You have planned your family holiday for months, and searched several websites to find a perfect vacation rental - a luxurious private home for rent. The owner has placed a number of beautiful pictures online, and there is a good testimonial about the property. You book the property, pay a sizeable deposit, fly your family to your destination, pile into the rental car and drive to the address, only to find that the property doesn't exist or is in bad condition....
The concept is more or less self-explanatory. Somebody who owns a home in a vacation hotspot is willing to rent that home to vacation travellers. Typically the renter doesn't get the services of a hotel, such as maid service, but gets the benefit of a full kitchen, a lot of room, perhaps even a swimming pool or hot tub, and a lot of privacy. Sometimes the properties are run by professional management companies, which provide services to make sure that the vacation rental is clean and ready for your arrival, with a local office you can call if a problem arises.
Many people who rent vacation properties directy from the owner have the best vacations of their lives. Others are left with horror stories.
The biggest danger of a vacation rental from an owner is damage deposit fraud. Often an owner will charge a hefty deposit of $500 or more, in addition to a rent deposit. There are vacationers who report that everything in the rental was perfect, up to the point that they went home and tried to get their damage deposit back. Sometimes the owner simply ignores the request for return of the deposit. Other times the owner pretends that something was damaged. But such unscrupulous owners know that a vacationer is unlikely to bring legal action to obtain the return of a deposit, and that the police will typically deem it a "civil matter" even if the vacationer files a police report.
Another area of concern is the quality of the rental property. Pictures presented on a website may be from years before, or may have been edited to hide problems with the rental. Vacationers often have little recourse once they arrive to a dirty or deteriorated rental, save to put up with the problems and to try to get a full or partial refund. Needless to say, an owner who misrepresents the condition of a vacation property is unlikely to cooperate with requests for refunds.
An uncommon, but nonetheless real, concern is the possibility that the person offering a property for rent on the Internet doesn't in fact own the property, or the vacation rental doesn't even exist. Many websites which list "vacation rentals by owner" post disclaimers that they provide no guarantee that the properties they list exist or are as pictured or described by the purported owner.
When you rent a privately owned vacation property, you can help avoid problems by:
Renting through an established property management company.
Such a company will typically provide cleaning and maintenance services for a property between rentals, and thus will be familiar with its quality. Also, a reputable management company is unlikely to try to wrongfully withhold a damage deposit.
Checking for feedback on the property.
Many "vacation rental by owner" websites include feedback features, where customers can describe the joys and pains they encountered with any given rental property. While feedback isn't always genuine, when available it can give you a feel for the holiday experience you are likely to enjoy.
Renting through an established travel agency or association of property owners.
An established travel agency or association which offers vacation rentals by owner will often have inspected the properties, either directly or through an agent, and may even have assigned a rating to the property. While the property may well have deteriorated since that time, it is a measure of assurance that the property you rent will be as described. Also, such agencies and organizations tend to be responsive to complaints, dropping problem properties and owners from their rosters. Finally, if things go wrong you may have legal recourse against the owner or agency, as opposed to just the unscrupulous owner.
If the property does in fact exist, but isn't as described, most police agencies will tell you that the problem is a "civil matter" - that is, that if you want a remedy, you should file a lawsuit against the owner. However, if enough complaints about fraudulent activity accumulate, whether with the police or with the state or provincial consumer affairs office (in the United States, usually a division of the State Attorney General's office), the state may decide to initiate civil or criminal action to stop the fraudulent conduct.
Reports of the owner's misconduct to the site or agency which made the rental may result in the owner being removed from their rosters, or may assist in obtaining a full or partial refund of monies wrongfully withheld.
Unfortunately, most renters aren't in a good position to file a civil suit, as such suits typically must occur where the vacation rental is located. Once the renter returns home, the cost and inconvenience of travelling back to the vacation destination to prosecute the suit typically significantly exceeds the damages which might be recovered.