A Trusted Friend in a Complicated World

Don’t Book That Vacation Home Rental Before You Read This!

Updated: Jan. 06, 2023

Here's how to get the postcard-worthy stay you deserve.

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Pictures aren’t always worth a thousand words

Home-sharing and vacation rental websites are a lot like dating apps. You see homes at their best with great lighting, angles, filters, and everything looks pristine. A few swipes and you’re ready to book your vacation rental. That’s what Todd Brabender, of Lawrence, Kansas and his wife did when they recently booked an Airbnb, only to find the bathroom was horrible. “It had black mold on the tub, weird lighting, and the floor of the tub felt like it was going to cave in,” says Brabender. “Looking back, we realize there were no pictures of the bathroom in the listing. Now we know why.” To avoid the same vacation mistake, make sure you see all the pictures of the rooms you will be using and ask if there have been any updates since the last pictures were taken.

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How safe are the digs?

While amenities and aesthetics are important, don’t forget about safety. “There’s a gorgeous high-end hostel in Rome with a killer price because it’s in a horrible neighborhood,” says Kathy Haan, a business mentor who frequently uses home-sharing options when traveling. Consider doing a search at crimereports.com or familywatchdog.us to check out the safety of the neighborhood. You’ll want to feel safe and comfortable about walking home from a restaurant or taking the kids to a local park. Even if the neighborhood is generally safe, be vigilant about locking your car at night or storing things like bikes. “Most locals will know it’s a rental with constantly changing guests but this can potentially open you up to theft or other crimes,” says Haan.

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You skim over the rules

You just booked the ultimate vacation rental but upon arrival find you’re not allowed to have guests on the property unless they booked with you as registered guests! “Some hosts have very specific rules,” says Kerith Henderson, an Airbnb “Superhost” (a Superhost must have at least 80 percent of their reviews be five stars). “Guests who don’t read through the rules can find themselves in a difficult situation if they happen to break one.” Thoroughly read the rules and you’ll get a sense if this is the place that’s right for you.

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You forget about comfort

Ever crashed at a friend’s house and didn’t get a wink of sleep because their mattress was lumpy? “A great night’s sleep means everything on a trip,” says Henderson. “Find out what kind of mattress your host has. If you like a firm one, sleeping on a pillow top for four days might make you miserable.” Other issues to consider are the furniture. If you like to kick it back after a day of touring, the Victorian-style parlor chairs and settee may have looked great in the picture but not so much for relaxing. If you have kids, a bathtub may be essential for little ones who don’t use the shower yet. Plan ahead and think of how you will be using the home on a daily basis to determine whether it will be a good fit.

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Not reading the fine print

You certainly didn’t expect to get the flu when you booked your home last week, but now your vacation has to be postponed. Be sure to read the fine print on cancellation policies. Ask for clarification if you have questions. “Sometimes cancellations cannot be avoided. Find out if your booking gives a 100 percent refund when canceling; some do not,” says Henderson.

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Where will I park my car?

Parking can be an exhausting process, especially if you book a home or apartment in a large city. Can you park for free on the street or will you need a visitor’s permit? Will you have to park a few blocks away or nearby parking garage? If you’re flying and plan on using Uber around town or public transit, verify those services are available in the area.

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Does “cozy” mean small?

Cozy and quaint sounds warm and inviting but could it actually mean you’re booking a shoe box? Bill and Eleanor Seavey, Airbnb “Super hosts” in Cambria, California note, “One thing we have discovered that’s important is how the space has been described, particularly square footage-wise. The problem with square footage is that many people don’t really understand it, and a lot of times, Airbnb hosts have converted small ‘extra’ spaces into rooms.” Will you feel comfortable in a tighter space or claustrophobic? If you expect to entertain friends or are vacationing with kids, space is an important detail not to be missed.

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Is your host a ghost?

