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

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.”

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Generali Global Assistance. Generali Global Assistance has been a leading provider of travel insurance and other assistance services for more than 25 years. We offer a full suite of innovative, vertically integrated travel insurance and emergency services. Generali Global Assistance is part of The Europ Assistance (EA) Group, who pioneered the travel assistance industry in 1963 and continues to be the leader in providing real-time assistance anywhere in the world, delivering on our motto – You Live, We Care.

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, 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.


“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.

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 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.

33 thoughts on “Ripped off by your vacation rental? Not if you read this

  1. If she paid the entire bill in full and at one time through Paypal, she should read the terms because she may have some protection, depending on how long between the time she paid and the time of her stay/complaint. Also, the property owner needs to itemize the damages if they are claiming an issue.

  2. When I started in the travel industry, I handled condo rentals exclusively. I worked with a network of condo owners, developers, and managers who had access to various inventory through a variety of sources. But, sometimes, I just didn’t find what the client wanted and could find it through a site like VRBO. I hated going that route, because there’s no guarantee of any kind – the reliance on the owner-supplied information with no verification was a big issue, as well as the financial management of the rental. I’m happy to hear someone is making an effort to improve the situation – holding funds in escrow is a great idea!

  3. We rent apartments and have had one bad experience. We want “non smoking” and “no pets” and have always gotten what we request. Have rented a Paris penthouse for years and leave it as we found it. Cleaned and polished. Have had bad experiences in the past — one == the toilet room was so small you had to get in sideways. I weigh 98 pounds and it was a struggle for me even. Another had one bedsheet on the wall and it was to cover mold on the wall. But, the good experiences outweigh the bad!!!

  4. With VRBO, they explicitly don’t provide much of a Guarantee just through booking (they even call it a “Basic Guarantee”), and make no bones to the customer about being little more than a listing service and conduit for payment.

    They DO, however, offer optional insurance where they will take on substantial risk, including material representation, and a wrongfully withheld damage deposit; the policy is offered on every booking page. But you have to pay for it, not decline it and then ask VRBO to help you afterwards anyway. I think VRBO did as much as could be expected for a customer that declined the insurance that would have covered such things.

  5. We don’t just Google street view – I also get the address of the owner and check it out as legit as well. Luckily I’ve never had an issue with an unscrupulous landlord. Just research the heck out of the area and the owner.

  6. I used VRBO to rent homes at least twelve times in the last 15 years in the U.S. Only twice did I have a problem, once, at a ski resort and the place was much smaller than advertised and, the other time, a beach rental that was moldy throughout the downstairs. VRBO didn’t take responsibility for either listing. Unfortunately, VRBO I’ve read way too many negatives on numerous review sites and I’ve given up even looking at their site. I really hope this new service will fill the gaps that VRBO wouldn’t take responsibility for because such services can lead you to stay in interesting places and much more convenient places than run of the mill hotels.

  7. Read the reviews. Talk to the owners. I would rent from an owner in a nano-second before renting from a mgt company. If a property has great reviews, and the owner responsed to reviews you can tell a bunch. They can have years of history. This should be your lead in sentence for your article: “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.’

  8. Some of those VBRO scam rentals even include a “will not leave a negative review” in the contract. Don’t forget that. I think we saw a case like that here a few years ago…

  9. Mr. Elliott – it would be nice of you to give a more balanced story than the one you told in order to sell a product. I know lots of horror stories about professional management companies and I am offended by your pitch. My potential guests read our reviews (which cannot be manufactured), telephone and engage in discussions with me on email. Their protection can also come from their credit card companies and PayPal. VRBO also offers a guarantee if you pay through its website. Please stop maligning the honest vacation rental owners who work tirelessly to provide a fabulous vacation experience to their guests. Yes, there are crooks out there but dealing with owners directly is no more risky than through a management company.

      1. As a vacation rental owner, I have to say that we work hard to ensure our properties more than meet expectations. I think your article should have started and ended with the last bullet point, READ THE CONTRACT, READ THE HOME DESCRIBTION. All the answers are found within. I find the most common and persistent problem is that people do not read. I did, after read thru your FB page, the ‘sidebar’ articles. I’m thinking that your entire ‘travel advisor career’ is based the fact that you were, at least in the beginning, one that does not read. Your articles are for those who like to learn the hard way.

        1. What makes you think that Chris, even in his early career, did not read? That’s probably the oddest accusation that anyone has posted here!

          1. @disqus_Af39FpMast:disqus it’s odd, yes, but some of my critics love to use that one. They say I advocate for people who can’t read. It’s so strange and obviously untrue, it’s not even worth a response. Also, it says more about the people using it than the ones I help. Actually, makes me wonder if they can read. 😉

          2. Yes, but why does he think that you yourself can’t read?? Very odd. Of course, I’d hate to be judged by my own FB page and can’t imagine why anyone would think that that was the key to understanding anyone.

    1. What product do you think that Mr. Elliott is selling? He is a consumer advocate. If you deal honestly with your guests, you have nothing to fear. If not, you may be hearing from him in the future.

