My VRBO vacation rental host is accused of arson and murder. Do I still have to pay?

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By Christopher Elliott

More than halfway through her stay in a VRBO vacation rental in Mount Holly, N.C., a neighbor told Anne Penner a shocking secret about her host: He was about to go on trial for arson and murder.

At first, Penner couldn’t believe it. Don’t vacation rental platforms like Airbnb and VRBO screen their hosts? But then she looked up the owner and discovered it was all true. The alleged crimes were so horrifying that they made national headlines.

Penner immediately contacted VRBO to demand an explanation.

“They basically told me, ‘There’s not much we can do,'” she says.

Penner asked for a refund of the $1,144 she had spent. And when VRBO refused, she contacted my advocacy team for help. We took her case for several reasons beyond arson, murder and an intransigent vacation rental platform. 

Her situation raised several questions that come up often in our advocacy practice: 

  • Do vacation rental platforms screen their hosts?
  • What are the exceptions to a vacation rental’s refund policy?
  • If a vacation rental is dangerous, should I just leave?

Penner’s story isn’t just the worst vacation rental nightmare that has crossed my desk in months. It’s also a case with a surprise ending that’s worthy of an Agatha Christie novel.

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A murder in Mount Holly

Penner’s tale of danger and deception in a vacation rental started when she found a house through VRBO in Mount Holly, a suburb of Charlotte, N.C. Penner lives in Minnesota and wanted to visit her son, who attends college in Charlotte.

On the sixth day of her eight-day visit to Mount Holly, Penner struck up a conversation with a neighbor.

“She told me that the homeowner was awaiting trial for the murder of his wife in the home we rented,” she says.

Penner was stunned. But that wasn’t the worst of it.

“I looked up the homeowner after getting a full name from the neighbor — and learned there are more than murder charges,” she recalls. “There are also federal arson charges against the homeowner.”

Suddenly, Penner felt vulnerable — and afraid.

“The homeowner was out on bail, with access to the property while people were in there,” she says. “We would never have rented this property if we knew the background of the homeowner. I feel VRBO did not give us enough information about the property and owner to make an informed decision on renting.” 

Why was her host accused of arson?

OK, let’s back up here. What happened to her host?

Records show Penner’s rental home is owned by Joshua Hunsucker, a former paramedic who was charged with killing his wife by poisoning her with eye drops in 2018. He’s currently awaiting trial.

But the case gets even stranger. In 2019, Hunsucker allegedly set fire to a syringe pump in a helicopter used to transport patients. The chopper made an emergency landing at a car dealership. Hunsucker was charged with arson and has pleaded not guilty.

The story gets even weirder. Last month, Hunsucker filed a police report claiming he was kidnapped and assaulted along a highway in Mount Holly.

Hunsucker hasn’t been convicted of any crime yet. But being accused of arson and murder is a serious issue, and as Penner reviewed the timeline of these incidents, she wondered why Vrbo hadn’t suspended his account. 

Do Airbnb and VRBO screen their hosts?

So wait, do vacation rental platforms even screen their hosts? Maybe.

Does Airbnb screen its hosts?

Airbnb says it conducts background checks on guests and hosts in the United States and India. If the company has a first name, last name, and date of birth, it runs the check once — when the host logs in after creating a listing or when a guest books a stay, whichever comes first.

Airbnb submits the information to one of its background check providers. In 2020, it also acquired a startup that screens potential guests by combing through their social media feeds. 

The process of banning a guest or host is opaque. Airbnb almost never reveals why an account was banned (either a guest or host account), and appealing a ban is nearly impossible.

Based on the number of cases we receive, it’s safe to say that Airbnb is using its resources to screen guests, but not necessarily hosts. 

Does VRBO screen its hosts?

Generally, no. There is no evidence that VRBO screens hosts or guests. In fact, we’ve never received a complaint from anyone who has been banned from the platform.

Vrbo does, however, encourage hosts to apply for its “Premier Host” designation. Again, there is no evidence that Vrbo conducts a background check on Premier Hosts either. It reviews these hosts quarterly and looks for rentals with low cancellation rates, high reviews, and solid bookings.

Unbelievably, the owner of Penner’s rental was a Premier Host. 

So if VRBO screened Penner’s host — and that’s a big “if” — it wouldn’t have revisited his status in 2018 or 2019, when these alleged crimes occurred, unless a guest had alerted the platform about an issue with their rental.

These approaches couldn’t be more different. Airbnb conducts at least one background check on its hosts; VRBO doesn’t. Even so, it’s unlikely Airbnb would have caught Penner’s host because it only does a single background check when he starts as a host. Both systems could stand to be improved.

