It’s become easier than ever for homeowners to turn properties they own into easy rental cash. This surge of rental properties makes it even harder for travelers to avoid a rental nightmare.
From bug infestations to roof leaks to no electricity, there’s no end to the kinds of things that can go wrong with a vacation rental. Beyond the disgusting and uncomfortable are horror stories of rape and death that can make you want to stay home and never travel again.
The vacation rental market is a $100 billion industry and growing, yet professional property managers represent a mere 1% of vacation rental hosts. The typical vacation rental owner isn’t equipped with maintenance staff or the ability to find a disappointed renter another place to stay if something goes wrong the way a hotel can.
Some problems like leaking showers and smelly mattresses you can’t know until you arrive, but there are signs you can watch out for before you plunk down your credit card.
Don’t be fooled by a low price, especially when the surrounding properties are significantly higher. A too-low price should be treated as a red flag because, of course, you get what you pay for.
A low-priced rental deal is usually a sign that the property owner is fishing for gullible renters.
We’ve all become a little suspicious of reviews lately, but you have some protection when it comes to vacation rentals. To leave a review, a traveler has to rent the property.
Don’t even think about renting a property—even if it’s a new listing—if there are no customer reviews. Take the time to read a lot of the reviews, especially the most recent ones.
Even if the property owner has a poor review or two, read their responses to see how they treat their renters. No response to bad reviews? Don’t rent that property. The owner doesn’t care.
Scrutinize the property’s photos and look at every single one. Wide-angle lenses can make a tiny place look enormous, for example.
Watch for inconsistencies in the photographs or any obvious signs that the photo has been edited or manipulated.
If there are rooms without photos, that’s also a warning sign. (I once noticed a rental had the same bedroom setup for all four bedrooms – only the bedding was changed. That was suspicious to me.)
If there’s no picture of the kitchen, that could mean it’s outdated or just plain awful. If you’re planning to cook there, you’ll want to know that.
Always reach out to the owner before renting. If they’re slow or unresponsive to your queries before you rent, they’ll be incommunicative when there are problems too.
Watch out for owners that refuse to respond through the rental site. For example, if they will only communicate with you through a separate app or by text message – that’s a sign that they are avoiding a digital paper trail.
When renting a vacation property online, especially in an unfamiliar place, research the location carefully. This gets tricky because third-party rental sites like VRBO and Airbnb don’t give you the exact address until after booking, but they do show you a map.
Zoom in on that map and find a nearby property. Open a second browser window to look at the street view or Google Earth. This will tell you whether the surrounding area is safe (no bars on the windows is a good sign) or whether there’s a creepy dump next door, for example.
Don’t wait until you get home to say something. You have a limited amount of time from check-in or when the problem occurred to file a claim.
Step one is to contact the owner or property manager immediately. In most cases, they will try to fix the problem.
Step two is to contact the rental platform for assistance:
Make sure to document the problem with photos and/or video. Most vacation rental platforms won’t rebook you until you’ve given the owner a day or two to address the problems. If you ask for a refund and it’s not forthcoming, you’ll need the evidence to make a claim with your credit card company.
Damian Tysdal is the founder of CoverTrip, and is a licensed agent for travel insurance (MA 1883287). He believes travel insurance should be easier to understand, and started the first travel insurance blog in 2006.