Vacation rental warning words: don’t book if you see this!

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Christopher Elliott

Can you tell if a vacation rental is terrible just by reading the description? Are there such things as vacation rental warning words?

Maybe.

It turns out that vacation rental hosts often embed words of warning directly in their property descriptions. You just have to know how to spot and interpret them.

I base this on thousands of vacation rental cases my team and I have mediated on behalf of consumers. When you look back at what went wrong, the words of warning were often published right on Airbnb or Vrbo.

But like a lot of travelers, I sometimes gloss over the details. Big mistake.

I’ll run through the list of vacation rental words of warning in a minute. I’ll also tell you how to ferret out a bogus vacation rental by looking at the pictures and description. It takes a little practice, but anyone can do it.

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I’ve learned about vacation rental warning words the hard way

I’ve seen these problem words in action.

Last month, I booked a vacation rental in Athens that looked perfect on paper. It had a full kitchen and four bedrooms. The only thing that gave me pause was the word “eclectic” used in the property description.

I should have listened to my inner voice.

Instead, I reviewed the photos and justified booking the rental. By “eclectic,” the owners must have meant that they had decorated the property in an interesting way. I imagined overstuffed sofas and oil paintings on the wall.

But that’s not what the owners had in mind.

Closet kitchen
Our closet kitchen in Athens. Only one person could fit in here at a time.

What they meant by “eclectic”

  • The kitchen was inside a closet. Not a figurative close — a literal closet. The was a mini-fridge and a Liliputian amount of counter space. You had to walk into the dining room to use a sink. Only one person could fit into the closet-kitchen at a time. And yes, you could close the closet doors for privacy.
  • You had to turn the hot water on and off again. There was a water heater in the hallway. Half an hour before showering or doing dishes, you needed to turn it on to warm up the water. But you had to turn off the heater, otherwise, you’d get dinged for utility overages.
  • You shared the apartment with other eclectic people. And by “eclectic,” I mean they stayed up until after midnight and smoked nonstop. I’m an early riser, so when I got into the tiny living room at 4 a.m. to do my morning yoga, I took a deep breath of cigarette smoke.
  • The apartment itself was in a state of disrepair. The hallway lights didn’t work, so you had to feel your way around in the dark. The side of the building looked as if a bomb had hit it. And the clincher? When the property manager showed us the apartment, he said, “If you decide to stay here …”

Fortunately, this eclectic vacation rental misadventure had a happy ending. I sent a brief, polite email to the manager, complaining about these issues. The manager quickly refunded all of my money.

If you want to know how to manage a problematic vacation rental, then check out our complete guide to vacation rentals.

Rental exterior
The exterior of our apartment in Athens. This was not in the property description.

What are the problem words for vacation rentals?

The red flags for vacation rental sound like euphemisms — nice ways of saying something negative. But they are inadvertent words of warning meant for you.

Here are the four most common problem words you’ll find in a property description:

Eclectic

Normally, “eclectic” is a positive thing. Maybe it means the interior designer went in his own direction, using shag carpet instead of hardwood on the floors. But in vacation-rental world, eclectic means the owner did something that you should never do to a vacation rental — or any home, for that matter. Like, put a kitchen in a closet.

Cozy

Here’s another positive word that has a negative meaning for vacation rentals. When you see a rental that describes itself as “cozy,” always double-check the square footage. Cozy doesn’t mean you’ll be comfortable. It means you’ll be living in a shoebox.

Secluded

This usually means you’ll be miles away from the nearest anything. If you want to be out in the middle of nowhere, be my guest. But most people want to be near a grocery store or attractions when they’re on vacation. A secluded rental will give you none of those. Instead, you’ll spend half of your time driving somewhere.

Urban

The opposite problem, which is being in the middle of everything, can also be problematic. Urban can be a word for high-crime, crowded and dangerous. An “urban oasis” is even worse because it implies your vacation rental will be the only safe place to run back to at the end of the day. That is, if you make it.

Don’t get me wrong, some people want to be away from everything or in the middle of everything. They like small places, and they love homes with knick-knacks and oddities. To each their own. But for most vacation rental guests, these words are problematic. And they’re not the only ones.

How to decode property descriptions

The vacation rental industry uses words to warn prospective guests in a roundabout way. But make no mistake, they are warnings.

Here are a few more of my favorite red-flag words.

Classic – Aging home, run-down furniture. If something breaks, you’ll pay to replace an antique.
Clean – Seriously? Who would want a vacation rental that isn’t clean? Suggest the rest of the neighborhood is in chaos.
Inviting – Takes a nice picture if you use a wide-angle lens. But does anything actually work, or is it just for display?
Private – So well hidden, you’ll never find it.
Romantic – Kids are not welcome.
Rustic – There are no signs of civilization. Better pack a satellite phone.
Secure – It’s in a bad neighborhood.
Warm – The air conditioning doesn’t always work.

The presence of these words in a property description doesn’t necessarily mean the rental is flawed. But it should give you pause.

How to avoid problems on your next vacation rental

These vacation rental red flags are one of many ways to determine if your next rental will have a problem.

Don’t forget to read the online reviews and testimonials. But remember, those can be manipulated. Sometimes you can ferret out a fake by reading the property description carefully. And checking the photos.

Does it look too good to be true?

If the images look like they’re right outta Architectural Digest, it could mean the property is trying to hide something. Wide-angle lenses are another red flag. Look for the telltale distortion around the edges.

Are the images over-staged?

That could be a sign that the property owner is trying to make the home look better than it is. Photos of the bathroom “amenities” are a dead giveaway. Who visits a vacation rental site to look at soap? If you’re not sure, check the address on Google Maps, and use the “street view” option. That may give you a better idea of what the rental actually looks like.

Is the description too wordy?

Buzzwords and euphemisms can also be a sign of problems. 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, then you could be in trouble.

Are they using the most superlatives ever?

Are you looking at the “perfect” property for your next family reunion, located in the “best” area? No you’re not. You’re probably reading a work of fiction. Be on the lookout for other embellishments that may or may not be true. Trigger words include: convenient, spacious, relaxing, and well-appointed.

Next time you rent an apartment or home, watch for these words of warning. They could be a sign of trouble.

What’s your worst vacation rental story?

Scroll down to leave a comment about your worst vacation rental. Did you see any of these red-flag words in the property description before you booked? I’d love to hear about it.


About the art

For this piece, artist Dustin Elliott focused on capturing what each problem word represented in visual form. “While pondering these adjectives, I arrived at three images that I believed suited these words best,” he says.

About the video

Producer Iden Elliott shot this video over two days in a Blueground rental in Athens, Greece. “These were challenging conditions, with light and sound issues,” he says. And the narrator also kept forgetting his lines. Subscribe to Elliott’s channel for more videos.

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes weekly columns for King Features Syndicate, USA Today, Forbes and the Washington Post. He also publishes Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter. Read more of Christopher's articles here.

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