Vacation rentals have no standards, but maybe they should

Before you rent another vacation home, listen to Tim Kerin’s story.

When Kerin, a small-business owner from Damascus, Md., recently rented a home through a no-name rental agency in Costa Rica, he noticed something peculiar: The generous floor-to-ceiling glass window in the master bathroom offered a commanding, but somewhat compromising, view of the Pacific Ocean from the toilet seat.

“I asked a manager if the window was tinted,” he remembers. “The manager said, ‘Of course!’ ”

Four days later, his wife, Tracey, was in the bathroom and saw the family at the pool. She waved; they waved back.

“I saw her lips say, ‘Oh, no,’ ” he remembers.

So much for that tint.

Kerin’s story is an important reminder that vacation rentals are a hit-or-miss proposition, perhaps now more than ever. There’s a reason for that. The global vacation rental market, valued at an eye-popping $100 billion a year, is booming. It’ll be worth $169.7 billion by 2019, according to a recent report by the Dublin-based firm Research and Markets. In other words, in a world where Airbnb makes it easy to rent your house, everyone’s trying to get into the vacation rental business.

If you’re in the market for a vacation rental, you can prevent this kind of embarrassment in two ways: Either rent with a company that vets its rentals, or do it yourself. Ideally, both. Otherwise, you could expose yourself to trouble.

Bottom line? Unless your vacation rental manager specifically says something is included in your rental — such as linens, a coffee maker or a microwave oven — you should assume it won’t be there. Don’t take for granted that the unit is in a safe neighborhood or even that it looks like the gorgeous photo from the website.

You can hedge your bets. For example, when you rent with a property management company such as TurnKey or Vacasa, which handles everything from maintenance to housekeeping, you’re guaranteed certain items will be in your unit. Among them: shampoo, conditioner, soap, paper towels, coffee filters, laundry detergent, fabric softener and dishwashing liquid. In other words, all the things you assumed would be there but forgot to ask.

Wyndham Vacation Rentals is perhaps the best known for offering highly publicized vacation rental standards through its Vacation Rental Bill of Rights, which promises “a clean, regularly inspected vacation rental.” But there are no industry standards.

“Unlike hotels, there isn’t a uniform experience when it comes to vacation rentals because the property types vary so drastically,” says Mary Lynn Clark, president of Wyndham Vacation Rentals North America. “Our customers can expect consistency in coveted hospitality standards like cleanliness and customer service when staying in one of our rental homes.”

Prospective renters are nervous (and judging from stories such as Kerin’s, with good reason), so vacation rental companies try to set themselves apart from the rest. Take TurnKey, a rental management company that rolled out virtual tours, floor plans and even 3D models of all its homes this year. The enhancements are meant to reassure guests that they won’t be staying in a run-down apartment on the wrong side of the tracks.

“Guests will easily be able to see exactly where everything is located in a home, the flow from room to room, and even the exact floor plan for each room,” TurnKey founder John Banczak says.

Even smaller operators know high standards sell. Kay Walten, who owns a site called Loco Gringo, which handles vacation rentals in Mexico’s Riviera Maya, says she goes to great lengths to ensure the properties she lists are up to par.

“We just don’t let any property list with us like the big box websites,” she says. “We screen the properties we represent. We consider the amenities for each type of property. But in many cases, we look at the owners, property management and have an understanding of the attention we can expect our guests to have. Our staff visits the property to see it firsthand as well.”

In-person inspections? It’s not as crazy an idea as you might think, especially if you’re a frequent vacation rental guest. The bad owners — the ones who are in it for the sole purpose of making a quick buck — cut corners like you wouldn’t believe. I’ve personally stayed in rental properties that lacked basic amenities such as soap, linens, cutlery and pots.

All of which brings us to the real solution, which is to assume absolutely, positively nothing when you rent a home. Nothing.

“Reviews on individual properties on sites like Airbnb and VRBO can be helpful,” says Andrew McConnell, founder of, a site that connects owners with professional managers, and a frequent vacation rental customer. “But many times, you get only those who are at the extremes — fives and ones. This makes it difficult to get a fair assessment not only of the quality of the property but the quality of the person renting the property to you.”

Instead, research the rental as if you’re buying it. Look for the red flags. Do business with someone you trust — either an owner you personally know or a brand you trust. Otherwise, there’s no telling what might await you.

Warning signs your vacation rental is too good to be true

• The price is too low. Aggressively underpriced vacation rentals may be a sign that the unit is seriously flawed, or may not exist at all. Typically, if a rental costs 20% less than comparable units in the area, you might be falling for a scam. Never, ever wire money.

• It’s overstaged. If your home looks too perfect, it might be. Owners can use wide-angle lenses to make a unit look as if it’s the only house on the beach. Cross-check the rental on Google Maps and use the “street view” option, which may give you a better idea of what the rental really looks like.

• It uses too many code words. If it takes two paragraphs to tell you how many bedrooms and bathrooms the home offers, and another paragraph to inform you there’s a pool, you could be in trouble. Words such as “cozy” are code for “cramped,” “secure” can mean it’s in a dicey neighborhood, and “rustic” may mean essential amenities are missing.

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