5 Protect-Yourself Rules for Booking a Vacation Home

5 Protect-Yourself Rules for Booking a Vacation Home

Ah. Summer vacation.

Otherwise known as that wonderful time of year when you can unplug (well, mostly), soak up some much-needed rays—and check into that fabulous vacation home rental you booked in the Tuscan countryside.

But what if you booked online what looked like an amazing place to rent  ... only to arrive and discover that it's nothing like the glossy gallery of photos that sold you on the home?

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Well, this exact thing happened to me and my husband when we decided to stay in someone's San Francisco apartment via Airbnb.

When we arrived, what looked online like a hip brownstone was really a bachelor pad decked out with taxidermy critters, a smelly fish tank in dire need of cleaning, and other icky accoutrements.

Want to avoid falling prey to a similarly bad online (rental home) dating scenario?

We chatted with two vacation rental experts about the top “buyer beware” issues—and rules you can use to protect yourself from getting stuck with a homestay lemon.

Vacation Rental Rule #1: Always use a reputable site or agency.

Jasper Ribbers—coauthor of "Get Paid for Your Pad," a guide for Airbnb hosting—says that it's always advisable to book through a homestay rental agency, like HomeAway, Airbnb, WIMCO, FlipKey and Wimdu.

Why forgo booking direct with owners?

For starters, says Ribbers, hosts need to identify themselves with these sites before listing, whereas scammers prefer to keep their identity unknown.

"You’ll also be able to see how long the host has been on the platform. On random websites this will not be the case, since the owner of the site is in full control," he adds. "Third, you’ll be able to see past reviews left by former guests. On individual websites these could be fake."

Vacation Rental Rule #2: Vet your host.

Even if you're booking through a well-known home-sharing site, Ribbers says you should still do your due diligence and thoroughly check out the owner.

Some key things to look for in a reputable host: a profile with verifications (most sites offer several options, including a phone number, email and social media platforms), a picture and info about the host, the host's response time and response rate (typically shown on the front page of the listing), positive reviews from past stays, and the host's replies to those reviews.

"Always send a message with some questions before you book," Ribbers says. "What you want to look for is not just the actual information provided in the host's response, but also how quickly the person gets back to you. If I don't get a reply within a day, I'm not making the booking—if I stay at a place and something is wrong, I don't want to wait an entire day to get a response."

RELATED: Adventures in Rewards Points: 'I Took $195K Worth of Vacations ... for Only $14K'

Vacation Rental Rule #3: Put protections in place for your deposit.

Joe DiTomaso, CEO and cofounder of AllTheRooms.com, a search engine for homestays and hotels, says that it's key to know the difference between a reservation deposit and a security deposit.

"A reservation deposit is a designated amount of money that validates the booking and usually goes toward the total rental amount," he explains. "A security deposit is viewed as insurance in case damages are incurred during your stay."

"Ask about things that are important to you. I always double-check that a rental has WiFi, and that it's fast—I even ask the host to send a screenshot of a speed-test."

For reservation deposits on sites like Airbnb, Ribbers says, your transactions can go through credit cards, which gives an additional level of protection against fraud, and may also apply internationally. "Never send a check or transfer money by bank to pay for a security deposit or rent up front," he warns.

He adds that for international rentals, or if you're booking through a smaller agency, you could ask for official documentation from the owner, like a copy of a passport. And you can also try to negotiate paying the deposit upon arrival.

On larger websites the company holds the deposit, and it isn’t paid to the host in advance, so you don’t need documentation, he explains.

Vacation Rental Rule #4: Know your security deposit rights.

On larger sites, Ribbers says, the host doesn’t actually receive the security deposit—yet another reason to book through a company rather than an individual.

If the host wants to put in a claim for a security deposit, he will have to provide the site with evidence that damage has been done, including pictures and receipts.

"The burden of proof is on the host, not the guest," Ribbers explains. "For example, Airbnb states that a host has 48 hours after the checkout date to make a claim on the security deposit. Also, most states prohibit owners and landlords from keeping security deposits without just cause—and just cause does not include cancellations."

Vacation Rental Rule #5: Contact the agency if the rental doesn't quite match the photos.

If you're unsatisfied with your vacation rental, first talk to the host to negotiate a discount if you'd prefer to stay, Ribbers suggests.

"If the host doesn’t cooperate, contact the home rental website—some have 24-hour customer support—and someone will help you find an alternative place and cover any expenses you incur as a result of the issues," he says, adding that this doesn't always apply if you book with a small agency or individual website.

But your best course of action is to prevent disappointment in advance by making sure that the property listing contains good photos of all rooms and common areas—with elaborate descriptions.

So what does Ribbers look for? Pictures of all spaces—bedrooms, hallways, kitchen, bathrooms, outdoor areas—with multiple pictures per room; details of all amenities, including photo confirmation that they're in working order and available for guest use; and a description of the neighborhood, covering the highlights, local recommendations and parking/public transport options.

"Ask questions about the things that are important to you," Ribbers says. "For example, I always double-check that a rental has WiFi, and that it's fast—I even ask the host to send a screenshot of a speed-test. Having documented details is of great value if you need to contact the rental agency for a refund."

RELATED: How Saving for a Vacation Can Help Improve Your Finances (Really!)

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