5 Red Flags to Look for on Airbnb and Other Vacation Rental Sites

Originally posted on US News, featuring Kris Getzie of Volo.

With the proliferation of vacation rental sites like Airbnb, HomeAway and TripAdvisor Vacation Rentals, you’ve probably tried, or at least toyed with the idea of, staying in someone else’s home. After all, with competitive pricing and more space and amenities than you would expect at a standard hotel, it’s easy to see why the key players in the vacation rental industry lure those seeking affordable, off-the-beaten path accommodations. In fact, Airbnb now offers more lodging options than heavyweights like Marriott, InterContinental and Hilton.

Yet, for all the advantages that vacation rental sites can offer, there are also a string of caveats and nightmarish tales that have left would-be guests wondering whether branching into the vacation rental market is a smart choice. “We’ve all heard horror stories,” says Kris Getzie, founder of Volo Vantage, a hospitality consulting firm. She suggests finding a vacation owner who does not “view the homes in their fleet as a commodity” but rather “actively engage[s] guests to experiences beyond what they could have thought up themselves.” With this in mind, U.S. News solicited advice from top experts for spotting common scams and smart steps guests and hosts can take to maximize safety and comfort.

Red Flag No 1: Sketchy Payment Sites

“Firstly, customers should always book through a secure service,” says Jeff Mosler, chief services officer at HomeAway. If a host suggests communicating off the official vacation rental platform, that could also be a bad sign, he says, especially if they are offering a service or product that isn’t available through the rental vacation provider. It’s also important to trust your instincts and ensure you use a safe payment method, he says, pointing to the HomeAway Payments system, which allows you to pay with major credit cards and ensures automatic coverage of up to $10,000.

And according to TripAdvisor Vacation Rentals spokesperson Laurel Greatrix, another major tell is being asked to pay through an instant wire service or bank. Instructions to pay a wire transfer to the bank account of a vacation rental site, such as TripAdvisor, FlipKey or Holiday Lettings, could be a scheme, she says. “We’ll never ask you to do this,” she explains. “If you pay through us, payment is taken through our online systems, never by bank or wire transfers.” Greatrix advises booking through the TripAdvisor Vacation Rentals’ payment platform to be automatically ensured with Peace of Mind coverage, a protection that insures the payment is not sent to the homeowner until a day after a guest has checked in for his or her stay. “Paying online and protecting your payment is the safest, securest way to pay,” she adds.

Airbnb advises guests to connect with hosts through their website to prevent phishing scams and help protect you from fraud and other risks. By paying through the platform, you can help secure your personal information, and you can rest assured that your booking will be covered by the site’s cancellation policies. Plus, interacting online allows hosts to be covered by the site’s Host Protection Insurance program .

Red Flag No. 2: Limited or No Reviews

“If the listing ad just seems too good to be true and there aren’t any reviews, I recommend to do a cross-search on various sites to be sure someone didn’t copy the listing as a scam,” Getzie says. She also recommends calling the prospective host as a safeguard for a faulty listing or unreliable property manager.

Mosler suggests calling the homeowner on the listing site as well as conducting a quick Google search or social media search of the prospective host to ensure a trustworthy experience before providing payment. He says reading traveler reviews can also be helpful. “With the Wild West nature of the Internet, sometimes fraudsters go to a third-party site like Craigslist,” he cautions. For homeowners concerned about fraudulent activity, he recommends counteracting scams with sites like TinEye.com, a search engine that allows you to input a property image and then directs you to where the image can be found on the Web.

Airbnb also recommends that guests protect themselves by asking for references, reading traveler-submitted reviews from Airbnb guests and looking to see that host profile pages display a verified ID badge. These IDs are issued by Airbnb after a user or host connects personal social networks, confirms personal information or supplies an official ID.

Red Flag No. 3: Shady Rental Agreement

When it comes to identifying vacation rental contract loopholes, “there can be many and they can be varied,” Getzie says. A smart way to ensure you’re covered if you’re a property owner is to get in touch with an attorney licensed in the jurisdiction of your vacation rental, she says. And as for guests, she says the key is obtaining a short-term rental agreement that comes in the form of a booking confirmation or lease if you’re communication directly with a property owner. She also suggests carefully reviewing the contract. “If you are booking through a vacation rental site, review the owner’s uploaded rental agreement, and the site’s dictated cancellation policy, as both will help [you] understand potential issues,” she cautions. She also suggests that vacation owners purchase insurance either directly through the vacation rental site or on their own, pointing to an emergency like frozen water pipes as a potential issue you’ll want to have covered by your policy.

