Take precautions on vacation rentals

By Michelle Higgins | New York Times News Service

December 21, 2008

The Internet has made it ever easier for travelers to search for vacation-home rentals across the globe, but it also has made it possible for just about anyone with a spare room to post a listing.

Faced with the soft real estate market, many homeowners do just that. Houses that otherwise might be sold, or kept for private use, are going up for rent instead, and second-home owners with little or no experience with tenants are suddenly absentee landlords.

So how do you avoid the pitfalls? First, figure out whom you want to rent from. The vacation rental market is divided into two segments: homes rented out directly by the owner and those run by a property-management company.

Professionally managed rentals, like most of the properties featured on, and, promise a certain level of quality control because the homeowner pays the management company to inspect the home, clean it and handle any issues that arise-if a pipe bursts, for example.And most accept credit card payments, affording an added layer of protection in case the transaction goes sour. But the extra security tends to come at a higher cost.

Property managers charge homeowners anywhere from 10 percent to 45 percent of the rental revenue for services and commission, according to Discover Vacation Homes, an association of property management companies. Some of that cost is passed on to consumers.

"There's a middle man there, with property managers," said Steve Hassett, who heads up for "They have to make money off it."

No such quality control exists with owner-rented properties, found on sites such as and, but what you gain is cost savings. Both parties must work out the details of the rental agreement themselves, from the cost to where to pick up the keys.

And most homeowners take only checks or cash, though that is beginning to change. started offering credit card payments on Oct. 15.

Regardless of whom you rent from, it's a good idea to seek out recommendations from fellow renters. Vacation rental sites are increasingly offering customer reviews, making it easier to evaluate whether a property lives up to its description.

But how those reviews are handled varies widely. For example,, which is owned by Home away, notifies owners of user reviews before they go up. This gives homeowners the opportunity to respond to unfair criticisms or to dispute false reviews posted by someone who did not stay there, the company said.

But some users say that negative reviews have been censored. Vacation Rentals WatchDog lets customers complain about vacation rentals. The site was founded last year by John Romano, who runs several vacation rental Web sites and frequently hears about unreturned security deposits and misleading ads.

Romano said he tries to verify each complaint to make sure it really is from a renter, but "it's mostly based on trust.", a new vacation rental site, restricts reviews to past customers.

Bottom line: After narrowing your search, don't be shy about asking for more photos. Some sites, such as and, show each property on a digital map, so users can see how far the property is from the ocean or other attractions. Once you have the address, you can also scope out the property on Google Earth, the satellite mapping service, or Zillow .com, which lists home valuations and amenities based on public records.

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