Hey VRBO, what happened to the security deposit on my vacation rental?

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I’m a longtime admirer — and critic — of VRBO, the dominant vacation rental site. I like the way it consolidates a disorganized business like vacation rentals into a cohesive online marketplace and makes it easy for consumers and rental owners to find each other. But one thing I’ve never been able to understand is how it disingenuously feigns neutrality in disputes between managers and customers.

Peggy Martz knows what I’m talking about. She recently rented a home in Rehoboth Beach, Del., paying a $500 security deposit. The rental did not go well and now she’s trying to recover the deposit. She claims the owner is ignoring her and that VRBO is looking the other way.

I’ll get to the details in a second, but this is a longstanding conflict I’ve had with VRBO. It contends it’s nothing more than a classified service that advertises vacation rentals. When something goes wrong — say, you send your money to a scammer posing as an owner — then it pulls and plays that card.

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.

Customers say a site like VRBO needs to stand behind its rentals and take responsibility when something goes wrong. And to a large extent, I agree. If VRBO is nothing more than a listing service, then why not use Craigslist, which is largely free?

Anyway, I’ll let Martz pick up the story. Before we get into it, here’s the rental in question, listed on HomeAway, VRBO’s sister site.

The owner quickly responded to emails and sent the contract to us. My son-in-law signed the contract, sent in the initial deposit and I sent in the first payment.

About a week before check-in, I sent an email to the owner to find out about how to access the house and did not hear back. I called VRBO the next day and they gave us the phone number for him that they had. There was no response.

We called VRBO back and they put us in touch with their Trust and Security division, who said they would try to contact him. They said this client had been with them since 2010. I asked and they said they don’t list just anyone — that all listings are vetted.

There was never a response from the owner to any of our family emails, or to the VRBO people.

Finally, her sister-in-law was able to find a realtor who went to knock on the door of the property. The current tenant called and said he same thing where emails and phone calls were ignored.

“He finally had a text one hour before check-in time of how to get in,” she says.

She finally gained access to the home, but something told her to be careful. At checkout time, she snapped pictures of the home, “to show that the house was left in good order.”

Martz had reason to be worried. Her security deposit wasn’t returned. In fact, the previous renter’s deposit didn’t come back, either (the two had remained in contact after the check-in fiasco.)

She appealed to VRBO, to no avail. Here’s its non-answer:

We are so sorry to hear about your negative experience. We certainly appreciate the time and effort made to communicate this unfortunate situation. We want all of our travelers to have a positive experience.

According to our complaint process, we have taken the following actions:

We recorded your report as a formal complaint on this vacation rental owner’s or property manager’s account.

We forwarded the details of this complaint to the owner or property manager in order to give them an opportunity to respond.

When we receive complaints, we encourage both parties to work toward a mutual resolution.

We provide the vacation rental owner or property manager an opportunity to resolve the dispute by forwarding the details of the complaint.

Our procedure is to note both sides of the situation and our Trust & Security team then closely monitors accounts that have had a complaint filed against them. Per our Terms of Use, we are an advertising venue bringing owners and travelers together. We are not involved in the rental transaction or management of a property; therefore, we are not able to mediate disputes between owners and travelers.

Thank you again for bringing your experience to our attention. We sincerely hope a mutual resolution will be reached shortly.

I will translate: We’re not getting involved.

So I asked VRBO if it could help its customer. The answer? An even shorter “no.”

Our support team has recorded the complaint on the owner’s profile. As a marketplace business, we encourage the traveler and owner to connect directly to on issues such as this. It’s difficult for us to say to mediate as it’s a he said/she said situation. I would encourage the traveler to leave a review on the property.

OK, so if this is a “he said/she said,” then I’d love to get the other side. I contacted the owner. No reply.

This story hasn’t changed my opinion of VRBO, and it probably won’t change yours either. It’s great as a “marketplace” for vacation homes, but don’t ask the company to protect you, its customer, from a rental owner who may or may not be trying to pocket a deposit.

As a matter of fact, you aren’t VRBO’s customer. The rental manager placing and paying for the ad is the customer. Good to know.

