Before you rent a vacation home, listen to Richard Powers’ story.
Earlier this year, he found a bargain on a four-bedroom cabin in Lake Placid, N.Y., through Vrbo, a vacation rental site. He contacted the “owner” through the platform, who instructed him to wire the money to his bank account.
You can probably guess what happened next.
The “owner” was a scammer. Vrbo caught on to the cybercrime in progress and de-listed the property. But not before Powers wired the bad guys $9,380 for a one-week rental he would never use.
“We lost our money,” says Powers. “We were evidently the victims of an elaborate scam.”
Vrbo said it couldn’t help him retrieve his money because he didn’t use the platform to pay. Vrbo, like most vacation rental platforms, stands behind purchases made on its site.
So what are Powers’ options? And how do you rent a vacation home or apartment at a time like this?
Renting a home or apartment for your next trip has a lot of benefits. You get your own place with a living room, private kitchen and multiple bedrooms. Also, you don’t have to share the place with 400 other people, unless you throw a big party. But when it comes to how to rent a vacation home, most travelers don’t have any idea where to start.
Here’s how to do it — and avoid getting scammed.
What you need to know about renting a vacation home
Vacation homes are in high demand because of the pandemic. Many travelers believe vacation rentals are safer than hotels, although that’s not necessarily true. Still, it’s a seller’s market for rentals, and that will continue for as long as COVID is around, and maybe longer.
Rental owners used to make most of their money the old-fashioned way — by charging rent. Not anymore. Just like hotels, they compete by quoting a low “introductory” price and then adding taxes and surcharges to your total. Many owners are angry about booking fees charged on platforms like Airbnb and Vrbo, and are trying to recover some of the lost funds by charging more. Bottom line: When you rent a vacation home, watch your wallet.
Little surprise that one of the biggest vacation rental scams is also making a comeback. For years, vacation rental platforms stayed one step ahead of these criminal schemes, which had vacation rental guests wiring money to scammers. You can avoid a vacation rental phishing scheme by always dealing with a reputable vacation rental platform and NEVER WIRING MONEY. (If you’re reading this and it’s too late, don’t worry. There are ways to get wired money back by invoking Regulation E.)
What is a vacation rental?
Vacation rentals can be freestanding or attached guest houses, villas, cottages, apartments, condos or timeshares that are offered for short-term occupancy. They are largely unregulated. Some rental properties are just one in a large portfolio that is handled and managed by a leasing company. Other vacation rentals are cared for, and rented out, by the owner.
When should I consider a vacation rental?
- If you’re traveling with a large group, or a family, and need extra room. (Note: You can also find a smaller vacation rental for one or two people.)
- If you don’t like being bothered by housekeepers or room service, or being in close proximity with other guests, as you would be in a hotel. At many rentals, housekeeping may be available for a fee.
- If you desire the amenities found in a home, like a full kitchen, a pool, or a living room.
- If you value the cost savings and convenience vacation rentals represent, such as the ability to prepare meals, store snacks, or split multiple bedrooms with your friends and family, as well as the availability of in-home entertainment.
- If you enjoy getting together with family and friends in a home-like environment, with the benefit of your own space/privacy.
When should I not rent?
- If you like having a consistent, predictable lodging experience, including daily housekeeping, towel and linen service, and room service, when you’re traveling.
- If you don’t need lots of space, but want to be somewhere centrally located, such as a city center, or near a popular attraction.
- If you like to eat most of your meals in a restaurant, and don’t mind paying extra for things like laundry service.
Note: When it comes to the risk of a contagious disease like COVID-19 or the flu, there is no proof that a vacation rental is safer than a hotel. It depends on the location, the guests and the cleaning protocols at the property. Do not assume a vacation rental will protect you from infection.
Should I wire money to a vacation rental owner?
No. Never, never, ever. wire money to a homeowner or rental manager. The rental may be legitimate, and the “owner” might sound like a perfectly nice person, but you are giving up many of your rights when you wire money. If the “owner” is a fake, you could lose everything.
Always look for standard, secure phone or Internet reservations that accept major credit cards.
Should I make a booking based on a rental listing?
No. The property description on an “official” rental site is often filled with hyperbole. Don’t rely on just one source when you’re shopping around for vacation rentals. Before you sign any contract, consult independent reviews and pick up the phone and speak with the owner or manager. On Vrbo or Airbnb, you have to initiate the conversation via text message. There is no substitute for a one-on-one personal phone conversation to gather information and details. If possible, get any promises they make in writing.