      1. Mr. Elliott promotes himself as a journalist and a consumer advocate. However, he used the term “imbalanced”, a word that doesn’t mean what he thinks it does – he should have used the term “unbalanced” (look it up), and says he is a consumer advocate but is promoting a product called SafelyStay, which as far as I can tell, has absolutely no transparency to its site. It’s selling its services to property managers – that’s what it claims in its email sent to me. No mention of fees or costs – just telling you to log in and join the family…

          1. Chris, in my mind, your credibility is solid … I am a very cynical person with years of travel experience. I read the SafetyStay information thoroughly, thinking this might be something I would like to use. I doubted that you were being compensated for passing on this information … but the one thing that I would guarantee anyone is that IF you were taking compensation, you would have declared that right up front. People just don’t seem to be comfortable with the knowledge that someone like you is who he is, period.

        1. Are you asking whether Mr. Elliott is being paid a commission or fee by SafelyStay? I tend to doubt it. I checked the website and, as he says, it’s only just starting up. Having once returned to a vacation rental in Manhattan to find yellow police tape across the doorway, leaving me homeless because the apartment’s real tenant hadn’t paid the rent, I think background checks are a really good idea.

        2. No Big Ting your posts are getting flagged. You’ve accused me of not being able to speak English, of not being able to read, of being on the take from a company I was writing about, and you’ve been argumentative.

          You are a guest on this site, and you are not behaving as a guest should. I’m disappointed.

          Your comments do not contribute anything meaningful to the discussion. Please review our comment policy. Your next flag will result in a public warning from me, and the one after that will result in a 30-day suspension, in accordance with our rules. Thank you.

  10. There are three types of vacation rentals. 1) the do-it-yourself who manages his own property and lives near enough to handle any problems personally. 2) the absent owner who rarely visits his unit and has a cleaning crew come in between rentals to tidy up the place.and 3) the owner who uses a property management firm to handle the vacation property from rental to repairs. The first is the cheapest. They don’t pay anyone any money to manage what they can, so the rate can be cheaper. The second one pays a slight fee to the cleaning company but the renter still makes quite a bit of money off of you. The third one has the highest expense. As high as 50% of the pre-tax rental rate. Sure. It’s expensive, but you’re dealing with a legitimate firm who has insurance and maintenance and cleaning people actually employed on staff to handle even emergency issues. This rental.will be more expensive, but it will be more reliable. VRBO or any of these other online rental companies are NOT property management companies. They have no responsibility for the rental. They collect their fees up-front and go on to the next sucker…I mean customer.
    Do yourself a favor and only rent properties that use a legitimate property management firm and don’t forget to inquire about their rental liability insurance. This is usually a small fee that the person renting the unit pays to cover any damage or loss incurred during their rental. $10 -$20 per week is the norm.

    1. The best experiences I’ve had have been with the do-it-yourself owner; management companies aren’t as familiar with the quirks of the rental unit. I agree that absent owners are the most problematic.

    2. I own one…option 3. A condo development with many of the properties used as vacation rentals. The management has onsite full time staff, cleaning people, etc. Granted, don’t make much at it (expenses are high), but that’s not really the point. For me, it’s just to subsidize some of the purchase price.

      With this situation, it’s almost like a hotel, but with individually owed apartments. I agree, that would be the best scenario for the renter. And the owner if not located nearby.

  11. I had excellent results when I used airbnb for my AMTRAK tour of some a few US cities. I stayed and used airbnb in Houston, New Orleans, D.C., NJ, Boston & Niagara Falls. I booked ahead before my trip from Oakland CA and everything went as planned. So I am satisfied with the company I used.

  12. My daughter rented a vacation home for a week, beachfront property in Delaware. I do not remember the agency through which they booked, but it had a good reputation. Her husband, three young children and she arrived on a Sunday evening after a week of camping in Maryland. They were tired and in need of showers. What greeted them was a dirty house with dishes in the sink and bed linens that looked used. She called the agency immediately. They apologized and said they would send in a cleaning crew the next afternoon. In the meantime, my daughter and her husband washed the dishes, scoured all sinks and the bathtub and used their sleeping bags and air mattresses to sleep on the floor that they cleaned. They spent the next morning on the beautiful beach, then came back to the house to await the cleaning crew, who never showed.

    My daughter called the agency again and she was told that they would try to get someone for the next day. My daughter said, “No, thanks.” and they packed up and left. They didn’t want to spend vacation time waiting for a cleaning team. She wanted her money back. The woman she spoke to said the home was normally reliable and that she would look into it. Turns out, the couple who owned it was going through a bad time. They were a senior couple and the wife, who normally cleaned the house, was in the hospital. Her husband had tried to clean the house, but I guess he had never had much cleaning experience. And, he had his mind on his wife’s illness.

    My daughter mailed her request for a refund along with a bunch of before-and-after cleaning pictures of the floor, the toilet, the sinks and the tub. She was told she would receive a refund. Well, daughter got busy and the request got put on the back burner. Six months later, I asked her about it and she followed up. A phone call to the agency found that the agent she had talked to no longer worked there and there was no record of her pictures or complaint. It was too late for a credit card dispute. So, my daughter composed a letter detailing the problems and saying that she would be happy to resend any pictures. She did say at the end of the letter that, if need be, she would be willing to travel to Justice of the Peace Court (small claims) in Delaware to file a claim.

    Within two days, my daughter received a call that her pictures had suddenly been found and that she would be receiving a full refund within another two days. And she did indeed receive it. She got a full refund, although, she would not have balked at the first day’s lodging having been deducted. She also found out that the wife had died from her illness during those six months.

  13. Thanks for the advice. I’m considering a VRBO rental, but I’ll be more careful now. The sad thing is that there are so many people out there willing to be less than honest in their descriptions of properties and in their lack of willingness to help once there is an issue.

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