Javier Jaen Benavides
March 17, 2015

Q: I found a great place through a vacation-rental website. What could go wrong?

The apartment was a dream: the entire light-filled top floor, a one bedroom with an eat-in kitchen and a living room, in a restored Victorian row house in San Francisco’s Pacific Heights for less than $200 a night. My friend and her husband were ecstatic and everything went smoothly… until they emerged from their bathroom on the first night, teeth brushed and ready for bed, to find the owner mysteriously puttering around their living room. “Just checking in,” she told them.

The good news: renting a vacation house or an apartment through big booking sites like Airbnb, FlipKey, and HomeAway (which also owns VRBO and Vacationrentals.com) can open the doors to enviable real estate and cost less than a hotel. The bad news: you are going to face some risks, especially if you’re not renting through a specialized agency that charges a premium to vet and vouch for all the properties it represents. Here are some of the pitfalls, along with ways to minimize your chance of a vacation rental fiasco.

The phishing scam.
This is how it works: you think you’re booking a Caribbean villa for the week. You’ve been e-mailing with the owner for months and have even wired her your payment. But when you get there, you discover that the real owner had absolutely no idea you were coming. What happened? Either the owner’s e-mail was effectively hijacked by someone who directed all communication—and payments—to himself. Or the scammer had re-created an otherwise legitimate listing on a competing site, drawing prospective travelers to himself.

Although these types of nefarious activities were more common a couple of years ago (before rental sites adopted enhanced security measures), you still need to be careful. The best way to avoid getting duped is to direct all your correspondence through the booking site’s own secure e-mail system and never, ever wire money for a rental. Instead, use the site’s own payment channel when available, or pay with a credit card that offers fraud protection.

The bait and switch.
So what happens when your dream rental doesn’t live up to expectations? What if it’s downright uninhabitable? Most of the major rental sites offer some sort of guarantee against rental fraud or serious misrepresentation of a property—for example, it doesn’t have as many rooms or bathrooms as advertised, it’s in a different location, or it’s unclean or unsafe. Most sites offer rental protection automatically when you use their payment system; at HomeAway you can pay for additional coverage. If a site doesn’t offer any such protection, be cautious. Most travel insurance policies won’t cover you either.

The terms, conditions, and payouts for these policies vary from site to site (so read the fine print carefully). But the basic procedure is similar: take photos and contact the owner and the booking site immediately. Simple problems like a broken hot tub (a deal-breaker on a ski vacation) can often be addressed quickly, especially if you’re renting from a management company with on-site staff. If the situation is more serious, the rental site or agency should help you find alternate accommodation or get you a refund.

The intrusive owner.
You rented a place thinking you’d have exclusive access. But the owner, who lives nearby, keeps dropping in—and is now sitting with your family watching the ball drop on New Year’s Eve (true story). How do you ask her to leave?

When you’re booking directly with an owner, the line between what’s yours and hers can seem a bit blurry. It’s hard, after all, to ask someone to stay away from her own property. But if you didn’t rent a shared accommodation, you shouldn’t have to settle for one. Try to address the owner’s fears (“We’ll take good care of your place”) while also diplomatically insisting that you have some privacy. And if that doesn’t work, contact the booking site, and be sure to leave a review that warns future travelers.

The illegal apartment.
Now that peer-to-peer rentals are in the crosshairs of regulators in many North American and European cities, some building owners are sending cease-and-desist letters to and even taking legal action against tenants who rent out their apartments. It’s a pitched battle in some places (especially New York City), but one that rarely impacts travelers directly. It’s the host, not the traveler, who is liable if a rental is illegal. Worst-case scenario: you may be asked to leave prematurely, in which case the site you’re renting from should find you another place to stay. But if you feel uncomfortable entering this legal gray area, ask the host up front whether the property is zoned for short-term rentals. And if you are asked to disguise your presence in the building in any way (“Just tell people that you’re my cousin”), be wary.

Have a travel dilemma? Need some tips and remedies? Send your questions to news editor Amy Farley at tripdoctor@timeinc.com. Follow @tltripdoctor on Twitter.

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