Ripped off by your vacation rental? Not if you read this

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Christopher Elliott

It’s vacation rental horror story season.

It’s the time of year when everyone loves to complain about that overpriced home that ended up being a dump, or the greedy landlord who pocketed their deposit — or worse, a completely fraudulent listing, where they wired money to a fake “owner.”

This year is no different.

I’ve heard from people like Paulina Witkowski, a physical therapist assistant from Redmond, Wash., who paid $5,100 to rent a home in Costa Rica through VRBO.com, a rental website. It fell dramatically short of its billing, featuring a broken air conditioner, a busted dryer and an ant colony.

Witkowski checked out early and asked the owner for a partial refund. Instead, he kept all of her money, which she’d prepaid through PayPal, in addition to her $500 deposit.

Ouch.

“We feel defrauded, taken advantage of and cheated,” she says.

That doesn’t have to happen to you. If you book smart, use the latest technology and know the trouble spots, you can enjoy a problem-free rental.

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Vacation rentals aren’t hotels, and the sites you book them through aren’t like travel agencies. Generally, vacation rental listings are like classified ads in your paper — a place where someone can advertise an available rental. Run into a problem with your unit and you’re basically on your own.

Some vacation rental sites offer insurance or a vague promise to protect customers from unscrupulous landlords, but when push comes to shove, they either side with the rental owners — who, after all, are paying for the listing — or hide behind the vague wording of their “guarantee.”

But help is on the way. A new site called SafelyStay, which launched recently, promises to make vacation home reservations as safe and efficient as a branded hotel stay. The site runs background checks on both the host and guest. That’s right, I said guest.

SafelyStay runs customer names through its database of “problem” customers, checking for felonies and sex offenders. It also eliminates the need for a security deposit, instead holding your reservation funds in escrow to protect against fraud and to ensure the home exists and is as described.

“If not, we help the guest find a substitute home or hotel,” says Andrew Bate, SafelyStay’s chief executive.

There are more conventional ways to make sure your vacation rental doesn’t head south. Nothing protects you against a scammy rental like solid research. An unscrupulous vacation rental manager can’t hide from every online review. Read the reviews and you’ll stay out of trouble, says Ilke Lander, who owns a cabin rental business with her husband in Georgia’s Blue Ridge Mountains.

“Make sure you are also reading the management responses,” she advises. “There are unhappy people in all industries. But the management response will really show you how they handle grievances.”

From whom you rent matters, too. Virtually all of the horror stories I field are “by owner” rentals, offered directly by homeowners. But that’s not your only option. Professionally managed rental agencies run and serviced by a full-time staff can offer more services and higher standards, but they tend to be a little pricier. It’s a trade-off — a little more money for a little more security.

Witkowski’s case had a bittersweet ending. I contacted VRBO.com on her behalf, and it got in touch with the rental owner, who agreed to refund half the deposit. Why only half? He claimed two keys were missing and that she’d left the unit door open, resulting in water damage. “How can they get away with this?” asks Witkowski.

Let’s all do what we can to prevent them from it next time.

Did VRBO do enough for Paulina Witkowski?

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How to avoid getting scammed by your vacation rental

Never wire money. Fraudsters love to steal the identities of vacation rental owners and then promise would-be guests deep discounts if they wire the money. Unbelievably, this scam shows no sign of slowing. Bottom line: Use a credit card to pay for your vacation rental. No exceptions.

Don’t believe the hype. Vacation rental owners sometimes exaggerate. Listings can lie. Scrutinize the reviews and do a little online sleuthing. Google Street View is an excellent way to determine if that cute cottage actually offers an oceanfront view. Don’t just take their word for it.

Read the contract. There is no standard home rental contract, so the fine print can hide a lot of unpleasant surprises. Among them: clauses that allow the homeowner to pocket your deposit for virtually any reason or that permit a manager to add cleaning fees and other frivolous surcharges to your final bill. These can be negotiated, but do so before you sign.

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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 weekly columns for King Features Syndicate, USA Today, Forbes and the Washington Post. He also publishes 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 Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter. Read more of Christopher's articles here.

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