Whether you’re renting a suite in a house or an entire home, you may want to know if your host is on the property or nearby. It’s a good idea to establish a relationship before booking and then meet the host at check-in to go over the details. “Consider highly reviewed places with hosts who are very responsive to inquiries if you’re newer to the process,”says Emily Long, a safety expert and seasoned business traveler. If something goes wrong, you want to be assured that your host can be easily reached and will respond in a timely matter. Practice your amateur sleuth skills and try to find out more about your host, suggests Long. “Do little extra Googling or social media searching to see if the host has received any additional complaints or red flags elsewhere. You can also reach out to past guests directly for feedback about their experiences.”

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Quaint or quirky?

Some home-sharing options are appealing to because of their quirks, like renting an old row house on a cobblestone street. But other vacationers are drawn to a more modern home with all the upgraded amenities. If you prefer the quaint and quirky, be sure it’s still manageable for you. For example, if you rent an old row house, are you able to walk three flights of stairs to the bedroom? Do you mind tiny bathrooms and rubbing elbows while brushing your teeth over the pedestal sink or a noisy fan instead of central air conditioning?

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What’s this charge for?

When you’re comparing rentals and prices, factor in additional fees for cleaning, security deposits for pets, booking fees, taxes, etc. “Fees vary widely between properties so it’s important to factor all the fees when comparing prices,” says Andrea Woroch, a consumer and money-saving expert and a VRBO/Homeaway homeowner. “Compare the total price per listing and look at the per night or per week price. You may get a discount for multiple nights or be able to negotiate a discount on the rental rate if you stay for a longer period of time or if you’re booking a last-minute rental since the homeowner may want to fill the space so not to lose any rental income.” Some owners may waive the booking fee if you ask, but know that you will forgo the various types of “assurance guarantees” that home-sharing websites offers.

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Check out the ‘hood

Another reason to check out the ‘hood besides personal safety is to find out the proximity of the house to the activities you’re planning. If you plan on hitting the beach, find out if it’s walkable or if you’ll need to drive. If you’re looking for a quiet retreat but the home is surrounded by restaurants and bars, you’re likely not going to get a good night’s sleep. “Ask for the address of the property if it isn’t listed so you can look it up on Google maps to verify the location,” suggests Woroch.

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Is it a full house?

If crashing on your friend’s couch is a common occurrence for you, you’ll probably be comfortable renting a room instead of an entire property for less, but if the prospect of roommates brings back memories of your stinky and loud college roommate, you may want to forgo this option—or at least inquire more about it.

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Too good to be true?

The listing includes all the amenities you want and the house is in a prime location so it seems obvious this is the place for you—or is it? “The best way to find a property that will meet your needs and that you feel confident about booking is to read reviews,” says Woroch. Reviews can be glowing or downright nit picky. So, how do you decipher what is genuine and what it not? Choose a property with lots of reviews. When you spot a negative review, dig a little deeper and find out if it’s something that would matter to you. For example, if the reviewer was upset because the TV wasn’t working properly that may not matter to you because you don’t watch TV. Glowing reviews can read like someone paid the reviewer to write it. Reviews can be genuinely excellent but look for specific details that merited five stars. For the negative reviews that are giving you pause, Woroch suggest speaking to the homeowner and ask if the issues have been resolved.

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Are you a good guest?

As prospective guests, one of our main concerns is the host. The vacation rental may be a dream getaway but the host could be a nightmare to deal with. Turns out, the host has similar concerns about the guests. Getting good guest reviews could pay off for you, says Lauren Davis, a Rockford, Illinois business traveler who books frequently with Airbnb. “More options are available to you if you do not select ‘instant book’ in the filters, which means the hosts have to approve your stay,” says Davis. When hosts have great reviews of you, they are more likely to accommodate special requests, get you the room or house you want and make your stay even more enjoyable. It’s not hard to practice guest etiquette. “Be courteous and treat it as if you are staying at the house of someone you care about,” says Davis. Pick up after yourself and follow the house rules and you could be a five-star guest that pays in dividends later.