Greatrix also says that while booking contracts can vary, if key components are lacking, like arrival and check-out times and cancellation policies, it be an indication of suspicious activity. And according the Mosler, in a good contract, typically the payment terms, including the security deposit and cancellation policies, along with the types of amenities, are clearly outlined.

Red Flag No. 4: Suspicious Rules or Restrictions

It’s also important to keep in mind that “not all cities allow nightly rentals, and others require business licenses to operate,” Getzie says. “And any [municipality] has the authority to shut down an illegally run business, if a guest is staying there or not (potentially leaving you without accommodations),” she adds. To ensure your prospective vacation rental is in fact legal, Getzie says it’s a smart idea to conduct a Google search on the short-term and vacation rental as well as transient rental licenses available in your desired destination. “And by all means, ask the owner/operator if they have a current business license if they are required,” she adds.

“Rules and regulations can vary considerably from city to city, state to state and country to country,” Greatrix explains. She suggests doing your homework and understanding the varied requirements across the U.S. by visiting the Short Term Rental Advocacy Center website, which offers regulations for short-term destinations in a variety of locations.

On Airbnb’s site, you can navigate to a “Your City’s Regulations” section, but not all cities are listed. Conducting your own research is especially critical if you’re planning on traveling to an unfamiliar destination or visiting somewhere overseas. Doing so empowers you to understand individual regulations by town, city, country and state, as there are different tax regulations, zoning restrictions, safety and health standards and licenses required.

Red Flag No. 5: Request for a Wire Transfer, Expedited Payment or a Discount

If a property owner or vacation rental site asks for a wired or international transfer, that’s a major red flag, Mosler says. A request for a discounted payment or expedited payment could also be a telltale sign of a scam, he adds.

Another suspect behavior to flag: a request to pay the full amount too early, Greatrix says. “You shouldn’t be asked to pay the security deposit (usually up to 25 percent of the total booking) and settle the full cost of the rental until about eight weeks before your vacation,” she explains. And if there’s a switch in the email address of the person you’ve been communicating with during the booking process, that’s another clue of a possible scam, she adds.

Choosing the Best Vacation Rental Location

This post was written by Volo for Tripping.

There are many reasons why people choose to purchase vacation homes. Sometimes it’s for the love of an area and pure personal enjoyment. Other times it’s purely for cash flow. If you are somewhere in-between or are looking to run your home as a full-time business, the location of your vacation rental is one of the most important decision you will make.

While it can be possible to turn a vacation home in the middle of nowhere into a successful business venture, I do not advise the risk if you cannot afford uncertainty. Choose a location you love, but be cognizant of its ability to attract tourist.

Tripping.com’s Top City Destinations

San Francisco, CA

New York, NY

Seattle, WA

New Orleans, LA

Chicago, IL

Tripping.com’s Top Beach Destinations

San Diego, CA

Destin, FL

Key West, FL

Gulf Shores, AL

Honolulu, HI

Top Tips For Choosing a Vacation Rental Location

For most, location seems basic and research often ends after selecting a particular city or a general neighborhood. Don’t stop there. Just because your condo boarders Central Park, doesn’t mean it’s on the right end. So what’s an out of towner to do?

1. Go for a walk and take in the surroundings

Don’t hire a cab or rent a car, walk. Walk in all directions around your property for blocks. What do you see? Look at the quality (and type) of shops, businesses, homes. Will they complement your business? Do you feel safe on your walk? Take another walk at a different time of day, including the night. A beautiful beach can look completely different when the tide is out. It can also be quiet and pristine on a Wednesday but packed with locals on Saturday (which may or may not be great for your intended experience).

I once stayed in a vacation rental right next to train tracks where trains passed by every thirty minutes. While some noise levels, particularly in urban locations, are inevitable it’s important to understand what is around you. This may sound ridiculous but not too long ago I stayed in a property that was located about 500 yards from a sewage treatment facility. I was sick to my stomach a few hours everyday when the wind blew wrong.

