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When the Pool Has No Water: Avoiding Vacation-Rental Rip-Offs

How can you be sure your vacation rental is for real? Experts weigh in.

Getting catfished isn’t just an online-dating problem—it turns out some homeowners and vacation-rental companies are pulling the old bait-and-switch con on unsuspecting travelers, too. That’s exactly what appears to have happened to Desiree Perez, COO of the Jay-Z–founded Roc Nation entertainment company. As recently reported by the New York Post, Perez arrived at her $8,800-per-night Dominican Republic oceanfront rental only to find an empty (and moldy!) pool, broken air-conditioning, and troublesome security concerns, among other things that were misrepresented in the pictures and information she’d seen online. To add insult to injury, the vacation-rental site Perez used has ignored her requests for a refund. So she’s taken the matter to court.

With the increased popularity of multigenerational and group trips, and the hyper-focus on bespoke experiences, there has in recent years been a marked increase in travelers seeking out private homes for their next getaway—and as a result, a boom in companies offering short-term rentals. But as situations such as Perez’s show, not all agencies are created equal. “Consumers have become conditioned to thinking that buying online means they are getting the best price and therefore it is the best option, but, unfortunately, the villa rental business has become a magnet for poor-quality sales as well as online fraud,” says George Morgan-Grenville, founder and CEO of Red Savannah, a leading luxury-rental specialist.

So how can you protect yourself from scams when looking for high-end rentals or when booking through what seems like a legitimate outfitter, like Perez did? We asked the industry experts for tips on how to help ensure your dream hideaway delivers as advertised. 

Find an Agent

First things first: Work with a reputable agency that specializes in home rentals instead of direct RBO (rental-by-owner) sites, which rarely provide any safeguards against less-than-forthcoming homeowners. “Learn about a company’s vetting process,” says Sean Judge, senior vice president of operations for ThirdHome, a luxury property and travel club that “uses a number of resources to verify the accuracy of each homeowner’s application, including proof of ownership, home value, and reviews from both homeowners and guests.”

Cedric Reversade, cofounder of Unique Properties and Events, which has a portfolio of high-end homes across Europe (including this over-the-top Roman palazzo), says to look for agencies that specialize in a specific region—like Asia, Mexico, or the Caribbean—as “one cannot offer the entire planet and actually know each property.” Enlisting an agency that works directly with homeowners, as Reversade does, is also vital. Homeowners cannot pay to be part of Unique Properties and Events; they must be invited only after a thorough and independent vetting process by Reversade’s team.

Get Personal

Selecting an agency that vets each property firsthand has other advantages, too. At Red Savannah, Morgan-Grenville notes that agents spend at least one night at each of their properties so they can experience everything from the quality of the bedding to whether there’s any street noise at night. Plus, he adds, “Everyone knows that images can be massively misleading, so it’s essential to be able to speak to an expert who knows the property, has seen it, and who does not have a vested interest in selling it over and above any other property in the portfolio.”

Reversade agrees. “A great test is to ask the agent about the house’s staff, such as how long they’ve worked at the house or what the chef’s specialties are. If they don’t have an answer, they don’t know the house personally.”

Dig Deep

Speaking of photos, the more you can get, the better. “Make sure the booking agent provides you with a wide array of professional photographs, at least 30 to 50, so you feel like you really know the place,” says Reversade. The same goes for general details, too: Morgan-Grenville suggests asking for a recent health and safety audit on the house (Red Savannah does them before the start of each season), while Judge recommends asking to be put in touch with the actual homeowner, to “reach out to them directly with any questions and build trust before the trip ever takes place.”

Get Backup

When selecting an agency, look for one that has open lines of communication and on-call staff. Top companies should have a 24/7 phone number as well as on-the-ground concierges to help with both the good (like setting up activities and area experiences) and the bad (should any arise). These concierges also often monitor the properties throughout the season to check for malfunctions and wear and tear.

“Our villa clients are never left to fend for themselves if they are unhappy or something goes wrong,” says Morgan-Grenville. “Peace of mind is integral to the benefit of taking a proper villa holiday.” And if you’re still feeling nervous, get insurance—just check that the policy covers rental-home habitability issues and not just damages or emergencies.

Go ‘Hotel Private’

Of course, there’s still one more way to ensure that you’ll never have a bad experience when staying in a vacation rental: Book your next stay through a trusted luxury hotel brand. Given the rise in requests for family-size accommodations and increased privacy, many hotels and resorts are operating rental pools of their own residences. By booking one of these homes, which tend to be on or adjacent to the main hotel, guests enjoy all the perks of a hotel stay—a spa, restaurants, and five-star service among them—while still getting exclusive amenities like private entrances, fully stocked kitchens, and a dedicated staff. Luxury brands like Four Seasons and Aman offer the opportunity to rent private homes at many of their properties, from city to beach, while the Oetker Collection’s just-launched Masterpiece Estates portfolio features grand country estates and lodges around the UK.

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