How to Protect Yourself on Short-Term Rental Sites

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Shutterstock / Cheryl CaseyThe gorgeous pictures of a property online might not be exactly what it looks like, or might not be the same place at all.

By Vera Gibbons

While short-term home rental sites such as Airbnb and HomeAway have made finding and listing vacation properties and alternative lodging fast, easy and convenient both for hosts and guests, there are risks involved for both parties.

Here are a few ways to mitigate those risks, whether you're renting a vacation villa or making some extra cash by welcoming paying guests into your home.

DO: Use reputable sites.

Reputable sites not only supply the largest number of rental offerings, but will additionally provide you with some peace of mind because they offer basic security features. Beyond conducting background and address checks, these sites also certify hosts with a proven track record, host community discussions, post uncensored reviews and ban questionable parties.

As a guest, all you have to go on are photos (which may not be verified) and reviews. If a place does not have more than three positive reviews, think twice about staying there.

DO: Have a conversation.

In most cases, conversations between hosts and guests happen through the vacation rental website's messaging system, but if having a phone conversation is an option, go for it. It's a great way to size each other up, and is extremely important if you're doing a home swap, as these exchanges require an enormous amount of trust from both parties.

During the call, note whether the host sounds legitimate and the house they describe matches what's online. If you're talking to a potential guest, consider whether they ask questions a visitor would typically have.

Also pay attention to the types of answers you're getting. For example, if you're a guest and you want to know whether the host has the legal right to rent the apartment to you, listen carefully to their answer. If they seem to be hedging at all, or even seem to be offended by the line of questioning, consider looking elsewhere.

If everything feels "right," however, go ahead with the transaction, keeping in mind that while it's still possible to be scammed over the phone, it's usually easier to fool someone when the communication takes place online.

DON'T: Pay with cash or money order.

Out of all the payment options, credit cards offer the most protection against fraud or wrongful charges. Online money transfer services such as PayPal may also be an option, and can be a good way to go. A personal check may also be fine.

But never pay with cash or money order, since those are the easiest means for the unscrupulous to disappear with your money. Is the host insisting on this type of payment? Rushing you to make a wire transfer? Don't go there.

If cash is required for a cleaning fee or damage deposit, guests should play it safe by postponing this last round of payments until they reach their destination. And get a receipt for the sum rendered.

DO: Prepare for disputes.

Many problems can and do arise. Guests may not show up. Properties may be misrepresented, unsanitary, already occupied, or full of safety hazards like exposed wiring or loose stairs.

Protection policies may not exist, and if they don't, or if they're minimal, you might very well be on your own if something doesn't work out. There is no government or trade agency regulating the advertising of rentals, so proceed with caution.

Note: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of Zillow or AOL Real Estate.

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