Does VRBO have a responsibility to get involved in a rental with a problem?

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57 thoughts on “Hey VRBO, what happened to the security deposit on my vacation rental?

  1. If you had a problem with a merchant in your city would you go after Google who gave you the search results (put you two together)?
    I voted no, but I really wanted to vote yes. My problem is this, VRBO isn’t an insurance company. Their customer, the one that pays them, isn’t going to be their customer if they (VRBO) are constantly making grief for the rental property owners. If VRBO has to constantly pay out to a class of people (renters), who they don’t make money from and then justify the cost to the people (property owners) who day pay the bills, that’s a business model that collapses. It would be like “us” as travelers, filing a dispute for compensation with Boeing for a missed/delayed flight that was a result or reported as a “mechanical difficulty”. If that worked, Boeing would just have to pass on that cost to the customer which isn’t the traveler but the airline, and they could then approach another manufacturer such as Airbus.

    I don’t like it but policing and guarantees/warranties cost money and someones got to pay it, and travelers will just use different sites or venues instead of paying higher prices. The property owners are in the same boat why should they pay more (assuming their one of the good property owners), for the bad apples. The answer that no one wants to hear is that the someone who is going to have to absorb the cost is going to be travelers, they’re the ones that are going to have to pay something to have a superior service with recourse.

    So while I believe the renter will get something out of this from VRBO if Chris gets involved, it’s going to come out of VRBO’s PR budget, it’s not going to come from the property owner. The real avenue of recourse is to contact the AG in that state and head over to small claims court.

  2. You get the connection – VRBO is like Craigslist – but aren’t able to make the next logical leap that they don’t get involved in disputes. I’m OK with their not doing so.

    And to answer the question, why not just use Craigslist – it’s easier to search for and find matching properties when the listing metadata contains things people need to make a reservation – availability, how many it sleeps, location, price, and reviews.

  3. hmmmm… I don’t see any ‘recorded complaint’ on the Owner’s Profile,,, would that be the ‘About Rob’ link? If not, where EXACTLY is the Owner’s Profile?

    1. I found it interesting there were 10 five star reviews and no one has anything negative to say whatsoever. For sake of argument, say all 10 reviewers were very happy with the rental. I find it very suspicious that none of them had even a slight criticism, like most legitimate reviews have. For example, the shower had bad water pressure and was too small, the sleeper sofa was nice to have but uncomfortable, there were only 4 cereal bowls, etc. Positive, legitimate reviews on a rental property should have at least an honest comment or two about something that isn’t by any means a deal breaker but a heads up to a prospective renter.

      I really smell foul on the 10 reviews of this property. It’s falling into the category of too good to be true.

      1. I agree…it is hard to please every one…someone will have a negative report or have some constructive criticism in their reviews.

        Where are the reviews from this OP and the renter before this OP?

        “Martz had reason to be worried. Her security deposit wasn’t returned. In fact, the previous renter’s deposit didn’t come back, either (the two had remained in contact after the check-in fiasco.)”

        On the other hand, the house rents for $ 3,500 a week (high season) and $ 2,100 a week (low season)…maybe the house is ‘perfect’. I saw the pictures of the house..it does look nice.

  4. All I had to see was “VRBO” and I knew this one would stink.
    Small claims court sounds like the only way to get her money back from the terrible “landlord.”

  5. VRBO is little more than Craigslist or, back when Dinosaurs roamed the earth and the internet didn’t exist, your local newspaper’s classified ads. I always find it interesting that no one then blamed the newspaper when things went wrong.

    Short answer is to file a chargeback on your credit card. If you didn’t use a credit card, go file a lawsuit in small claims court.

    1. According to the property’s webpage, a renter needs to send their deposit via PayPal; therefore, file a chargeback with PayPal.

    2. When I was in college I saw an add in the paper that promised me I could me I could make hundreds of dollars a month working from home if I boguht their starter kit. I sent in my $20, and my starter kid said to place the same add I saw and ask people to send me $20 for their starter kit and then send them this letter. I was scammed. I never once though to blame the news paper.

      1. “Money back if not satisfied.”
        “Gimme back my money!”
        “Your money was perfectly satisfactory to us.”

