Can you trust a vacation rental?

Your next rental? / Photo by Loren Sztajer/ Flickr
The two-bedroom apartment in the trendy Tunali neighbor-hood of Ankara, Turkey, that Richard and Ellen Lacroix rented through Airbnb fell dramatically short of their expectations.

It was, they say, infested with mosquitoes, smelled of cigarette smoke and had the general appearance of a college dorm room. The bathrooms weren’t stocked with toilet paper, the doors didn’t close all the way and the promised WiFi signal was dead on arrival. “The place was a dump,” says Richard Lacroix, a retired engineering consultant from Arlington, Mass.

Lacroix knew that he was taking a chance by booking a rental apartment online through Airbnb, which matches people who need a place to stay with people who have one to rent and which doesn’t operate under the same standards as a hotel. But he thought that making a reservation through a trusted intermediary meant that there’d be a minimum level of service and that he’d have someone to turn to in case the accommodations didn’t live up to their billing. It turns out that this isn’t necessarily the case.

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The $24 billion vacation rental industry is struggling to reassure customers like Lacroix that it can be trusted. This fall, the Vacation Rental Managers Association, the 27-year-old trade association for vacation rentals, set out to change its image. It wants to convince travelers that a professionally managed vacation rental property can be just as good as, and maybe better than, a hotel. Steve Trover, the association’s president, calls the group a “new brand” in the lodging business.

The dominant home-rental Web site, HomeAway, recently rolled out a new program called HomeAway Secure Communication that offers a safer way to book, similar to the way you book at hotels. Its goal is to protect owners and customers from phishing, a form of online fraud that involves criminals who pose as property owners and fraudulently collect rental payments. “HomeAway would be able to ensure the legitimacy of the owner or property manager and the traveler,” said Tom Hale, the company’s chief product officer.

And Airbnb, expanding its role beyond that of just a broker between homeowner and renter, last summer introduced the Airbnb Host Guarantee, which covers hosts for up to $1 million for loss or damage due to theft or vandalism caused by an Airbnb guest.

These varied moves share a common goal, industry-watchers say: to assure renters and homeowners that they can feel confident about their next vacation rental.

But we’re not there yet, to hear Lacroix and other guests talk about it. When he called Airbnb from Turkey, a representative told him that the problems were merely “cosmetic” and helped him fix the WiFi signal. The company agreed to credit him only $13 – 25 percent off the nightly rate – to compensate for the broken WiFi connection.

Lacroix contacted me for help after sending Airbnb photos of the rental and again being rebuffed. I asked Monroe Labouisse, Airbnb’s director of customer service, to review the complaint. “It was clearly not a good experience,” he agreed.

An investigation revealed that Lacroix’s host hadn’t really offered sufficient details about the rental online and “didn’t provide enough care and attention to preparing it for Richard’s visit,” Labouisse says. Airbnb issued Lacroix a full refund and a $25 coupon for a future purchase through Airbnb.

Like many other guests, Lacroix wasn’t looking for a cookie-cutter, chain-hotel experience, just a reasonably tidy apartment that didn’t smell bad. Hotels can impose standards on their franchisees and owners, but rental owners and managers can’t be controlled in the same way. (For example, Airbnb’s policies say only that a unit must be “properly cleaned,” but they don’t define “clean.”)

And that’s the thing. Although the vacation rental industry wants your trust – wants you to think of it as if it were a kind of hotel – it doesn’t hold itself to the same standards that most hotels do. To some observers, that makes HomeAway’s and Airbnb’s recent changes, as well intentioned as they may be, look like window dressing. “I don’t think a vacation rental can ever be a hotel,” says Christine Karpinski of Austin, author of the book “How to Rent Vacation Properties by Owner.” She says that “having standards in the transaction process is a good thing. But you can’t standardize the business.”

The fact remains that when you book a vacation rental, you’re usually dealing directly with an owner or property manager, not with a sophisticated reservation system controlled by a corporation, as you would with many hotels.

The vacation rental association is working on setting industry-wide standards for how vacation rentals are searched and booked online through a system that will be called the Vacation Rental Switch. But there are no broadly accepted standards from one vacation rental property to the next. Even basic amenities such as toilet paper or sheets on a bed aren’t a given.

“It would be nice if I could know if I need to bring my blow-dryer,” Karpinski says. “That’s not gonna happen.”

All the guarantees, promises and new systems won’t change the basic vacation rental product. And with more homeowners trying to cash in on their residences through services such as Airbnb, guests still have to engage in diligent research before they book a rental property.

As more travelers consider short-term rentals, they’re discovering a new and often unpredictable world in which a different set of rules often applies. In that world, a professionally managed property might be more likely to have upscale amenities than one that you book through a bare-bones Web site. Or you could get lucky and find an unmanaged property on Craigslist at half the price and with ideal creature comforts. You never know.

Don’t be swayed by promises and pledges, though. The most important thing is the contract, which you should – as always – read carefully.

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