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Caveat Emptor

Caveat Emptor

When we travel and are going to be in a location for at least a week, we prefer renting an apartment, condo, or small house. Why? Certainly not for an opportunity to cook. I don’t cook at home, why would I cook on vacation? It is convenient, though, to have a refrigerator for beverages and snacks, as well as a coffee maker and a teapot and there is often more privacy in a rental.

The entrance to our rental apartment.

The entrance to our rental apartment.

How does one protect one’s self when renting an unknown property? Obviously, the best way to be safe is to rent only from a reputable agency. However, with the advent of the internet, there are now many opportunities to rent directly from an owner. The advantage to a by owner rental is that it can be less expensive because it cuts out the middle man and the percentage of the rent that goes to him/her. Another advantage is that more choices may be available as more and more owners opt to rent on their own rather than through an agency.

There are a number of online sites that offer rentals by owner. Flipkey.com is owned by Trip Advisor and can also be accessed via the site, tripadvisor.com/vacationrentals. Redweek.com is a clearinghouse for time share rentals. Homeaway.com has a large array of listings, including international and there are filters for searching. Homeaway also owns cyberrentals.com, vacationrentals.com, and vrbo.com. The site vrbo.com lists US properties only; I have found homeaway.com to be easier to negotiate. Other sites include greatrentals.com and ownerdirect.com. Craigslist is not recommended as a “safe” place to find a rental.

Our apartment’s courtyard provided a cozy, private location to relax after a day of sightseeing.

Our apartment’s courtyard provided a cozy, private location to relax after a day of sightseeing.

There have been cases reported in the media recently where people rented through some of the above sites, particularly Craigslist, and when they arrived at the rental property found that they were victims of fraud; someone other than the homeowner had listed the rental and collected the money.

This past year, we planned a trip to Santa Fe. I just couldn’t find the right rental for us via the reputable agencies. In fact, I found the choices offered by agencies to be rather limited; I did, however, find exactly what we wanted on a rental by owner site.

How can one be sure about a property offered on a by owner site? Do due diligence.

Make sure there are a lot of photos. If only one room is shown, you have to wonder what you are not seeing. If the listing doesn’t include a map, check out the satellite and street views on Google maps.

Read the reviews posted on the rental sites. Some of the sites such as Trip Advisor let you email the reviewer for further verification. I’ve had people email me when I’ve posted reviews on Trip Advisor. Be skeptical if there are no reviews available. It’s actually sometimes good if there are a few (very few) negatives. Not everyone likes everything and some people just have to complain. Many of the rental sites allow the owners to respond to a negative comment; it’s instructive reading those responses. On the property we were interested in, someone complained that there was a dirt road back to the house; research showed that is common in that neighborhood.

Do a Google search of the property name, address, and owner’s name. Often, the property will be listed on more than one site and you might find additional reviews. Check out the county tax listings to see who owns the property.

Looking out from our apartment’s window provided a lovely view of the Santa Fe landscape.

Looking out from our apartment’s window provided a lovely view of the Santa Fe landscape.

On websites such as homeaway, vrbo, and vacationrentals, an insurance guarantee starting at $39 can be purchased to protect the renter against internet fraud and factors such as if the property is foreclosed upon, has been doubled booked, or the owner withholds your security.

Owners can obtain a “seal” from rentalseal.com for their listing which verifies that the person offering the property is indeed the owner.

Email the owners with any questions you might have or to establish contact. If they don’t respond promptly, that is not a good sign. You have to wonder, if there were a problem after you closed the deal, would they respond promptly?

If possible, call the owner. Get a “feel” for him or her. Remember, he/she wants to rent the property. If the owner is curt with you, that may not be a good sign. If you are skeptical about the person, ask an “idiot questions” – something that might point out if you are being told only what you want to hear. Double check on what is listed. If the WIFI listed in the property details is important to you, make sure it is up and running.

If some things weren’t clear in the listing, ask; What exactly does “walking distance to town center” mean? How far is it? What is the pathway? Living here on Marco we are familiar with how important it is to find out what “beach access” really means.

Some cities license private rentals. In Santa Fe, the city licenses official vacation rentals and it is a vigorous qualifying process including annual inspections and payment of a licensing fee. All advertising for the rental must include the license number and the city does review various rental websites to find any that are operating without a license. There is also an official city website on which licensed rentals may advertise.

Make sure there is a contract or lease clearly spelling out conditions and responsibilities and that the cancellation policy is stated. Look for any extra fees such as cleaning or seasonal surcharges. Some rentals charge extra for linens and some impose an energy surcharge. Also make certain that you have 24 hour contact information for the owner in case there are any problems.

Before renting I called our landlady and had a long chat with her; she provided us with her home, work, and cell phone numbers. To secure the property, I had to either pay the entire rent and security deposit via PayPal or send a personal check. Via PayPal, I would have had to pay the PayPal fees which are about 3 -4 percent of the total. Often, rentals by owners won’t accept credit cards, so the renter doesn’t have the protections that many cards provide. PayPal buyer protection is only for goods…and if the arrangements are made too far in advance the protection offered by the credit card you use for PayPal no longer applies. Since I have had security problems with PayPal in the past, I try to avoid using them, so I paid by check. After speaking with her and researching references, I felt that owner who lives on site and has a local business was sincere and I felt good about the city licensing. In fact, I think it was the licensing that finally convinced me. Be wary of any requests for payment by money order, bank (wire) transfer, or cashier’s check.

Rentals by owners open up more choices and save money, but you have to be cautious and due a little research. As the saying goes, caveat emptor.

By the way, our rental was perfect. Nicely decorated, immaculate, and comfortable, it was in a peaceful yet convenient location and had all necessary amenities. Our first experience with rental by owner was a success.

About The Author

Vickie is a former member of the Marco Island City Council and Artistic Director of the Marco Island Film Festival, and has been a volunteer for many island organizations. She is presently on the board of the Naples Mac Users Group. Prior to relocating to Marco, Vickie served as a school psychologist, Director of Special Services, and college instructor and also was a consultant to the New Jersey Department of Education.


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