        1. Actually, the add had a money back guaranty. It said if I followed the instructions, processed at least one order, and didn’t make at least $20, they would refund my $20.

          I believe the title of the add was, “Make Money Stuffing Envelopes At Home”.

          Their guaranty was rock solid. I had to place and add and have someone mail me $20 before I could invoke it.

      2. I would expect a reputable newspaper to stop accepting a scam ad once it’s brought to their attention.

        And I would expect VRBO to pull a listing if there are multiple serious complaints without any response from the owner (if it’s really a “he said / she said” then someone ought to tell the renter what the owner said).

  6. I think this is where AirBnB does a much better job than VRBO, Homeaway and Craigslist. They will actually help in a dispute (but you also pay extra for the privilege of renting through them in the first place). Personally, I generally have so much invested in my vacation that paying an extra $50 or whatever for some AirBNB style assurances is well worth it.
    If I recall correctly VRBO sells separate travel insurance that you can purchase at the time of booking. Presumably this would cover a deadbeat owner.

      1. Surely it would cover a claim where the owner has retained the security deposit and refused to provide an explanation in writing or otherwise communicate. Maybe I’m being naïve.

  7. This is something I have some experience with. VRBO protects VRBO and cares nothing about either the owner’s or the renter’s. I mean nothing. There was a time when this was a privately owned company but now it is traded on a stock exchange. It was funded by several venture capital firms. They are now trying to prevent the prospective renters from communicating with the owner’s directly. It is obvious to me that at some future time, and not long into the future, they will demand that owners allow them to be part of all the rental transactions. In other words they will collect the money and then take a cut of it. The only organization worse than VRBO/HomeAway is TripAdvisor which is also publicly traded but used to be part of Expedia. Both of these organizations take advantage of market share to continually increase prices to the owners and provide bad service to them and the renters. Hopefully someone with some money will take on these two consumer unfriendly companies and develop a product and service that will serve everyone fairly.

    1. Actually, if VRBO was the intermediary for the funds that would be an improvement over the current scenario. Currently the funds go directly to the property owner. If VRBO collected the deposit and rental fees it could hold them in escrow until the customer checked in and they could hold the deposit until after the rental period and return it faster than a landlord would. This would prevent unscrupulous landlords from withholding deposits like this one. In fact, they are doing this with some of their listings.

  8. Unlike other VRBO stories, where the focus is about misleading statements of the house (i.e. no doors on the toilets), the AC going out and not be repaired, etc, this article is about the lack of communicationscustomer service from the owner. It seems like the OP was fine with the house…it was the lack of communications from the owner.

    The webpage for the rates of this house, it lists a Standard Cleaning Fee of $250 and a Pet Fee of $200.

    My first question is: Did the OP and/or her party had a pet with herthem?

    My second question is: Did the OP paid the Standard Cleaning Fee on top of the Security Deposit and the dailyweekly rate?

    If the answer is ‘Yes” for Question # 1 and “No” for Question # 2, that may explain why there was no return of the deposit ($ 250 plus $ 200 = $ 450…there could have been some extra cleaning).

    Based upon: “The rental did not go well and now she’s trying to recover the deposit.”…my third question is: How did the rental not go well? Was the house unclean? Was the pictures on the VRBOHomeAway website not accurate? The landscaping was not maintained? The outdoor grill was not working? What was wrong with the property?

    I agree that customer service was extremely poor or non-existent based upon the account of the OP. Is the OP and/or other VRBO customers expecting world-class customer service from home owners who many probably has little or no experience in customer service, property management, etc?

    I have rental properties (1 year lease properties…no VRBO, HomeAway, AirBnB, etc.) and I have fired property management companies for the lack of communicationsfollow-up with tenants and myself. These companies were so-called professional property management companies with people licensed, regulated, etc.

    I am not supporting the owner or making excuses for the owner but it seems like the OP had an army of people contacting the owner. Maybe the owner was communicating with the OP’s son-in-law and maybe he dropped the ball? Why would the OP inform how to gain access to his house to someone that is not on the contract?