2. Study the local landscape

If you are buying a home or land in an area you aren’t intimately familiar with, take extra time to study the details of the land and area. You don’t want to show up on a pristine day, only to find out later that during your peak season strong winds blow large tides onto your beach and make swimming a hazard.

The same holds true for erosion. Understand what happens to your property when the extreme elements (rain, cold, heat, whatever) are in full effect. Will your property flood? Do you have exposed water mains that could freeze and burst?

My Personal Experience

When I bought my vacation rental in Park City, Utah, I noticed the neighbor had recently excavated and laid a new driveway, which had already cracked. Park City happens to be the high desert, so this was a big red flag. Sure enough, the water main was exposed and had a history of bursting. In my purchase negotiations, I had them move the water main from the side of the home to the front where it now connects with city water (all underground). The project was estimated to cost $15k, but really cost over $20k due to the depth of the city water connection. A fee I’m glad I didn’t have to pay!

luxury pool

3. Be aware of the elements

If you are planning on having a pool, you will need to create a space with consistent sunshine. If a building permanently blocks this opportunity, your rates might be substantially lower than you would have thought. Too much sun, or high temperatures, can also be problematic and reduce travel to your hopeful location for long periods of time. Lastly, understand how the elements will impact the design of your property and maximize what is naturally bestowed upon you if you are building.

4. Never be pressured into buying

Don’t let anyone rush you! I don’t care if an all cash offer is supposedly looming, if you are not allowed time to research your investment, walk away. This is when the biggest mistakes are made. Likewise, if something doesn’t feel right, even if everything else by examination seems perfect, trust your gut and move on.

This post was written by Kris Getzie

Kris Getzie Hospitality Consultant

Prevent Vacation Rental Scams

Park City’s busy season is coming to an end. At its height, hundreds of thousands of visitors flocked to our little town to enjoy a cozy Christmas holiday, the Sundance Film Festival or a great family ski trip. With nearly 50% of travelers seeking vacation rental homes over hotels, great business opportunities have emerged for individuals vacation home investors and scammers alike. Websites like Craigslist are a productive place for travelers and owners to find/post deals but has also come under scrutiny in recent years for scams.

Mid-March, I received a somewhat frantic email from a man who was planning a trip for himself and his buddies. Most of whom were flying internationally to Park City. They thought they had found the perfect home away from home, but quickly found that they had been scammed. After payment was sent, the ‘owners’ disappeared. They were left completely stressed as their vacation was the following week!

Fraudulent listings have become very sophisticated with scammers going as far as drafting rental leases. Luckily, I had a few days open for this group of men, and through a web of colleagues, we were able to piece their vacation together (although at multiple properties). After talking more in-depth with them, overlooked ‘signs’ were acknowledged. With this said, I think it’s important to reiterate important precautions for travelers and for vacation rental owners as we move into the popular summer season for specific destinations:

1. Reliable Website: I often use Craigslist or KSL.com (popular for Utah properties) for additional exposure. But I always, ALWAYS include links to my vacation rental hosting sites, like VRBO, Airbnb, Tripping, etc. First and foremost, it lets potential guests know that I’m running a legit business. And an owner, I never book through Craigslist alone. I always ask that potential guests choose one of the popular vacation sites to book through. I further provide the guest benefits, like travelers insurance, property damage insurance and Guarantee’s should your prospective vacation home be double booked, foreclosed on, etc.

2. Payment: Do not send money via a wire or Western Union. If you book off a site like Craigslist, be sure to use Paypal or a Credit Card, so you can at least try to dispute charges should a booking go awry.

3. Call: Call the owner before booking. Owners, I also suggest calling potential guests before you approve their stay if they haven’t already reached out. Ask for references or look at on-line reviews. Airbnb offers guest reviews from owners in addition to property reviews from guests. These are helpful. Tripping has an anonymous review system in place, which tends to be more candid.

4. Instinct: Pay attention to suspicious behavior, poor grammar and your instinct. The gentlemen in my example said “in hindsight, the property really was too good to be true…there were signs that it was a scam.”

As an owner or traveler, have you ever been a victim of a vacation rental scam? If so, what did you learn from it that might be helpful for others?