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Booking a Vacation Rental: 20 Mistakes to Avoid

Vacation rentals are an excellent alternative to hotel stays, and are becoming more popular and easier to book all the time. It is important to understand that booking (and paying for, and dealing with issues with) a vacation rental is very different from a typical hotel booking. Unlike chain hotels, which are becoming more alike all the time, vacation rentals are as different from one another as the people who rent them out.

These differences can play out in numerous ways — from fantastic properties with detailed listings that the owners run almost like a B&B, helping you have a great experience from start to finish, to almost empty shells of a building with deceptive photos posted by absentee or even unscrupulous owners.

To help you navigate the sometimes shifty waters of choosing a vacation rental, here are 20 mistakes to avoid as you research and book your next stay.

1. Don’t read the descriptions too quickly.

The owner-penned descriptions of rental properties tend to show a pretty poor signal-to-noise ratio, dominated by comments like “It’s all right here! Just show up with your flip-flops! Enjoy coffee on the porch! Take a walk! Almost like being in your own home!” You get the idea.

But if you keep reading, there is often actual useful information, maybe something like “no on-street parking, property has driveway for small car or motorcycle,” or “no A/C in upstairs bedrooms.” Look for the nuggets of hard facts buried in the romantic blather.

2. Don’t just skim the reviews.

Similarly, many very positive reviews can have some important caveats buried as you read more closely. A property can have all four- and five-star ratings, and quick reviews like “enjoyed our stay,” but deeper reading produces comments like “could have used more seating, as there was only a couch,” or “the hot water heater is small, but it was fine if we spaced out our showers.” Information like this is critical, but is often a bit buried.

3. Don’t trust pat phrases for locations; use mapping services.

Comments in a listing like “just steps to …” are infamously open to interpretation. In my experience, this phrase can mean anything from right outside your door to several football fields away. On a search I did last fall in my home town, I saw a “just steps to” description of what was actually a solid eight-block hike.

There can be worse scenarios as well — like a property a good friend of mine once rented right next to a wine restaurant, where a giant truck arrived on Sunday morning at 5 a.m. to collect all the empty wine bottles. So much for sleeping in.

There is an easy way to protect yourself in this case: Internet mapping services. By using Google Earth or Street View, or Bing’s Bird’s Eye View, or even just the mapping applications on most of the vacation rental services (though I do recommend pulling out the stops on this one), you can learn a ton about a property.

To do this, of course, you need to get the exact rental location. It is not uncommon for the exact location of a rental not to be shown on the listing, as owners don’t want to call attention to the fact that their second homes are empty most of the year. They will share with potential renters, though, so call or write to get the exact location in these cases.

4. Don’t trust the online calendar.

The online calendars for many properties can be somewhat haphazardly maintained, and are almost an afterthought for some property owners. For example, due to a late cancellation after which the owner did not bother to update the calendar, I was able to book a great place in Seattle a few years back.

Even if the listing shows the calendar has been updated recently, it’s often worth sending a quick email to the owner; if nothing else, he or she can hold onto your contact info in case an opening comes up later.

5. Don’t overlook additional fees.

This is an important one. The rate that you see on the main search page is often just a starting point; in fact, sometimes the quoted rate might say “from $XXX per night,” with the “from” in a decidedly unobtrusive font color. It isn’t until you actually pick your dates that you would likely see a final per-night price.

And that still isn’t the full story; most vacation rentals require a non-negotiable “cleaning fee,” and some even require that renters pay for utilities, cable and/or Internet. Make sure you know all the actual and potential fees before you finalize your booking.

6. Don’t fail to ask if credit cards are accepted.

Historically vacation rentals have been check or even cash transactions, but lately many owners are accepting credit cards, often through the listing sites themselves. As most veteran travelers know, using a credit card offers many protections that are not available otherwise, such as holds and chargebacks. If using a credit card is an option, do it.

7. Don’t assume the owner will be readily available.

If you think about how often you check with the front desk during a typical hotel stay, you will recognize that having someone to talk to about your rental can be very important. Particularly if there is a problem, it helps to have an actual person to deal with, so be sure to ask if the owner or a representative will be available during your rental period. Get a reliable emergency contact number that you can reach if the plumbing breaks, the electricity goes out or other problems arise.

8. Don’t fudge the details of your stay.

In the same way you would like owners to be upfront and honest about their listings, you will want to be honest about who you are bringing, how many people will be around, if you have a pet in tow and similar details. Many owners greet their tenants and stop by to make sure things are going well, so you are likely to be found out if you do fudge the details.