Are vacation rental contracts just pro forma agreements? Do I need to read them?
Read your contract. Again, a home rental isn’t a hotel, and certain terms and conditions may apply that you won’t find at any hotel. For example, the rental may insert a “non-disparagement” clause that prohibits you from posting a negative review. Fortunately, this is not a common practice. But if your contract contains such a clause, you could incur additional charges and also be required to remove the comments.
How do I find and rent a vacation home?
Most vacation rental apartments and homes are found online. But that’s not the only way to find one that suits your needs.
- Online. Via a listing website like Vrbo or Airbnb. There’s also a site called HiChee that lets you search both platforms, plus “by owner” vacation rentals.
- Through a travel agency. Agents can offer vacation rental homes through their reservation systems.
- Through the classifieds section. Newspapers and magazines sometimes list short-term rentals, and there’s always the online classifieds, such as Craigslist. Warning: Craigslist listings tend to be scammy.
- In person. If you’re staying at a destination and see a “for rent” sign, it’s worth asking if there’s some availability next year, if you’re planning to return. Reserving a property a year in advance offers many benefits such as the ability to negotiate a favorable rental rate. You’ll also be able to take a good look at the property and neighborhood, and have personal interaction with the owner or manager.
Should I send a friend to inspect my rental?
Yes, if you can. If you are staying in an area to visit friends, ask them to contact the owner or management company, and inspect the property before you rent. If the unit is unoccupied, there’s a good chance they’ll be able to do a quick inspection. This can even result in a lower price since the owner/management company will know the local can refer future customers.
What’s the differences between professionally managed and “by owner” vacation rentals?
A vacation home is a vacation home, right? Well, not necessarily. At some level, you’re getting essentially the same or a similar product, no matter who you’re renting from, but behind the scenes there are some noteworthy differences.
A management company will almost always offer several payment options, including a credit card. Professional managers also use a more standard contract, so you’re less likely to find a surprise (but you should still read your contract thoroughly). You will usually find a 24-hour customer service contact, in case something happens while you’re renting. Some higher-end rentals also offer a concierge service for restaurant reservations and events. Above all, a professionally managed rental will come with a baseline level of services, such as professionally cleaned premises, towels, and linens, and a written guarantee that everything will be in working order when you check in. Note: In some areas, towels and linens are almost never included, no matter how you rent. In North Carolina’s Outer Banks, for example, linens are almost always extra. Keep an eye out for “junk” fees like a “reservation fee” or a “damage waiver fee” that might pop up without warning.
“By owner” rentals
Since the owner is responsible for maintenance, upkeep (even if the property is handled by a management company), and any customer service aspects of your rental, the service and amenities might vary. Pay close attention to any online reviews, recommendations from friends, and references provided by the owner. Don’t expect any 24-hour hotline or concierge service, although owners are typically very responsive to their customers.
Is there an agency that certifies vacation homes?
Not really. Some of the larger property management companies are affiliated with the Vacation Rental Managers Association, the trade group for professional vacation rental managers. Not to be confused with Vrbo, a popular site for “by owner” vacation rentals.
How professional is my professional rental manager?
Membership in the Vacation Rental Managers Association indicates that a management company is dedicated to elevating the vacation rental industry as a whole, and therefore your stay as well. Its members are more likely to hold themselves to a higher standard, including investing in staff education/training and following best practices to stay abreast of industry trends and the example set by the VRMA’s Code of Ethics and Business Practices. These are all designed to improve your experience.
You can expect these companies to have a variety of properties to choose from, with reservation agents who can help you pick a property that will fit your needs. VRMA companies also provide 24/7 service, so if something happens during your stay, you have access to a real person on standby who can be there quickly to help.
Should I avoid renting a “by owner” property?
No. While you’ll get some peace of mind from a managed property, you can find many quality “by owner” properties on the market, too. In fact, if you’re a hands-on property owner, it may not make much sense to hand your rental over to a real estate agency. Do the math. Once you factor in a 30 percent commission paid to the manager, a $100 per rental cleaning fee, and up to 2 percent to use a credit card, it’s more profitable to handle the rental yourself. What those numbers tell me is that by ruling out “by owner” properties, you’re ignoring a huge segment of the market — and possibly the perfect vacation rental.
