Jeff von Bargen was disgusted when he found mouse droppings — lots of mouse droppings — in his California vacation rental.
“We heard the mice scurrying around the kitchen all night,” he says.
Von Bargen fled the San Luis Obispo home after spending a sleepless night in it. The owner was understandably unhappy about losing von Bargan and his money. He reluctantly offered to refund $650 of von Bargen’s $2,059 rental fee, which covered about two nights.
But there was a catch: “In return, I had to leave a five-star review,” says von Bargen.
Von Bargen refused and decided to take up the matter with Vrbo, the vacation rental platform through which he’d booked the property.
But that experience left him even more outraged.
I know what you’re thinking: What could possibly infuriate him even more than mouse droppings and an owner trying to extort a five-star review in exchange for a partial refund? Here’s a clue: It has something to do with a quota on mouse sightings.
Von Bargen’s rodents-in-a-rental case raises lots of questions:
- What are the policies of the major vacation rental platforms when it comes to mouse infestations?
- What should you do if you find a mouse in your vacation rental?
- And can a host really demand a positive review in exchange for a refund?
But mostly, I’m dying to know if von Bargen can get his money back for having a mouse in his house. Let’s find out.
How Vrbo handled this rodent infestation
Von Bargen contacted Vrbo in writing and asked for a refund; the initial response gave him hope.
It has been brought to our attention that you were unable to stay at this property due to a mice infestation. We sincerely apologize that this has been your experience.
Our records indicate that when informing the host of the property issues you encountered, they offered to give a partial refund in exchange of a 5-star review.
Will you please reply directly to this email, without changing the subject line, providing documentation that supports these claims? Once we’ve received this documentation, we will be able to proceed further.
We appreciate your prompt response in advance and look forward to hearing from you soon.
Unfortunately, the owner was smart enough to make the refund offer by phone — including an exchange of the five-star review. Had that been made in writing, this case would have turned out differently.
Von Barger called Vrbo and explained that he didn’t have a smoking gun. A supervisor agreed to refund Vrbo’s service fee. He followed up with an email.
Per our conversation, I was able to refund you your traveler service fee totaling $188.00. You should see this reflected in your bank account in 5-7 business days, depending upon your banking institution.
With regards to receiving a full refund, because of infestation, we are unable to process to [sic] due to not having proof of the infestation as the pictures do show the “critter”,i.e. animal, bug, insect.
Here’s the evidence of the mouse infestation
But von Barger did have photos that proved there were rodents in his rental.
Von Barger showed the evidence to Vrbo. And that’s when he really lost it.
Here’s the company’s reply:
As a company that brings hosts and guests alike, we also give the host time to respond in a timely manner to resolve any issues they encounter during their stay. If a host is unable to resolve the issue within a reasonable amount of time, you may contact us so we can assist you with a new accommodation and cancel your reservation.
At this point, we can only send a courtesy email to the host to reconsider any request for your refund/compensation.
We also reviewed your supplied proof which requires a photo of the rodents numbering to 3 above to be considered as a health and safety issue.
I understand this is not the resolution you were seeking, but this should help clarify some about [sic] our complaint process.
I hope you have a wonderful day.
Wait a second. Is Vrbo saying von Barger needed images of at least three rodents to be considered a “health and safety” issue?
I called Vrbo to find out. A representative agreed to ask the Health and Safety team for a better explanation.
Here’s the official answer: “This is a complex situation and we’re continuing to closely review and evaluate all the details of what happened to ensure proper actions were taken.”
What are your rights when you find rodents in your vacation rental?
Both Airbnb and Vrbo have guarantees that may cover rodent infestations.
Does Airbnb refund for mice?
Generally, yes. Airbnb considers accommodations “not habitable” at check-in if it contains pests. The company will refund the rental rate in full if a guest finds pests such as mice, rats, ants or cockroaches.
However, the policy is somewhat vague. How do you prove an infestation? How many mice constitute an infestation? But practically speaking, Airbnb quickly resolves almost every mouse infestation case to the customer’s satisfaction. Occasionally, one will fall through the cracks and may land on my desk.
Does Vrbo refund for mice?
Maybe. Vrbo does not mention pests in its Book With Confidence Guarantee. Instead, it says that if the owner materially misrepresents the listing, it will help you find a new rental. One type of material misrepresentation is “if the property needs major repair,” and you can’t stay.
But like Airbnb, the number of mouse infestation cases is small. Vrbo usually takes care of guests with mouse complaints quickly, and to their satisfaction. But there are exceptions, and this case is one of them.
Can I sue a vacation rental owner if I find a mouse in my vacation rental?
Vacation rentals are usually lightly regulated by municipalities. In California, some cities, like Irvine and Temecula, ban vacation rentals. Others require a safety inspection to be permitted, but most inspections focus on fire hazards, not rodents. You can sue a vacation rental owner in small claims court, but our advocacy team is unaware of a recent successful case against a vacation rental owner involving a mouse or rat infestation.
I have more tips in my ultimate guide to finding a vacation rental.