But can Penner get all her money back for this oversight? Maybe.

What are the exceptions to a vacation rental’s refund policy?

The major vacation rental platforms have published refund policies that favor the host. You have a limited amount of time to cancel your booking for a refund, and in some cases, no time at all. Meanwhile, the published policy exceptions only allow a refund in case of gross negligence — the owner must significantly misrepresent the property for you to qualify. 

I describe Vrbo’s rather complex refund policy in this recent story about vacation rental refunds, and I have details on Airbnb’s refund policy in this story

But what are the exceptions to the policies? We have hundreds of cases involving both platforms, so we have a pretty good idea.

If the vacation rental is unsafe

There’s an implied promise that your rental will be in a safe neighborhood (no matter what Airbnb or Vrbo said). We had a case involving a woman who rented an Airbnb in Louisiana that was in a dangerous neighborhood. Although safety was never mentioned in Airbnb’s contract, we negotiated a refund on her behalf.

If the vacation rental is unreachable

A few years ago, we had a case involving a home in Kauai that was unreachable because the road had washed away. The property couldn’t be reached by road when the customer booked it and was still unreachable when she tried to check in. She received a refund from Vrbo.

If the host kicks you out

It happened to this reader in Anchorage, Alaska. The owner sent him packing on the day he tried to check in — and then tried to keep his money. That’s not allowed. Our team got him a refund, even though kicking guests out isn’t specifically mentioned in VRBO’s guarantee.

If the vacation rental host or platform offers you a refund

If Airbnb or VRBO offer you a refund — even if it’s not something directly mentioned in its policy — you should get one. We had such a case during the pandemic. Pro tip: Make sure you get the promise in writing. An oral promise is difficult to prove.

As you can see, there are a lot of exceptions to the published refund policies of both Airbnb and VRBO. That’s why it never hurts to ask. But should Penner have remained in her vacation home if she feared for her life? (Here’s what you need to know before renting your next vacation home.)

If a vacation rental is dangerous, should you just leave?

Penner’s situation certainly was unique among vacation rental refund cases. Here she was with a host who was accused of serious crimes and who had direct access to the house. What’s more, based on the crimes he had allegedly committed — and those he had accused others of committing — she believed anything was possible.

What should she have done?

I wouldn’t have waited for approval from VRBO to vacate the property. In fact, any time you feel a vacation rental is unsafe, you should pack up right away and leave. Penner’s VRBO home shouldn’t have been on the platform, pending the outcome of his trial. I’m not saying that anyone accused of a crime shouldn’t be able to rent their home on VRBO. But these circumstances were unusual, and the vacation rental platform should have at least temporarily suspended the listing. 

Note: This advice doesn’t apply to all situations where you think the vacation rental might be unsafe. 

For example, I’ve had guests check out of a property because of minor items like frayed curtains or kitchen appliances that didn’t run properly. We call those crybaby cases because a renter is just looking for a reason to leave a home that they don’t like, and incorrectly claiming the rental is unsafe.

Bottom line: Penner should have left immediately. Instead, she stayed. But should she get a full refund?

Does she deserve to get her money back for this rental?  

This is the most challenging part of the advocacy. Penner wants all of her money back. But she stayed in the vacation home for more than a week without incident, so technically, VRBO and the host met their obligations.

At the same time, VRBO didn’t do what it was supposed to when she called asking for help. Remember what she said? “They basically told me, ‘There’s not much we can do.'”

That’s the wrong answer. VRBO should have listened to Penner, acknowledged her concerns, apologized for renting her the house, and quickly offered her an alternative. “‘There’s not much we can do” is the absolute worst response to a customer concern I’ve heard in a long time.

So here’s where the advocacy team landed. We thought it was worth asking Vrbo about this case, but we would leave a resolution up to the company. And that’s what we did.

“Thanks for bringing this to our attention,” a VRBO representative said. “Our team was already in the process of issuing a full refund when you reached out. The property has been removed from our platform, and any future bookings will be relocated.”

Companies sometimes will say they already planned to fix a problem before we contacted them, and we never argue with that. The most important thing is that the issue is resolved. I’ll let you draw your own conclusions on the timeline — and whether Vrbo would have refunded Penner’s stay and removed the listing without an inquiry from our advocacy team.

Do you think Vrbo would have issued a refund and removed the listing on its own?

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About the art: Our illustrations were done in the style of Everett Raymond Kinstler, the great pulp and comic book artist. How better to illustrate a story about murder and arson than at the hands of a master?

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes three nationally syndicated columns. He also publishes the Elliott Report, a news site for consumers, and Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on X, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter. He is based in Panamá City.

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