surprises me. Why on earth would this woman pay a deposit without seeing a contract beforehand? NEVER EVER send money without signing a contract and reading all the fine print!

    The landlady was no better and she should have made sure that the person read the contract before taking the deposit.

    Normally I wouldn’t say she should have been refunded but in this case, because the landlady was at fault too here so she did the right thing refunding.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    No one spends 2k if they’re not serious. Unwise, perhaps, but certainly serious.

  • ctporter

    How did she “realize” before she got the copy of the lease but AFTER sending a deposit?

  • Judy Serie Nagy

    Hard to believe anyone would send $2K+ somewhere without knowing what she was sending it for. I think this is where the “hello????” line comes from … is anyone home in your brain?

  • AUSSIEtraveller

    what a joke. Why should anyone be entitled to a refund. Don’t decide after you’ve sent the money that you don’t want the property.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    She probably believed that the deposit was refundable. In that case depending on the people, it might make better sense to get a different place.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    Depending on the consumer laws of your state and the specifics of your situation, a deposit may be refundable.

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