Toni Wirth’s vacation rental came with a custom outdoor kitchen, a hot tub, a wet bar and a stunning view of Lake Michigan. But when she stayed there for two weeks late last summer, it also included a surprise guest: a chipmunk nesting in her bedroom.
Wirth has been trying to get $20,000 back from Vrbo for her stay.
“I want some monetary restitution,” she says.
Wirth and her daughter spent hours cleaning the house after they arrived. But they were fighting a losing battle. (Related: Can I get my Airbnb cleaning fees refunded for this dirty rental?)
“One day, I walked into the master bedroom and saw a chipmunk running under the bed,” she recalls. “That was the final straw.”
Well, this is a first for me.
It’s highly unlikely you’ll find a rodent in your next vacation home. But Wirth’s case is a learning opportunity for all of us, because of the way she tried to resolve this vacation rental problem and the circumstances under which she is seeking a refund. I’ll also answer these questions:
- How do you ensure a vacation rental meets your definition of clean?
- What do you do when you’re in a bad vacation rental?
- What’s the best way to complain about an awful Airbnb or Vrbo rental?
We’ll also find out if she can get that full refund. You’ll want to read my report carefully because I could not help myself while I was writing this. I’ve hidden popular song titles from Alvin and the Chipmunks. The first person to correctly identify them in the comments will win a $200 Scottevest gift certificate.
So, do you feel lucky? (Oops, there’s number one).
How a dream home became a rodent-infested nightmare
The vacation home Wirth rented looked like a dream. The listing advertised a “professionally decorated” Art Deco-era beach house featuring refinished hardwood floors, a wood-burning fireplace, and a large private sandy beach on Lake Michigan.
“Relax in the private hot tub with privacy or enjoy the custom gazebo on the beach,” it says.
It looked like the perfect summer retreat for Wirth and her family. But the moment she arrived, it became a nightmare.
“The house that I rented was not the same house portrayed on Vrbo,” she says. “The photos are decades old and do not reflect the condition of the property today.”
Wirth has a laundry list of complaints. The beach wasn’t private. It was crowded with tourists. The house was overgrown and falling apart. In her 20 years of renting vacation homes, this one was the dirtiest one she’d ever seen.
“It was worn out, filthy, unkempt, and unacceptable at every level,” she recalls.
Here’s debris on the floor in the master bedroom. It looks as if the cleaners skipped that part of the house.
This bed appears to have been soiled. None of her family members would sleep in it — for obvious reasons.
And then there were rodent traps throughout the home, suggesting that they were not the only guests.
“The cleaning standards were so far below standard as to be unhealthy,” she says.
Enter the chipmunks!
Wirth said she saw other signs of animals in the house.
“The listing says no pets allowed,” she recalls. “But there were two dog leashes hanging in the entry hall and other evidence a dog had been in the property. There were animal droppings inside and outside the home. It was clear there was a long-term problem of infestation and lack of cleanliness.”
And then it happened. One morning, she walked into the master bedroom and saw a chipmunk.
The rodent scurried under her bed, which left her horrified. How do you remove a chipmunk hiding under your bed? What if you can’t, and it decides to come out … at night?
Until this point, Wirth had been willing to look past everything else. But enough was enough. She wasn’t going to share her $20,000 beach rental with Alvin, Simon, and Theodore. That’s not how we roll.
“We asked to speak with the owner numerous times to try to resolve our problems but the property manager refused to have the owner call me,” she says. “I had never been treated like this.”
And that’s when she decided to get Vrbo involved.
These critters refuse to vacate the property
After Wirth contacted Vrbo, the owner agreed to send an exterminator. A technician named Evan from Varment Guard arrived at the rental with traps and tried to give the chipmunks their eviction papers.
“Evan found the chipmunk but couldn’t trap it,” she recalls. “He left a trap in the entry hall where there was visible evidence of rodents.”
Wirth asked for a report as evidence that the home had a chipmunk infestation, but the technician declined.
“But he said he saw evidence of a long-term infestation,” she says. “There were multiple entry points — and at least one chipmunk in the house.”
I know what you’re thinking. If the chipmunks don’t leave, then the guest should. But Wirth continued to work with the property manager and Vrbo, hoping she could eliminate this final hurdle to a happy vacation.
She had already done a deep cleaning with her daughter and washed all the sheets. Eventually, the manager sent a professional to clean the rental — but only after Wirth sent an additional $250 through the Vrbo site to cover the costs.
If she could just get rid of the chipmunk, she could save her summer vacation.
How to ensure a vacation rental meets your definition of clean
You don’t have to get stuck in a dirty vacation rental. Here are a few proven ways to avoid a dump:
Check the reviews very carefully
Read every guest review. You can also do a search for words like “clean” or “dirty” in your browser, so that you immediately find any reference to problems. Vrbo does not reveal guest cleanliness scores, but Airbnb does. Just click on the “reviews” link next to the initial price quote.
If the property has no reviews or if guests express problems with the property’s cleanliness, move on to the next one. It’s not worth the risk.
Run the numbers
Pay attention to the cleaning fee. If there’s no cleaning fee, it could be a sign that the owner is cleaning the property — or not cleaning it at all. (I’ve seen that.) If the cleaning fee is too high, that could be a sign of another problem: trying to cash in on their guests’ germaphobia. Look for a cleanliness rating of 4.5 or higher. Anything below 4 should disqualify the rental.
Conduct a pre-stay interview
It’s easy to contact a host or owner through Airbnb and Vrbo. Ask them how often they clean the property. Is it done by a professional? Also, what kind of cleaner do they use? Look for cleaners using strong antibacterial disinfectants such as chlorine or hydrogen peroxide.
