The right vacation rental lets you live like a local—if only temporarily. Here, the tips on how to protect yourself when renting and avoiding online scams.

By Bree SposatoBrooke Porter Katz and Henley Vazquez
January 27, 2016
villa rental
Credit: Getty Images

9 Essential Tips Before You Rent

Know What You Want: The first step is to identify what kind of renter you are. Each booking method, whether a for-rent-by-owner website, a club, or a brick-and-mortar agency, has its advantages (see “Villa Rentals: Three Ways,” below). Working with an agency can cost more than dealing directly with an owner, but the search tends to be less labor-intensive and you can feel secure knowing the property has been vetted. Plus, you will often get hotel-style services (concierge; butler) and on-the-ground support.

Do Your Homework: Speak to someone (other than the owner) who has seen the villa. Whenever possible, read guest reviews—not only on the agency’s website but also (if available) on rental sites such as FlipKey, TripAdvisor, and VRBO. Some agencies let you connect with past guests on Facebook; if not, ask for references—and follow up with the owner to address any red flags. You can also do your own sleuthing on Google Earth and Street View, which let you check out exterior images of the property, as well as nearby supermarkets, metro stations, restaurants, and more. And make sure to request the safety audit (smoke alarms; balcony heights), which should be recent and readily available.

Know the Law: For overviews of rental regulations in many U.S. cities, check the Short Term Rental Advocacy Center website. Some rentals may not be legal; walk away if the host asks you to disguise your presence in any way.

Read the Fine Print: The contract should address the location, size, and amenities; cancellation policy; and cleanliness. If your credit card doesn’t offer coverage for vacation rentals, consider buying travel insurance.

Book Secure: Most sites are middlemen, so they can’t control for double bookings, phishing, and Web scams. Always use a secure payment system—never wire money. And if a deal seems too good to be true, it probably is.

Pick up the Phone: Web research is useful, but it’s essential to speak directly to an agent to get the best match. Good agents have personal knowledge of their properties and can answer less obvious questions, such as, Does the villa have many steps? Are all bedrooms equal in size? Is there any current construction nearby? Be sure to discuss whether services are included or require a fee.

Take Advantage of Perks: The sale of vacation homes in the United States boomed in 2014—according to a recent study by the National Association of Realtors. Increased supply can mean better deals, and rental agencies will often throw in extras to stay competitive. Ask whether the owner is willing to sweeten the deal with free housekeeping, a private chef, or use of a car. You might also be able to get discounts for extended stays or lower rates during shoulder season.

Make It Official: Always sign a contract when renting a villa—it will protect you, the owner, and the agent. A good contract outlines policies on cancellation, the security deposit, property damage, and what would constitute an unsatisfactory stay. It should also spell out what is and isn’t included in the price, such as air-conditioning, international phone calls, electricity, and heating the pool.

Consider Buying Travel Insurance: Renting a villa can offer good value, but it’s still a big investment. Insurance policies vary: look for one that covers cancellation because of an emergency (in case you need to get your nonrefundable deposit back). Compare plans at

Villa Rentals: Three Ways

Rent-by-Owner Sites: Websites such as FlipKey, VRBO, HomeAway, and Airbnb (see Testing the Peer-to-Peer Travel Trend), all of which have tens of thousands of listings, can save you money, but you probably won’t get the services and insider information that you would receive from a traditional agency.

Clubs: A new crop of companies including Inspirato with American Express and Getaway 2 Give Collection (G2G) use a club-style model: clients pay annual dues ($275 to $5,000) on top of a hefty initiation fee (up to $15,000) in exchange for deeply discounted rentals and perks such as concierges and housekeeping.

Agencies: Agents act as middlemen between villa owners and renters, and they often list exclusive properties. The agent uses your criteria—number of rooms, amenities, level of service, local activities, and more—to come up with the best match in your price range.

Closer Look: Listings

Before sealing the deal, make sure you know how to read between the lines of property descriptions. Below, a few pointers.

Beachfront or Oceanfront: “Oceanfront” may mean there is no beach, and “beachfront” doesn’t always mean the water’s swimmable and doesn’t always guarantee access. If the listing mentions water views, find out how far the property is from the ocean—and if there are any roads in between.

Sleeps Six: Ask for the total number of bedrooms (and make sure foldout couches aren’t part of the count).

Pool Access: This is not the same as a private pool. You may be sharing it with other guests, or it could be off-property.

Guest House: Make sure yours contains bedrooms, bathrooms, and a kitchen, and that it is not simply a pool house or storage area.

Personal Chef: Find out whether it’s the housekeeper, who may prepare simple meals, or a professionally trained chef who will pull out all the stops.

Modern Family

With curated rentals perfect for toddlers to teens, Kid & Coeis the new go-to site for jet-setting parents. We caught up with founder—and mom of two—Zoie Coe.

Inspiration: When my son was one, we took a long trip to Sydney. I realized a hotel wouldn’t do, but after finding an apartment, I still had to locate rental baby gear, toys, everything a family home would have.

What to Ask: Parents should find out what floor the apartment is on and if there’s an elevator. Ask about pool gates, and location. A house full of toys in London is less crucial than proximity to attractions.

The Ideal Family Rental: A cozy and clean place with an open kitchen, a garden, and an extra bedroom to accommodate either the babysitter or grandparents. And no white leather sofas!

New Favorites: There’s a flat in London that has a sandbox in the yard. We recently added some houses in Trancoso, Brazil. As a New York City mom, I want my children to experience big open spaces.