What’s a vacation rental survival kit?
Did I already mention that a vacation rental isn’t a hotel? A time or two, maybe. Really, it isn’t. For some properties, you need a vacation rental survival kit.
- Toilet paper. Every vacation rental should have full rolls of toilet paper in every bathroom. Extras? Don’t count on it.
- Tinfoil, plastic wrap, and garbage bags. If you’re planning to cook, you’ll need a few basic items. Some vacation rentals are stocked with these, but you can’t count on it. Ask before you check in.
- Knives. Every vacation rental I’ve ever stayed in has the dullest kitchen knives. If you plan to cook, pack your favorites in a checked bag (if you’re flying).
- Oils and spices. Again, some homes may have these basic cooking ingredients, but they might not. (Unless the items are unopened, they may violate safety regulations and standards.)
- Laundry liquid and dish detergent. Some rentals come with more than you can use; others don’t even have a bar of soap. You can ask about the supplies, but the best plan is to swing by the rental, do an inventory, and head for the supermarket.
- Wi-Fi hotspot. Many vacation rentals claim to have “wireless” Internet, but it’s sometimes slow or nonexistent. If you positively need to stay in touch with the outside world, bring your own hotspot on your phone, or tether your cell phone to your laptop or tablet. Better yet, make sure they have cell phone reception in the area. Otherwise, you could be out of touch.
Will my rental come with sheets and towels?
Not necessarily. Don’t assume; always ask if linens will be included in the rental. Many properties will add a surcharge for linens, and others don’t offer them at all. The last thing you want is to be stuck at a property at 11 p.m. without any sheets for your bed.
Can I have a big party in my vacation rental?
Don’t rent a vacation rental to have a party unless this is disclosed and agreed upon in advance with the owner. In 2021, Airbnb temporarily banned parties in its homes and in 2022 it made the ban permanent. Among the restrictions: Guests without a history of positive reviews on Airbnb may not make a one-night reservation.
Also, don’t sneak in pets where they are not allowed or paid for. Don’t ignore parking restrictions, don’t bring extra guests, don’t smoke inside if it is prohibited, and don’t disrupt the neighborhood. Renting a vacation home is a two-way street, where an owner is entrusting you and your group with what may be their largest asset, their house. Behave!
What kind of vacation rental traps should I know about?
Rental does not exist
Here’s a problem that affects some rental listings online or through a classified section. They always insist that you wire money, and when you arrive to check in, the vacation home doesn’t exist. The best way to avoid it: Don’t wire money, and look up the property online before signing a contract. If in doubt, check with the state and/or local municipality to confirm whether the manager or owner has a business license and is paying lodging taxes.
You put what in the contract?
Since there’s no “standard” home rental contract, you can find all kinds of surprises in the fine print. The most unpleasant ones allow the homeowner or manager to pocket your deposit for virtually any reason. Others permit the owner to add excessive cleaning fees and other frivolous surcharges to your final bill. These can be negotiated, but only before you sign. So allow plenty of time to peruse the rental documents before you sign and pay a deposit.
Owner does not exist
In the last few years, phishing scams have proliferated that target the owners of vacation rentals. The only way to be certain that you’re dealing with a real owner is to call the number of a listing on a vacation rental platform. Phone numbers are harder to fake. The only way to avoid being scammed is to never ever, ever wire money, and to have a phone conversation with the owner.
I can’t do that in my rental?
Since you’re renting a home and not a hotel room, you may face some unusual restrictions on how you use the property. To comply with local ordinances, the contract may specifically forbid you to have more than a certain number of guests join you in the rental. You may not be able to park your car in front of the building. You may not be able to invite more than a certain number of people over for a dinner party. Bear in mind, there are no standards when it comes to vacation rentals, so pay attention to every page of your contract.
How does the vacation rental phishing scam work?
Scammers sometimes steal vacation rental owners’ e-mail passwords to assume their identity, a crime called phishing. These crimes have affected rentals arranged online, mostly through large booking sites.
These criminals aren’t dummies. They use clever techniques to harvest the email password of a vacation rental owner, and then assume that person’s identity. The bad guys have real-looking contracts. They mimic their emails with uncanny accuracy. They’ll even negotiate with you, pretending to offer you a better rate. Remember, if it looks too good to be true, it probably is.
