Is this the worst vacation rental ever?

The camera sometimes lies. Could this be the worst vacation rental ever?

The vacation rental took a nice picture. There was a white picket fence, a spacious living room with modern furniture, and the location was perfect. Who knew it would be the worst vacation rental ever?

Well, I should have.

I’ve stayed in so many rentals and written about my experiences, and the warnings were there. The too-good-to-be-true price. The lack of customer reviews. And the property manager who called me from a Canadian phone number.

I saw them — but I ignored them.

If you’re reading this, you probably know better too. But when you’re pricing vacation rentals, beware of deal blindness that makes you overlook the problems. Maybe it’s time for a refresher on the basics of avoiding the worst vacation rental ever. And if not, then enjoy my horror show.

No one wants spiders in their rental.
A large daddy long-legger living in my daughter’s bedroom. She freaked out. (My daughter, that is.)

This vacation rental is a deal — right?

My latest vacation rental nightmare unfolded in a predictable way. I was pricing homes in Los Angeles, one of the most expensive rental markets in the world, and everything was beyond our budget, of course. We normally rent for longer periods of time and try to negotiate monthly rates. Many of the properties I liked were offering prices that were ridiculously high. Some wanted as much as $20,000 for a month, which is outrageous.

Except for one. When I requested a monthly rate, the property manager readily agreed to lower the price to roughly $143 a night for a three-bedroom house, an almost 40 percent price cut. Wow.

I reviewed the property description and photos. It was an older home, but it looked clean and seemed to have all the modern amenities. I quickly agreed.

But when we checked in after a long day on the road, I regretted the decision instantly. The floors were littered with debris and dead insects, the shower leaked a steady drip-drip-drip that kept us awake at night, and the kitchen looked like it had last been renovated in 1940. And there was a stench of old human sweat on the sofa. When you sat on it, the scent saturated your clothes and stayed with you for the rest of the day.

No doubt about it, we had found the worst vacation rental ever.

The next morning I called the property manager and asked him to address a laundry list of problems. He quickly dispatched a technician to fix the shower and a cleaning crew to sanitize the bathrooms and the kitchen. He even replaced the sofa.

Sofa, so good?

Maybe not. The shower continued to drip. The replacement sofa smelled just slightly better. And we found the one thing worse than dead insects — living insects. A spider had made itself comfortable in my daughter’s bedroom, much to her dismay.

We decided to make the best of it. This would be an excuse to get out and explore the city, which we did. But halfway through our stay, my son’s bed collapsed during the night. I called the property manager again. More technician visits. The bed looked fixed, but a week later, it dropped to the floor again.

The final insult: When we checked out, we found this under the mattress of the collapsed bed.

What is this giant stain on the mattress of this vacation rental?
Included in the worst vacation rental ever: This shocking stain on my son’s bed, discovered after we removed the sheets during check out.

What happened? I have no idea. It looks like someone had an accident and then the whole mess started to grow mold. Disgusting.

How you can avoid the worst vacation rental ever

Some of the problems, such as the leaky shower, the smelly sofa, and the stained mattress, wouldn’t have been revealed even with careful research. But that’s no excuse.

Here are the warnings that can help you avoid finding your very own worst vacation rental:

  • The too-low price. Look, Los Angeles is expensive. But when someone’s price is just a fraction of the average rate, that’s a big red flag. As a consumer advocate, I’m constantly telling people they get what they pay for. But as a consumer, I fell for it. Duh!
  • No customer reviews. I ignored this warning because it seemed to be a new listing. How stupid of me. Customer reviews are critical and can quickly point to problems with the home. If you don’t see any reviews, don’t walk away — run!
  • Property manager far away. The manager I dealt with appeared to be a two-day drive away in Canada. You’re better off working with someone who is in town. That should have been a warning, too.
  • The camera lies. Yes, the property photos were staged. Everyone does that. But these pictures were too slick. They used wide-angle lenses to make the place look enormous. It wasn’t what they showed, but what they didn’t. The owner intentionally left out key areas like the kitchen and bathroom that could have revealed problems. I should have noticed that.

This doesn’t have to happen to you

Interestingly, we’d stayed in a similar home the previous month when we visited Provo, Utah. Similar, but definitely not the same. Although this rental was built around the same time, it had been lovingly restored. It was one of our best vacation rental experiences ever.

Maybe the best vacation rental.
Perhaps the best rental ever, in Provo, Utah.

When we checked in, we found an immaculate residence. The appliances were practically new. The beds were comfortable and clean. And the property manager was right around the corner. We never had to call her because we had no problems.

As I compared the two experiences, I remembered the other differences. The property photos showed every room in unflinching detail. There were lots of customer reviews (almost all of them positive). And while the owner offered a small discount for our monthly stay, it was in the normal range for rentals in Provo.

There’s absolutely no excuse for my lapse in judgment. All I can do is apologize to my kids yet again. Children, please forgive me for making you stay in the worst rental ever! There’s just no excuse. A younger version of me might claim I was afflicted by “deal blindness” and couldn’t help myself. But I knew better.

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