9. Don’t forget to ask if others will be on the property.

Having the owner nearby and available is one thing; having him or her in the house is another. Additionally, sharing a property with another renter can be less than desirable if you keep very different hours, have different ideas about noise levels, or have to compete for hot water and Internet. Ask ahead of time whether there will be other folks using the property so you know what to expect.

10. Don’t wait until the last minute.

If you haven’t sussed this out by now, booking a vacation rental can be a lot more complicated than making a hotel booking. There may be a lot of back and forth with the owner, and because owners often run their rentals in their spare time, replies might come at the end of the work day, after their kids are put to bed or on the weekend. You will want to leave some time to get all the answers you need.

11. Don’t fail to check for simple amenities.

Some vacation rentals have everything you could imagine all stocked up and ready to go; some don’t. If you are expecting clean towels, sheets and linens, a dishwasher with detergent, and laundry facilities, you will want to confirm all of these before you book.

12. Don’t assume you’ll have Internet.

Internet access can be a tricky issue with vacation rentals. Often the building is the owner’s second home, for which he or she can’t financially justify having around-the-clock Internet. This is one area where “all the comforts of home” can really mean “most of the comforts of home, except for Wi-Fi.”

On one property I researched a few years ago, the listing showed Internet availability, and the owner confirmed a connection was available — to the neighbor’s Internet. A beach house is nice, but not one that makes you a bandwidth pirate.

13. Don’t forget to check for required stays.

One thing that catches many first-time renters off guard about vacation rentals is required stay rules. Most owners have these because they don’t want to be in the hotel business with one-night stays and constant cleaning, booking and contact. So when you see a listing for a property you like, keep clicking a bit to make sure your booking will meet these requirements.

Even then, don’t be afraid to ask for an exception, especially in the off-season when owners are usually more flexible. If they’re not getting any other booking requests, many owners would rather fill a property for a long weekend than stick adamantly to a one-week stay requirement.

14. Don’t hesitate to get on the phone.

This might have been the most important thing I did when starting to book vacation rentals. Even a short phone conversation can teach you a lot about someone that you would not learn over email. How forthcoming they are about the property, how they answer your questions and how available they are to talk in the first place can tell you a lot about the people you’ll be dealing with in case of problems.

15. Don’t be afraid to look up the owner on the Internet.

Although a vacation rental is usually a transaction between you and another person, not a company, it doesn’t hurt to look up the owner’s name in the same way you might when hiring a carpenter, for example. Learning that someone is an involved member of the local community can help assuage any fears you might have of doing business with him or her.

16. Don’t forget to ask for references.

Even if you don’t call the references, a list of names and numbers is a good indicator that the proprietor isn’t worried that you would check up on things. More experienced renters have done this before, and it won’t surprise them to be asked.

17. Don’t be afraid to ask detailed questions.

Many of the tips here touch on this subject, but it is worth stating explicitly: you can find out a lot of information simply by asking. For example, on one rental we booked, I asked about a photo in the listing with a large group of people jumping off a dock into the water. When I asked how deep the water was, I learned that that dock was only for the owner’s apartment downstairs, but that we had access to a floating dock alongside the property.

That was also how I discovered that the owner’s mom would be staying downstairs, and that since we had a kid traveling with us, it would be appreciated if we didn’t walk around after 9 p.m., Mom’s bedtime. So I learned quite a bit by just wanting to know if it was safe for a 7-year-old to jump off the dock.

18. Don’t forget to shop around.

There are a bunch of vacation rental sites out there, and it can be both fruitful and revealing to check a number of them. Fruitful in that not all listings are on all sites, so you might find a great place to stay by casting a wider net; revealing in that many owners do place listings on multiple sites, so you can see a greater variety of details and reviews.

For a good list of websites to check, see Finding a Vacation Rental.

19. Don’t ignore the risks.

Booking a vacation rental is a bit more risky than many other travel transactions, as it is sometimes cash-based in some way, often involves a sizeable deposit and offers little recourse if things go south. You will want to acknowledge these risks and heed any gut feelings you have as you go along. Most owners are honest folks trying to make things work for everyone, but proceeding with your eyes wide open is always in your best interests.

20. Don’t skip the fine print.

Many of the aforementioned risks will be written out in plain sight in your rental agreement. The first time I saw one of these, I was truly taken aback. The way it read, I could be liable for pretty much anything that happened, even if I was not at fault at all; I could end up paying massive cleanup fees if an old pipe failed during the rental period, for example.

Many vacation rental agreements are simply boilerplate agreements that include things even the owner had not thought out completely, so you may be able to negotiate with him or her to take the more onerous language out. If the owner refuses, you probably want to walk away from the rental.

Have any vacation rental tips or experiences to share with your fellow travelers? Post them in the comments below!

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