    My last question is: At check-in, was there someone there to check in the OP? If ‘Yes”, did the OP addressed her concern of lack of communications? What if something need repairing at the house during her stay?

    1. Did they bring a pet? If so, they are only $50 short. And perhaps it went towards something.

      I stayed at a house recently that had a $250 pool heating fee. I do have to say, the pool was very warm, and very nice. The pool fee and cleaning fee were both deducted from the deposit.

      1. The ‘standard’ cleaning fee is $ 250…if there was a big group staying at the house, the cleaning fee could be higher than the standard.

        I won’t be surprised if the son-in-law did received communications from the owner which was not shared with the OP.

          1. Did the OP provided the rental agreement to Chris?

            I use a cleaning service to clean our rentals…the rates are different if the cleaning service is doing a ‘move-out’ cleaning versus a cleaning service during the rental.

            In Arizona, if a landlord uses the standard AZ rental agreement, it fully discloses the fees (whether they are refundable or not) and the security deposit (there are state laws that govern the return of the deposit).

      2. If cleaning fees, etc. are deducted from the security deposit, it is customary for the landlord to give the tenant a statement itemizing the fees. In this case, no statement was forthcoming.

        1. Unless they went to the son-in-law. The OP says her son-in-law paid the deposit and signed the contract. Maybe he got it back and didn’t tell her? Also, I don’t know the law in Delaware, but when I had a rental property, I wasn’t required required to return an itemized statement if the rental period was under 1 month. I think that exempts a lot of these short term rentals. However I used a property manager.

    2. Even if keeping the deposit is justified, the owner is obligated to provide an explanation in writing. The OP should go to small claims court and get a judgment against the owner and then try to collect. May not be worth the effort for $500 though.

      1. I agree, especially in light of the fact that the previous tenant didn’t get his/her deposit back either. If the owner used THAT deposit to pay for cleaning and if the OP did really leave the house in immaculate order (and she says they have pix to back that up) sounds like the owner just believes that he/she is entitled to keep deposits as a part of doing business….

  9. I disagree with some of this article, nothing personal Chris, you are still the best!

    [VRBO] contends it’s nothing more than a classified service that advertises vacation rentals. When something goes wrong — say, you send your money to a scammer posing as an owner — then it pulls and plays that card.

    You are correct, it is nothing more than a classified service, that’s all they claim to be. It puts owners in touch with renters.

    Customers say a site like VRBO needs to stand behind its rentals and take responsibility when something goes wrong. And to a large extent, I agree.

    They are not VRBO’s rentals, they are the owners rentals. Renters rent from other people, some other people are scammers.

    If VRBO is nothing more than a listing service, then why not use Craigslist, which is largely free?

    You can find and list rentals on Craigslist, with pictures too. VRBO set up a new marketplace that makes it easier to list and find rental properties only. Same basic concept, but geared towards one specific product. You can also meet people on Craigslist, however their are specific dating sites geared towards specific people, by the same argument, shouldn’t people just use Craiglsit?

    I sympathize with the OP, and am glad Chris reached out to the owner, and I think this owner is an evil jerk. But there are always going to be evil people out there, and a listing service is just a listing service. Would someone blame match dot com if the person they met turned out to be a jerk and stiffed them with a bill? They would just blame the jerk, just like what happened to this OP.

    1. I agree with you except for “this owner is an evil jerk”. I am withholding judgment of the owner until I get the answers to my questions listed in my comments. He could be a jerk and probably is but I like to know more before I passed judgment.

        1. I just went to the website that 219kimrod listed…it seems like the landlord refunds the security deposit back to the person’s PayPal account. Maybe the OP isn’t aware of it (i.e. was expecting a check in the mail) or her son-in-law has forgotten to check his PayPal account.

          1. That would be hilarious. I once came unglued about a significant refund I was expecting and kept being told “we posted it…” So, yeah turned out I was checking the wrong credit card account. Oops. I would *hope* the OP would have covered all her bases prior to contacting Chris, but then, they so rarely do, eh?

