Want a refund on your vacation rental? Then don’t do this.

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When Melissa Daniels planned her family’s vacation to Florida, she found a rental on HomeAway. But when she initiated contact and requested to book the property, the management company insisted that she book directly with it instead of through HomeAway. And that’s exactly what she did.

But what Daniels didn’t anticipate were the problems she encountered with the rental and her desire for a refund. Can she resolve this without HomeAway’s protection — and can we help her do so?

Daniels and her family arrived at the condo they chose to rent in Florida and found that the unit was not clean. This is how she described it in one of her emails to the management company:

I don’t know the last time you viewed your property but this condo is filthy in general. My kids walk around in bare feet and their feet were black.

Baseboards and floor grout are just plain gross. Walls are disgusting. Cobwebs, etc. The drain in the master bath was stuck but my husband was able to get it out.

They decided to stay, but slept little the first night because of “the horrible noise.” The next day they discovered ants had infested the unit. According to Daniels, the ants were all over the floor near the dishwasher, in the sink, and in the master bathroom. Her husband even found one in his coffee mug. They had to put all the food they purchased into plastic bags in order to keep the bugs out.

Daniels sent an email to the management company, and the representative who responded thanked her for bringing the condition of the property to his attention and promised that an exterminator would be at the property at 10 a.m. the next morning. Daniels and her family decided they couldn’t tolerate the ants and moved to another property. She later learned that the exterminator didn’t show up until the day after the scheduled appointment.

That night, Daniels returned to the unit to see if she could move her family back into the unit, but the ants were still present. She says the management company never offered to clean the unit, and it was still filthy.

What Daniels did next is curious. Even though she didn’t book her stay at the condo through HomeAway, she contacted the company to see if it would help her resolve the issue.

HomeAway offers three options for booking through its site:

Look for listings with a “request to book” button — these listings are ready to book and will confirm your booking within 24 hours.

Look for listings with credit card logos, as these listings accept credit card payments through the HomeAway checkout process.

If a listing doesn’t offer either of the options above, look for a “birdhouse shield” icon on the listing page, as that icon indicates that the listing offers an approved payment option through HomeAway. In this case, just ask the property owner or manager to send you a payment request and instructions through HomeAway. When you do complete a payment through our checkout process, this will ensure your payment is protected.

Instead of using one of these options, Daniels chose to book directly with the management company.

We’ve written extensively on the problems encountered when booking outside the protection provided by booking sites. Most recently, we posted this story about a consumer who booked a vacation rental he found on HomeAway’s companion site VRBO.

According to HomeAway’s terms and conditions, the protections Daniels could have relied on are:

Subject to the restrictions and limitations set forth in these Terms, the Program offers the following protections for Protected who suffer a loss due to a Protected Incident. Note that the particular protection (or combination thereof) offered to a Protected Traveler is subject to the type of Protected Incident, the amount of Loss, the ability to mitigate such Loss, and Our reasonable discretion:

  • Arrangement of Lodging. If a Protected Traveler is without a place to stay due to a Protected Incident, We may arrange alternative accommodations, where available for up to three (3) nights.
  • Rebook another property. If a Protected Traveler’s Reservation is wrongfully cancelled, We may offer to rebook the Protected Traveler at another property advertised on a HomeAway Site, if a substantially similar property is available for the same period and under a new reservation.
  • Loss Reimbursement. If a Protected Traveler suffers a Loss that in Our judgment can only be remedied by a monetary reimbursement, We may reimburse the Protected Traveler up to the amount of the Loss subject to the below process requirements.

HomeAway defines “protected incidents” as internet fraud, material misrepresentation or non-compliance, or wrongful deposit loss. In each of these cases, HomeAway reserves the right to make the “sole and final decision” on whether or not a specific case falls within a protected incident.

So it’s possible that Daniels would not have been covered for this particular rental, but since she dealt directly with the management company, she had no hope of getting assistance from HomeAway.

But she did call them for help — and claims she was told by a HomeAway representative that she should post a negative review on the HomeAway site. That’s what she did — before giving the management company a chance to resolve the situation.

To say that the management company was unhappy about the negative review would be an understatement. Daniels was told that because she wrote a negative review, she was in violation of the contract and would lose her security deposit. She didn’t remember reading anything about negative reviews being forbidden, so she checked the contract she was emailed. The management representative said the prohibition is listed on page three, but Daniels only received two pages.

When Daniels tried to initiate a credit card chargeback, the management company informed her that it would charge her an additional $500 fee if she pursued the chargeback.

So I finally know what happened to all the bullies from junior high school: they work for rental management companies that advise potential clients to cut out the travel agent or booking site and deal directly with their company, don’t maintain the properties, and then threaten people and extort money from them when the guests complain. If we had ever learned the name of the management company, I would definitely include it, but we didn’t because Daniels was already worried about the loss of her security deposit and the threat of additional fees.

I wish we could help Daniels because the thought that any company would threaten a customer and effectively fine them for writing a negative review really gets my hackles up (as my mother used to say). If a company doesn’t want negative reviews, the solution is quite simple: give good service and when you fail (because we all do), apologize (and mean it) and then make it right.

The reason we can’t help Daniels is that she booked directly instead of going through HomeAway (who might also have been able to assist her). While I think customers reserve the right to post a negative review when one is deserved, it’s important not to do so until you’ve given the company a chance to “make it right.” Once you’ve posted that negative review, you’ve likely lost your negotiating power, especially with a company that wants to punish you for writing one.

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