What should you do if you find a mouse — or mouse droppings — in your vacation rental
Don’t panic. Mice are nocturnal, and they are generally afraid of people. Here’s what to do if you find evidence of rodent activity.
Take a picture or video of the mouse, mice or mouse droppings
You will need photographic evidence of the infestation. Get it before you contact the host or vacation rental platform. You may need it later.
Contact the host or owner
Next, reach out to the vacation rental host or owner. Do this in writing if possible. Avoid calling the host, since you won’t have a record of your conversation (unless you record your call, which is not legal everywhere). Calmly explain the problem and send the evidence you have.
Reach out to your vacation rental platform
Contact Airbnb or Vrbo directly and, if possible, in writing. Again, you will need to establish a paper trail, which you might need later. Furnish the platform with all of your photographic evidence. Politely remind the platform of its promises, such as its Book With Confidence Guarantee.
I’m often asked if rodent activity is enough reason to check out. The answer is yes. A rental property should be free of pests like these. Even if the owner has the house treated immediately by a pest control professional, the platform should find a suitable hotel for you while you wait.
Note: You are not entitled to additional compensation for being in a house with a mouse — the rebooking and refund policies don’t work like that — but you should expect a prompt refund within five to seven days if you leave. Asking for “damages” will probably weaken your case, if not cast doubt on your claim that you found rodents in your rental.
How to get a refund if you’re in a vacation rental with rodents
If you follow these steps and both the host and the platform refuse to offer a full refund, you still have options.
- You can reach out to the executive contacts at Vrbo or the executive contacts at Airbnb and appeal your case.
- You can dispute the charges on your credit card. Here’s more information about how to file a successful credit card dispute.
- You can file a case in small claims court. If you have sufficient photographic evidence of a mouse infestation, you may be able to win.
These methods have been known to work in the past, but each case is different. And as they say, results may vary. (Related: She’s freezing in her Airbnb. How does she get out?)
Can a vacation rental host demand a positive review in exchange for a refund?
No. Vrbo has an extortion policy that says guests can’t threaten to use a review against an owner to obtain refunds or additional compensation. Also, owners may not mandate a review in exchange for refunds, or ask the guest to revise a review for compensation.
Airbnb also has a detailed review policy that says reviews may not be provided or withheld in exchange for something of value. That can include a discount, refund, reciprocal review, or promise not to take negative action against the reviewer.
They also may not be used as an attempt to mislead or deceive Airbnb or another person. For example, guests should not write biased or inauthentic reviews as a form of retaliation against a Host who enforces a policy or rule.
How much proof do you need of a rodent infestation?
But the bottom line, according to Vrbo, is that von Bargen didn’t have sufficient proof of a mouse infestation in his rental.
I kept coming back to this requirement: “We also reviewed your supplied proof which requires a photo of the rodents numbering to 3 above to be considered as a health and safety issue.”
What does that mean, “three and above”?
Do you need three mice pictured together — or separately? How many mouse droppings do three mice or more make, versus just one?
By the way, experts say if you see one mouse, it usually means there are five or six more in the house. In other words, one mouse is evidence of an infestation. And one mouse dropping means there are more — maybe many more — hiding in the walls of the house.
I asked Vrbo several times directly, both by phone and email, to explain the mouse policy. How did they arrive at three mice? Was three an arbitrary number? Did they require photos of the mice?
Vrbo promised to check, but in the end, the company offered a generic statement about this being a complicated case.
It’s not complicated: This guy deserves a full refund
But this isn’t a complicated case at all. Von Bargen deserves to get all his money back. Not just Vrbo’s fees. Not a partial refund in exchange for a positive review.
What’s more, Vrbo should remove the vacation rental owner from the platform for violating its extortion policy.
I contacted Vrbo in late January and it did not respond to my initial request. I then emailed again and asked to speak with a representative. Last week, I spoke with a Vrbo representative who promised to look into his case. Finally, on Friday afternoon, Vrbo responded.
“We’re sorry that Jeff had a negative experience with his booking,” a representative said. “He has already been refunded for our traveler service fee and we’ve decided to issue him a full refund for the remaining cost of his booking as a gesture of goodwill.”
Separately, Vrbo also wrote to von Bargen.
Thank you for contacting Vrbo.com Customer Support. I hope you are doing well. My name is Hollie and I wanted to reach out to you on behalf of the Vrbo Billing Department. First, thank you for your patience, we appreciate the opportunity to assist.
I understand that you contacted us to request reimbursement for your reservation [redacted] after you left the property early. After a review of your concern, your reimbursement was granted in the amount of $1,871 due to the circumstances you encountered. We understand that this experience falls short of what we would expect when renting a place for vacation.
That’s almost the correct resolution. I would still like to know about Vrbo’s three-mouse rule and Vrbo needs to ban the host. But von Bargen is happy with the outcome.
“This has been a source of much stress,” he told me. “And while I’d feel better knowing that others may not fall victim to this type of experience, it’s a relief knowing that people like you exist to help the helpless.”