  10. Also found it interesting there were no “negative” feedback comments at VRBO, however followed the story link and found the owner also uses another booking site and a discussion blog there with a great deal of information re the owners policies and procedures – it is a worthy read: https://community.homeaway.com/thread/20460. His approach is significantly more professional than others I have experienced.

    1. It seems like the landlord refunds the security deposit back to the person’s PayPal account. Since the son-in-law made the security deposit, maybe the money is in his account and he doesn’t know it. Maybe the OP was expecting a check and was not aware of the refund to PayPal.

  11. While I understand the VRBO approach appears to be take the money and run, it is very profitable in the short-term, yet they will find themselves like the airlines in the medium-term as renters and owners discover VRBO appears to care about nothing except money, and people will eventually wake up and take their business elsewhere.

    1. My understanding is that VRBO actually does NOT take the money… that is strictly between the owner and renter. Seems they see themselves as basically like that bulletin board at the grocery store. You pay to post your ad in their space….

  12. I voted no because, when you have absolutely no customer service, you don’t have to be responsible. This is one of many VRBO complaints that you have had over the years. Same problems, same results. Get a lawyer, get a State Attorney General and put this dog down!

  13. The renters are not VRBO’s customers unless they are signing the rental agreement with VRBO. But it appears they are signing with the property owner directly which means the contract is with the owner. I have rented condos before and each time I have signed a rental agreement with a property management company and not the owner of the condo. The one time I had a problem I dealt with the management company. Unless VRBO changes its business model it is unlikely they will get involved in rental problems. I have never booked with VRBO but I did go and read the terms and conditions and they are very clear about their lack of involvement in rental agreements. Should they help renters with problems? Probably. Will they? Probably not.

    1. That’s why they are Vacation Rental by Owner, you deal with the owner. There are a lot of property management companies that handle vacation rentals, and they cost a lot more typically, and you never deal with the owner. I am not sure why people expect VRBO to be a property management company when they are not.

      1. …because people want Neiman Marcus service at dollar store prices. They want something for nothing.

        If people wants to avoid the stress of vacation rentals then deal with a property management company. This is no difference than dealing with a professional brick & mortar travel agent.

  14. the question I always ask is: Has the landlord complied with all of the local zoning, health and similar rules and regulations? Most of the time – that answer is no. Which means the local authorities have an interest in the vacation rental. The only time that I have had a problem with someone returning a deposit I threatened to report the vacation rental to the local tax assessor [the records revealed they were taking a residency discount on their property taxes], the zoning officer and health inspector. . . . I got no response other than a check in the mail via fedex the next day.

    There is always more than one way to skin a cat. I also prefer to see if I can find a VRBO listing from a local real estate agent – they have different rules which apply to them – and your deposits are generally never given to the landlord.

    What happened here is simple: the owner cashed the deposit checks and spent the money and does not have it to give back. If you must sue to recover, you are entitled to your costs of action – and in most places you can recover necessaryr travel expenses as a cost of action. . . .

  15. I’m getting stuck on the part about them not getting a text until one hour before check-in. There’s not a word about them having to make back-up lodging plans or them arriving late because the text was so late. That would mean that after repeated failures to contact the owner, including VRBO saying they couldn’t reach him, that they traveled there normally as if the rental was going to go off without a hitch. That just seems strange given the circumstances they describe. I’ve had rentals before where you were told that a text the day of would include the access codes, etc. I’m wondering if they didn’t get similar instructions to that.

    Or did they assume things would be okay after hearing from the previous renter? The bit about some random realtor checking on the place for them was also a bit unusual, for that matter.

    1. It seems like the OP is from Virginia Beach, VA so it is a ~3-hr drive to Rehoboth Beach, DE…maybe it is not a big deal to drive back if it wasn’t available…I don’t know.

      “He finally had a text one hour before check-in time of how to get in,” she says.

      Is “He” the son-in-law of the OP? Or the previous renter? I agree with you that it is strange. I won’t be surprised that the contract stated that the cleaning fee and pet fee are subtracted from the security deposit. Again, I won’t be surprised if there was a text or e-mail to the son-in-law before the day of arrival.

