I slammed my Kona condo online and now it’s keeping my deposit

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By Christopher Elliott

With its dramatic black volcanic rock, stunning seascapes, and impossibly tasty coffee, Kona, Hawaii is one of the world’s most unexpected destinations. And when Lynn Regan booked a condo there last year, she was looking forward to experiencing the Big Island’s differentness.

She didn’t expect to get a different condo than the one she’d reserved – but that’s exactly what she says happened.

Although her story touches on a lot of current consumer travel problems with vacation rentals, such as reputation management, user-generated reviews and product consistency, it all comes down to a single question: Should I try to help this aggrieved customer?

Paradise lost

Back in April 2011, she says she began looking for vacation rentals in Hawaii. She found the condos at the Royal Kahili, and did her due diligence. She read the reviews on VRBO.com, looked up the property on Google Street View, contacted the owner and then, after reviewing the contract carefully, sent a deposit.

When she checked in last December, here’s what she found:

The linens were badly stained and needed replacement, including a bloodstained bedspread which really needed a wash.

There was a great deal of corrosion everywhere, which meant that screens and windows and sliders were sometimes working or only partially working and showerheads barely worked.

The toilet in one bathroom ran a small amount of water constantly, the other toilet was not bolted down at all.

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The kitchen and bathrooms were unrenovated and would be the originals from the 1970s. However, they were reasonably clean; there was a new fridge, and a new large flat screen TV, and some decent living room furniture.

And that wasn’t all. Other items included stained ceilings, and grubby patches on the carpets, including a big cut and paste carpet patch in the master bedroom. There were new living room curtains and rods, but the old rods hadn’t been taken down, giving a distinctly tacky feel. (Related: Vacation rental warning words: don’t book if you see this!)

Most important, it looked nothing like to advertised room. But Regan tried not to let her get it down.

“Certainly we made do while we were there,” she says. “I washed stuff and vacuumed, and decided not to let it bug me while I was on vacation.”

Hawaii hideaway havoc

She brought up the problems with the condo manager, but it did her no good. Under Hawaii law, every owner must have a local representative, and that person couldn’t be found. Another condo manager tried to help her, but his options were limited.

Why not do a little research online or make a few phone calls?

Regan says she couldn’t. She’s Canadian, she was worried that spending a lot of time online would rack up a big cellular bill. So she let it slide until she returned home, which is when she decided to write a review on VRBO.com.

That’s when she discovered she wasn’t alone, and that others had experienced trouble with the same resort. (Here’s our guide to resolving your consumer problem.)

Then the owner responded to her complaint with a rebuttal:

Our unit is priced according to the fact that yes, the kitchen counters need an upgrade as do the bathrooms. Our kitchen features new appliances such as a fridge and dishwasher.

However, this is the first I’ve been told that there are problems with the bed linens and a toilet needing to be bolted in properly from any guests.

Had these issues been presented to me during their stay like their signed rental agreement states, they would have been addressed immediately.

These issues have already been taken care of. We did a thorough check of the unit with our maintenance and everything is up to par.

She also withheld Regan’s deposit.

“I guess I should have waited a little while before I spoke up,” she says.

Regan believes the owner is pocketing the deposit because of her write-up. Sound familiar?

She also dug further and found that the owner was involved in some basic reputation management maneuvers, which included creating a Facebook page, blog, and selling rooms through AirBnB – activities she says are meant to “minimize” the negative reviews.

Vacation rental quandary

Nothing illegal about that, though.

She wrote a letter to the owner and heard back from Cynthia Leporte, a reservations manager, who said under the terms of her contract, Regan was required to report any problems with the condo within 24 hours of arrival.

“Since the conditions of the rental agreement were not followed,” she wrote, “the refund is void.”

What a strange case.

As my advocacy team and I review all the correspondence between Regan and the condo representative, I’m really torn. Clearly, Regan didn’t get the accommodations she was expecting. But whatever happened during her rental, she also didn’t report it to the right person. That makes me wonder if I’m getting the entire story.

At the same time, the condo owner’s actions make me suspicious. I believe Regan when she says the unit didn’t look right, and while I don’t have a problem with reputation management that is honest, the condo owner’s efforts seem more promotional.

I think she’s entitled to an explanation for why the deposit is being withheld. But beyond that, I’m not sure if I can — or should — push for a partial refund of her stay.

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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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