ORLANDO, Fla. - Renting a vacation home for a week can be a great alternative to a hotel. You're likely to get more room for less money (no more lining up the whole family to use one bathroom) and, with a full kitchen, you'll save a lot of money cooking in – rather than eating out three meals a day.
Sounds great, until it isn't.
The Internet is flooded with vacation home rental sites that feature luxury accommodations in almost any destination you can imagine. But the problem is – how much do you want to rely on imagination?
Handing money over to a stranger for a place you've never seen can be risky, says local realtor Victor Nawrocki, who owns and manages three Orlando vacation rentals with his sister.
"I get three calls a year from people who used Craigslist, and they will say, ‘We booked on Craigslist and now we realize the place is a fraud.' They're stranded," says Nawrocki.
Nawrocki doesn't advertise on Craigslist. He chose vacationhomerentals.com to list his three properties. Each house tailored to tourists with themed bedrooms for kids and elegant master suites for adults.
"I'm booked through the summer solid," he says.
His renters come from all over the U.S. and all over the world.
"One of my favorite customers was from Israel," he says.
While Nawrocki has a thriving business and three meticulous properties to prove it, others in the vacation rental business do not and often their customers suffer the consequences.
"It's a joke. It's unbelievable," says Donna Bailey, who rented through a different online vacation rental site.
Bailey and her friend, Connie Paxton, found a beachfront Oahu home on vacationrentalsbyowner.com.
"It was just perfect for us," Paxton says.
They read glowing reviews and fell in love with the pictures. The website put them in touch with the property owner. Bailey and Paxton signed a contract and started making payments, sending nearly $6,200. But just after they sent the last check in January, they checked the website and reviews one more time.
"We were like, ‘Oh my gosh!'" says Bailey.
The reviews referred to roaches and other bugs, broken fixtures, busted windows, and other disrepair. Paxton was so concerned she asked a real estate agent in Hawaii to check out the property. The realtor found that the home had been vandalized. The owner has promised a refund. But the promise came too late. The couples landed in Hawaii to see the rental disaster for themselves.
"You know you just want to cry, but what good is that going to do?" Bailey says. "He intentionally took our money knowing this place was a dump."
The group ended up staying in a hotel, but the experience with the rental soured their vacation.
Nawrocki advises renters who want to use an online vacation rental site to look for property owners who have been listed on the same site for a while. The site he uses, vacationhomerentals.com, tells Local 6 it puts owners through a "rigorous screening process" including "automatic security checks..which end with a staff member manually approving each listing before it goes live on the site." Nawrocki says renters should seek the same guarantees from the sites they use.
Here are some additional tips:
- For pricing, sample several properties in the area you desire and get a feel for the average rate. Someone who offers a low-ball figure is often a sign of trouble.
- Don't pay with cash or personal check. Use a credit card through a third party service like PayPal.
- Expect to pay a small portion upfront, and the balance about three months in advance.
- Consider paying a local realtor a one-time fee to physically check out the home you want to rent.
- Don't rely solely on online reviews. It's always best to get recommendations through friends and family.
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