Never. Wire. Money. Don’t send money by wire to anyone — ever.
How do I protect myself from a scammy rental?
Some large websites that deal with vacation rentals offer insurance that will cover your rental. For example, Vrbo will sell you what it calls a Carefree Rental Guarantee that covers losses related to phishing. You should also speak directly to the owner before you sign your paperwork. By calling the number on an official listing, you can be reasonably sure you’re dealing with the correct owner. Still — and this bears repeating — do not wire money.
What are some contract red flags I should look for in a vacation rental?
Just as a hotel may not initially offer a “grand” total for your stay, so also a vacation rental won’t always show all its cards. You should expect to pay cleaning fees, taxes and a damage waiver or deposit. In some cases, you may also find costs similar to other lodging options: reservation fees, credit card convenience fees, resort amenity fees, or fees for pets, cancellations, and departure deviations. Increasingly, vacation rental owners are relying on fees to earn a profit.
Here are a few questions you should ask before signing:
What’s the deposit for the rental?
When is it owed, and when is it refunded? Are there any special circumstances under which it can be kept?
Is there a damage waiver?
More travelers today will find damage waivers as an alternative or add-on to the traditional security deposit. The damage waiver is a nonrefundable fee that protects you from being charged for any accidental damage to the property up to a certain dollar limit. Each of these options will be detailed in the rental agreement.
What’s the cleaning fee?
Cleaning fees can vary as widely as vacation rental properties do, so there’s not an average fee travelers can come to expect. Since property sizes can range from studio suites to homes with upwards of 20 bedrooms, the cost will be relative to the size of the rental or the number of rooms.
Are there any taxes?
If taxes are not required for your rental, it could be a red flag that the rental is not licensed or approved for short-term rental. Lodging taxes are typically collected in line with local regulations, so each reservation will be different, as it varies from state to state and even company to company. Some states allow for tax-inclusive rates, so be sure to ask what the total tax rate will be for your stay and whether it’s included in the price you’ve been quoted. Travelers should plan to pay standard sales and bed taxes, which are dictated by the county where the property resides.
How about pets?
If you’re thinking of bringing Rover on vacation, check the fine print in your contract first. You may not be able to, or you may have to pay a hefty cleaning fee for the privilege, even if your furry friend stays outside. Or you may lose your entire deposit for violating your contract.
Am I old enough?
Some vacation rentals refuse to do business with anyone under 25 — even if they’re responsible 25-year-olds with jobs and mortgages. Spring Break ruined it for everyone! (Unfortunately, in the United States, federal law allows landlords to turn you down for a rental based on your age.)
Is there a minimum length of stay?
During peak season or holidays, most rentals require that you stay at least a week. You can find especially great two- or three-night stays during the off-season, when booking last minute or even in specific rental properties. Other areas have ordinances banning short-term rentals. If you’re not planning to stay that long, you may need to look for a hotel. Occasionally, it will be a better value if you book the minimum stay and leave when you need to. The nightly rate is easily compared to a hotel’s.
This listing looks too good to be true. Is it?
A vacation rental listing may be legit in the sense that it exists, but how can you tell if it is what it says it is? Online reviews and testimonials can help, but remember — those can be doctored and manipulated. Sometimes you can ferret out a fake by reading the property description carefully.
Do the photos look like they’re right outta Architectural Digest?
Do they use wide-angle lenses or angles that make the home appear as if it’s the only house on the beach? Are the interior shots over-staged? These could be signs that the property owner is trying to make the home look better than it actually is. Then again, the property could live up to its billing. If possible, cross-check it on Google Maps, and use the “street view” option, which may give you a better idea of what the rental actually looks like. Also, find a reliable crime map and make sure you’re not on the wrong side of the tracks.
Is the description too wordy?
Look for a clear, no-nonsense description of the property. If it takes two paragraphs to tell you how many bedrooms and bathrooms the home offers, and another paragraph to inform you there’s a pool, then you could be in trouble. More on that in a minute.
Are they using too many superlatives?
Most owners and managers are too smart to call their property the “best” property in the area that’s “perfect” for your next vacation, but look for other embellishments that may or may not be true. Trigger words include: convenient, spacious, relaxing, and well-appointed. When a property claims to be “centrally located,” and a map shows it to be miles out of town — don’t walk, run away!