    2. Having a random realtor check on the place, makes me think the OP may be a bit neurotic. In my experience in renting properties, which I do at least once a year, it is not uncommon to have the contract state that instructions will be sent one hour prior, or someone will meet you at the property at a specific time, etc. After all, the owner doesn’t want the renter to randomly arrive early and be able to get in. Also, in many cases, they change the code between renters. So they don’t know it until after the prior person left and the place has been cleaned.

      Also, the fact that the OP is not the one who signed the contract make this more fishy. Perhaps the OP is missing some info and blaming the landlord.

      1. I think it’s fishy that not only won’t the owner respond to Chris, but the title of the listing starts with “Now Replying..”

        So the owner tacitly acknowledges systematically not replying in the past. Perhaps he had a genuine issue with his email at one point, but then why didn’t he respond after VRBO (supposedly) contacted him, and then Chris?

        Too bad we can’t see what the listing looked like in the past, because Home Away’s robots.Txt file explicitly blocks crawlers like web.archive.Org from archiving listings.

      2. I’m also not fully sure the deposit is actually the OP’s money. The letter says the son-in-law paid the initial deposit and then the OP made the first payment. From my past experiences with VRBO it’s pretty common for the total rental cost (minus deposit) to be divided in half with one payment made at signing and the other being due a couple weeks before the rental begins. If that was the case here, then it’s the son-in-law who is technically out money.

        But I was wondering the same thing about the possibility that not all info was being shared. The OP’s involved in part of it, the son-in-law was paying part of it, the sister-in-law found a realtor to check on the place… That’s a lot of people involved. Is it possible the owner didn’t reply to her because he’d just sent all that info to somebody else in her party?

  16. This is why I prefer Airbnb. When I stay at an Airbnb listed property, Airbnb holds my security deposit NOT the landlord. Airbnb handles my payment NOT the landlord. SO, if the landlord doesn’t perform Airbnb doesn’t pay them. In fact, the landlord doesn’t get paid until 24 hours after check in, just in case there’s a problem with the rental. I’ve never had a deposit withheld from any of my numerous Airbnb rentals.
    I have used VRBO before, just once. It was overall a good experience, I talked to the landlord on the phone before giving them any money and they had good communication before and during my stay. It was still a worry that I wouldn’t see my deposit back (it was only $200) but would prefer to not have to worry about that.

  17. This sentence is why VRBO is not like Craigslist: “They said this client had been with them since 2010. I asked and they
    said they don’t list just anyone — that all listings are vetted.”

    When you vet something for the purposes of publicly advertising it, then you should have to stand behind that vetting. What does the vetting count for if the advertiser (VRBO) of the vetted product doesn’t actually stand behind it?

  18. I used VRBO at least a dozen times in the past and only had a problem once. But, after reading numerous reviews about VRBO, I refuse to use them in the future. If VRBO isn’t going to stand behind their product, then I will use someone who will. Period.

    1. The rental isn’t their product though, the listing is their product.
      I’ve used VRBO, one thing I like is I can dictate terms of the rental contract or leave, and I’ve done just that.

  19. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. When you’re looking for a vacation rental, ALWAYS go thru a realtor, if possible. There is no shortage of realty companies that also handle vacation rentals, in beach towns, in Florida, in Hawaii,,etc. You’re dealing with a local business, that is MUCH more likely to care about their reputation than VRBO or some anonymous owner. And you have a local contact is something goes wrong. I would NEVER do a rental thru VRBO, or any site like it.

  20. I read the listing, and at the bottom, VRBO states “We help you travel with confidence. Every listing is guaranteed against fraud.” That links to the “protection” coverage. Maybe it’s just me, but this doesn’t jive with “sorry, we don’t get involved”.

  21. This is a most interesting topic. I’ve rented several times through VRBO using a credit card but there’s always that butterfly feeling before you actually move in and find that the place is just fine. Right now you have to be lucky, I guess. If there are signs of problems up front, such as an owner not responding, of course, cancel the deal and move on. Seems to me that VRBO could charge a little extra and hire some staff to mediate the problems. If I’m renting a house in Florida, I have no recourse to a bad situation after I get home to California. I am confident that AmEx or Chase would help me, but it might depend on how old the charge was.

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