7 Checks to Avoid Hidden Vacation Rental Costs and Scams

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Airbnb, VRBO, Flip Key ... Inexpensive, awesome vacation rentals abound, but watch for the pitfalls that can come with peer-to-peer deals.

I travel frequently and have grown quite fond of the large, luxurious short-term rentals I’ve booked through Flip Key, Airbnb, HomeAway and similar sites. The prices are usually lower than those for hotel rooms and include fewer hassles such as housekeeping’s inevitable, inconvenient arrival and more features such as full kitchens.

Plenty of other leisure travelers are trying vacation home rentals. The Vacation Rental Managers Association reported that 24 percent of leisure travelers stayed in vacation home rentals from 2010 to 2012. In 2009, only 20 percent of leisure travelers opted for such housing, an increase from 11 percent in 2008.

The downside, as you’ve probably guessed, is that some travelers are finding less-than-truthful landlords if not outright scams. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) recently reported that thousands of would-be renters have contacted them with complaints about such rentals.

As we’ve previously reported, there are certainly plenty of honest landlords and great deals on short-term leisure rentals. But it’s important to know some of the minor and major downsides you might encounter with this type of specific housing:

1. Keep track of totals

My infatuation with this type of housing splintered when I booked three nights in a room advertised at $125 a night and the total came to more than $700. Many emails and calls later, I discovered the apartment’s owner had tacked on various additional charges. The $125 price tag had been a way for the landlord to appear to offer the lowest-cost housing. I was surprised because the previous landlords from whom I rented did not charge extra fees. But it turns out that some landlords will charge listing fees, security deposits, cleaning fees and more, notes attorney Stephen Fishman writing for the legal website NOLO. And some charges, such as those I encountered, are not included in the posted rental price.

2. Don’t wire money

We all think we’re too smart to do something like that, then experience the rush of excitement to reserve what we think is a premiere property. The FTC reminds us that wiring money is the same as giving cash. That means there’s no way to track the payment.

3. Watch for red flags

Forbes contributor Vanessa Grout encountered warning signs when she discovered none of the online listings that enticed her were available. That type of “bait-and-switch” con is common, she reports. Landlords hope the elegant properties will hook desperate renters who will agree to rent lesser properties.

4. Don’t dismiss negative reviews

When I look at properties, I always read the comments. When I went back-and-forth with the landlord who had not worked his charges into the advertised rate, I read the comments again. Sure enough, a few other renters called the landlord dishonest. “The feedback from previous renters that appears on sites like Airbnb and VRBO is invaluable,” writes Grout for Forbes. “And in some cases, you’re even allowed to pose questions to other users.”

5. Go with your gut

I’ve rented from some very pleasant hosts. Not everyone is that lucky. “Some people know what they’re doing, but some don’t,” advises Fishman. “A rotten host or one who is overly intrusive could turn your vacation into a nightmare.” Although one plus about short-term rentals is that you’re not working with a corporation that can be a minus if the host is intrusive or rude. Also, Fishman notes that the landlord or host may be breaking laws or rules by renting the property.

Pay attention to your instincts when you contact the rental owner. Is the host harried, rude, uncertain when you ask questions, insistent that you pay cash? Move on to another rental property or find a hotel.

6. Read the fine print

If you arrive at a hotel room and find the bed unmade, the bathroom dirty or the thermostat broken, you can almost always find immediate help. But what happens if you arrive at a private rental property and find those conditions? Worse still, what if you arrive at what should be your rental and find there is no property to be had? Completely fictitious properties and bait-and switch deals — where you end up with something less desirable that what was advertised — are among the hazards of renting through peer-to-peer sites.

Find out what recourse you have before you book. Read the fine print of all online rental company sites because policies vary widely and change frequently, notes Fishman.

7. Don’t rely on others to check details

When groups rent properties, each person tends to believe someone else is double-checking details, notes Grout. Check all the details just as you would if you were solo, and you may avoid losing money or arriving at a nonexistent rental.

What’s your experience renting direct from owners? Share with us in comments below or on our Facebook page.

Stacy Johnson

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