What do those rental descriptions really mean?
Property descriptions can predict the actual experience. But mind the buzzwords! The vacation rental industry sometimes uses the same tired phrases to describe its product, and just seeing these words in a property description makes me suspicious, because they’re such a cliché. Here’s how I interpret them:
Classic – Like staying at Grandma’s, only you pay for it.
Clean – But the rest of the neighborhood is chaos.
Cozy – It’s a closet.
Inviting – Takes a good picture, but nothing works.
Private – You’ll never find it.
Romantic – Kids not welcome.
Rustic – No sign of civilization.
Secure – It’s in a bad neighborhood.
Warm – The AC doesn’t always work.
I have more information about these red flags in my story on vacation buzzwords to avoid.
What does travel insurance cover?
Your vacation rental platform may strongly recommend travel insurance. It’s definitely worth considering, but there are limits to travel insurance.
Travel insurance companies offer policies that cover trip interruptions, coverage for illness or injury, and protect your nonrefundable deposit. They offer these coverages as part of their standard travel insurance program, so there’s no need to ask for a specific “vacation rental” travel insurance policy.
In addition, vacation rental platforms do a hard sell on their travel insurance policies. These offer the same basic protections as travel insurance. However, they also offer optional damage coverage. (Vrbo, for example, charges $59 for $1,500 of coverage.)
As a frequent vacation rental guest, I’ve experienced two claims. One claim on a sofa was easy and relatively painless. The other, for a missing curtain rod, was so bureaucratic that the host gave up.)
Travel insurance will not cover a fraudulent money transfer. Normally, there are exclusions for intentional damage. They include natural disasters, wear and tear, and the kind of damage you would find in the aftermath of a party (“intentional acts or gross negligence,” in travel insurance parlance).
How do I resolve a dispute with a vacation rental owner or property manager?
Disagreements over rental homes can quickly deteriorate into nasty, personal fights that spill over to social media. You don’t want that to happen, and chances are, neither does the rental owner. With a vacation rental, there are a few strategies to consider:
Real time is better than later
Minor problems such as a TV that doesn’t work, or a refrigerator that isn’t making crushed ice, can and should be addressed then and there, not after you return from your vacation. The property owner or manager has more options, including fixing the problem (obviously) or knocking a few dollars off your bill. If you’ve rented from a large management company, you have some added assurance – they are typically on-site or nearby to handle any issues or to pay for repair costs. If needed, a company may have dozens if not hundreds of other properties available. In an emergency breakdown situation, the management company may be able to transfer you to another of their listed properties. Don’t count on this, however, in peak season.
Your rental contract is your friend
Just like the airline contract of carriage, or the cruise ticket contract, you’ll want to refer to the actual agreement when you have a major complaint. If you’ve read it before you rented (you did read it, didn’t you?), then you know what your rights are, and can make an informed argument.
State and local ordinances apply
You don’t have to be a lawyer to look up lodging laws, and to consult any local rules that apply to your rental. Generally, state lodging laws favor the innkeeper, and local ordinances rarely, if ever, apply to a customer service problem. However, citing a law that may apply underscores your seriousness, and may eliminate a trip back to your destination to visit small claims court.
Be. Extra. Nice.
Whether you’re dealing with a vacation rental professional or an owner, it matters not. Remember, this is someone’s home. They’re bound to take your displeasure personally. Politeness has never been more important to you — or more helpful.
Contact the Elliott Advocacy team for help.
Can you get your money back if you’ve been scammed by a vacation rental owner?
All of which brings us back to Powers. He contacted me earlier this year and shared his correspondence with Vrbo and the scammer.
Reading it was heartbreaking. The criminals had done their homework. They had real contracts, and their pricing was good, but not too good. They had studied the psychology of a vacation rental guest. And they clearly knew which buttons to push, and when.
Powers suggested that Vrbo had some responsibility since he had found the listing on its site. I agreed that Vrbo should at least review his case to conduct a forensic investigation. What had gone wrong here? How did a scammer apparently get past its vetting process and take a customer for almost $10k.
I made repeated efforts to contact Vrbo on Powers’ behalf, but it did not respond.
All is not lost, though. Powers had reported the scam to his bank. Under Regulation E, it should have conducted a full investigation and refunded his money. So that’s where we are at the moment, awaiting word on his Regulation E dispute. I’ll update this story when the case closes.