Inspect the property before your arrival
If you’re already in town, the absolute best way to ensure the rental meets your definition of clean is to inspect it before you arrive. Property owners will sometimes allow you to see the rental if it is vacant. Take your time, and don’t allow the owner to rush you. Check behind beds, dressers and toilets; a professional cleaner won’t overlook those areas. Have a look at the closets and kitchen cabinets, too — especially the pantry, which tends to become a place where junk collects. And take a closer look at shower curtains, where mildew can grow, and ceiling fan blades, where dust can collect.
What to do if your vacation rental is not as advertised
Here are some things you can do if your vacation rental is not as advertised:
First, take pictures
You’ll need evidence of the trouble you’re having with the rental, and the only way to do that is with pictures or videos. Make sure your photos include all relevant metadata which shows time and location.
Contact the owner or manager
You’ll want to give your host an opportunity to take care of the problem before you escalate it. Be sure you have written evidence that you’ve contacted the host. Text messages or email will do the trick.
Note: Remember that if you’re working with a platform like Airbnb or Vrbo, you have a day or two to report a problem. If you wait longer than that, the next step might not work.
Reach out to the rental platform
Don’t call unless it’s an emergency. Instead, keep a paper trail of your interaction with Airbnb or Vrbo. Forward all the interactions you’ve had with the host so far. Stay off the phone. Without a paper trail, you’ll be at a severe disadvantage.
Still no solution? Try an executive
If all else fails, file a credit card dispute
If you paid with a credit card, try initiating a credit card dispute with your bank. So if you can prove the rental was not what you booked, you could get a full refund.
How to complain about a vacation rental
It’s easy to file a completely ineffective complaint about your vacation rental. That’s because when it’s happening to you, it’s almost impossible to be clear-headed and dispassionate. How can you remain calm when there’s a chipmunk in your bedroom and you’re having a bad day?
1. Stay off the phone if possible
If you need to call the owner because a chipmunk is running loose, follow up immediately with an email to fully document your call.
2. Create a thorough paper trail
Document everything with photos, videos, emails, texts, receipts and contracts. Let this documentation do the talking for you when you present your case. For example, if a fan is making a loud noise, don’t write a novel about it. Put your phone up to the fan, press “record” and then send the sound file to the host.
3. Write a brief, polite email
Describe the problem and the resolution you want (use the Elliott Method for the best results). Pro tip: Avoid “laundry lists” with multiple complaints. While they may be valid, these lists make you look like a whiner. Instead, focus on one or two big problems, like a dirty bed or a resident chipmunk. If you refer to other problems, do it succinctly.
4. Be reasonable and open to negotiations
You won’t get a full refund on your rental if the hot tub doesn’t work, but the owner might offer a partial refund or credit. Be flexible on a resolution. Managers will do their best to accommodate you, but they may not meet your initial demand.. Be flexible.
Avoid threats, such as leaving a bad review or contacting law enforcement. These threats are already implied when you contact the vacation rental company. Stating them just makes you look desperate. If you want to go the legal route or review-bomb the manager, just do it. No threats are necessary; they won’t help you.
What went right — and what went wrong
I’ve never had a vacation rental with a chipmunk problem, and chances are, neither will you. But Wirth did some things that we can all learn from.
Let’s start with what she did right. She immediately contacted the property manager, documented everything with pictures (which she shared with me), and escalated her case to Vrbo when should couldn’t solve the problem herself.
But she probably could have done more. It appears that a lot of her interaction with the manager was by phone. Wirth didn’t share any written correspondence between her and the manager, and she sent me only one email and PDF with Vrbo. There are no Vrbo responses. That’s highly unusual, since Vrbo has a fairly automated system for responding to customers.
But perhaps her biggest mistake was staying in the rental after her chipmunk encounter. Some of you, dear readers, will suggest she should have should have checked out as soon as the unsanitary conditions in the house became clear. I understand her reasons for waiting. She didn’t want to inconvenience her family by leaving, and she thought cleaning the place would fix the issue.
And even after meeting Chippy in the bedroom, she still believed an exterminator could rescue her vacation.
But that was nuts.
It’s pretty clear that the manager had pegged Wirth as a problem guest. He refused to connect her with the owner and refused her repeated requests for a refund.
Vrbo: Here’s your money back, but …
After Wirth reached out to my advocacy team, I contacted Vrbo on her behalf. Her photographic evidence and detailed narrative were pretty damning. Again, I was surprised that Vrbo had refused to consider any kind of refund, but since there was no paper trail, I couldn’t tell what it was thinking.
Vrbo reviewed her file and the photos she sent.
“We will be educating and asking the host to update the listing,” a representative told me. “Additionally, we want to ensure the Wirths have a pleasant experience with Vrbo and we will be issuing a one-time, out-of-pocket reimbursement in the amount of $2,213. This reimbursement covers the damage deposit, the additional cleaning fee and Vrbo service fee.”
But wait. Wirth wanted a full refund for her two-week stay in Michigan. Given all the problems she had with the rental, she said the least Vrbo could do is offer a partial refund — maybe $5,000?
“We had to deal with all the problems,” she told me.
I agree that her experience was less than ideal. But she stayed in the rental for the entire two weeks. If she’d checked out early, she might have a better chance of a partial refund.
Vacation rentals like the one Wirth stayed in should not be available through a reputable platform like Vrbo. Personally, I would have suspended the listing until the property passed an inspection.
But Wirth also learned an important lesson about rentals: Sometimes, no matter how much they charge, they’re just not worth it.
About the art
Artist Aren Elliott got inspired by Disney’s chipmunks — but with a dark twist. Alvin! Alvin! Alllviiiiin! Well, you know the rest.