How to handle a vacation rental disaster

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By Christopher Elliott

To say that Alan Muskat’s accommodations in Costa Rica were a vacation rental disaster would be an understatement.

“It was horrid,” Muskat says. Mosquitoes buzzed through gaping holes in the screens. Termites infested the kitchen. The roof leaked.

“Worst of all, it had fleas,” he remembers.

Muskat rented the house through Airbnb and paid just $1,200 for the entire month, which seemed almost too good to be true. Turns out it was the first clue that he might be heading for a vacation rental disaster.

Vacation rental stays don’t always go as planned. Sometimes, properties don’t match their description. Sometimes, owners neglect to clean — or fumigate — the home. And sometimes, your money’s gone.

But that doesn’t have to happen to you. A little pre-trip research and quick action when something goes wrong can help you avoid a replay of Muskat’s vacation rental disaster. Also, don’t believe everything you read.

How to avoid a vacation rental disaster

You can avoid a vacation rental disaster by doing your homework, experts say.

“So many horror stories begin with properties that oversell themselves,” says Jessica Vozel, who co-founded a company called Guest Hook that helps write property descriptions. “Guests arrive to a reality that’s completely different than they imagined, and the letdown from their daydreams is nearly as crushing as the rental’s actual problems.”

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I know what that’s like. I recently rented properties in Salt Lake City and Colorado Springs from Airbnb. They were substandard, at best. In Salt Lake City, the century-old home lacked basic facilities such as a washer and dryer, a reliable Internet connection and essential kitchen utensils. It looked like a college dorm room — not at all what the description promised.

In Colorado Springs, when I checked in, the owner met me in person and insisted that I feed her cat every day, noting that I had “evicted” her from her own home by renting it. The heat worked intermittently, and the Internet connection faded in and out.

Vacation rental disaster 101: Say something now!

Muskat tried negotiating with the owner for several weeks before notifying Airbnb. A site such as Airbnb only allows a limited time to leave a review or file a complaint. “By then I couldn’t even write a bad review,” he says. “The moral of the story is to do like Airbnb says and involve them immediately.”

That’s a good lesson for anyone with a vacation rental problem. Don’t wait until the end of your stay to say something — or worse, until you’re home. The owner, rental manager or company through which you booked your rental will have limited options for addressing your concerns by then.

In the end, Airbnb offered Muskat a $522 credit for a future stay.

Here’s what you need to do to fix a bad rental experience: Let the property owner know the place isn’t acceptable. A phone call or text message to the owner or manager is a necessary first step. A direct, written appeal to the management company or third-party site such as Airbnb can also help. The sooner you say something, the better.

Can you trust guest reviews?

In both of my vacation rental disaster cases, I relied on someone else to research the properties. My mistake. I should have taken the time to review each property listing myself. I should also have consulted a site such as Google Maps to view the actual property online, instead of relying on rosy photos submitted by the property owner.

What about guest reviews? You can’t always trust them. To leave a review, you have to stay in the property. For many of the worst experiences, travelers turn around at the front door, which means they can’t rate the property.

Sites such as Airbnb also allow property owners to review guests, so there’s an implied threat that if you don’t leave a positive review, the owner will retaliate with a negative guest review, which will affect your ability to rent from the site in the future.

Result: Many of the user-generated reviews hosted by vacation rental sites are unhelpful. In fact, my Colorado Springs host, anticipating my displeasure, launched a pre-emptive strike and left a negative review about me. Then, Airbnb sent a warning that “Guests who receive multiple negative reviews may not be able to book a future stay on Airbnb.”

Since then, I’ve decided to deal only with professional vacation rental managers or real estate agents. A site such as Turnkey, Vacasa or Wyndham Vacation Rentals offers higher standards and better accountability when something goes wrong.

I also deleted my Airbnb account.

About those vacation rental guarantees

Who has them? Some third-party sites offer guarantees designed to increase your confidence in your rental. For example, Airbnb has a page explaining why you can “trust” its product. HomeAway has a “book with confidence” guarantee and FlipKey has a “payment protection” plan.

Do these guarantees work? Sometimes. For major problems, they can be useful. But mind the fine print. Consider FlipKey’s protection plan, which offers “extra peace of mind.” But the small print reveals that you can only invoke it if you’re prevented or denied access to your rental when you check in or the property is “misrepresented.” By that, it means “differing substantially to what was advertised.” It doesn’t apply to the cleanliness of the rental, minor differences in the location of the rental, the availability of local attractions or maintenance issues with amenities or services. (Related: Was his vacation rental too good to be true?)

How do you get a vacation rental site to help? Most successful vacation rental cases use a combination of the vaguely worded guarantee and pressure applied to the owner or manager. While imprecise guarantees may allow vacation rental managers to squirm out of some situations, a direct appeal to address a problem “in the interests of good customer service” can lead to a speedy resolution.

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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.

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