Renting a Vacation Home Online: 6 Ways Not to Get Burned

A picture may be worth 1,000 words -- but with PhotoShop, some of those words can be ugly lies. Especially when the picture you're looking at is of a vacation home for rent online.

Renting a private home for your vacation is an increasingly popular way to travel. Private houses or condos generally provide more room for the extended family to stay together under one roof. And having a kitchen is great for accommodating different palates, as well generally saving some time and money.

The demand has spurred a cottage industry of websites that serve as matchmakers between vacationers looking for a rental and homeowners with places available for rent.

But the flaw in the system is that what you read in the property descriptions or see in the online photos isn't always what you get.
The beautiful beach may be "steps away," but in reality, it's a too much of a hike for Grandma. Or the "sleeps 8" includes the lumpy pull-out sofa in the living room that can fit the two smallest kids -- which means lights out at 8 p.m. for all the grownups.

Tom Kelly, an author, syndicated real estate columnist and talk show host, says it's important to be a smart consumer when using online sites to book your vacation home. Vacation Rentals By Owner may be the best-known site in this game, but it isn't the only one. (And as noted here, there have been complaints over listing security and property legitimacy levied against this industry leader.)

Kelly says that says that sites like and VRBO are aware of the criticisms and actively coach their home-listers against stretching the truth, but problems do occur. "If they say their home has a view and the view is just from one bedroom," Kelly said, "they are inviting trouble." The sites invite user feedback.

Kelly also says that some renter dissatisfaction comes from vacationers not really knowing what they want. When you say you are a "beach person," does that mean you like having an ocean view but, in reality, rarely dip a toe in the water? Or if you plan to partake in an active nightlife scene, will you be happy staying in a beautiful -- but remote -- location that requires you to drive 30 minutes after you've been partying all night?

Similarly, Kelly adds, renters sometimes rely on friends' recommendations for towns to stay in based on experiences that occurred years ago. "Places change," he says. Sayulita Mexico, 45 minutes north of Puerta Vallarta, used to be a surfing mecca that rolled up the sidewalks at night. Today, you'll be blasted by music until the wee early hours of dawn if you stay in town. What was once a sleepy little fishing village is now a movers-and-shakers paradise.

With those cautions in mind, here are six things you need to know before you book a place:

1. What are the sleeping configurations?

There is no more certain vacation dampener than arriving and realizing one couple gets the big master suite with the view and the other couple is relegated to the bunk beds in the second bedroom. A unit may not have identical bed configurations -- dual masters if you will -- but make sure you know what you are renting before you get there and adjust the cost-split accordingly.

2. What transportation will you need?

If you are staying in a remote Tuscany villa like this beauty and sharing it with other families, you are going to need more than one car. It's more than just not having enough room in one van for everyone; not everyone will want to do the same thing each day. Would a more central location fix that problem? If a property description is vague on whether public transportation is available or the distances to the main attractions, ask. And if the answer isn't clear, move on to another listing.

3. Are pets allowed?

Most listings specify whether your dog is welcome. If he isn't and you figure no one will know whether you bring him, guess again. Many properties are managed by a service that provides housekeeping and key drop-off. If you and Fido are busted, you risk losing your security/damage deposit. A kennel is cheaper than that and if you really feel it wouldn't be a vacation without the dog there, find a rental that welcomes him.

4. How well-equipped is the kitchen?

We rented a beautiful condo on the Hawaiian island of Kauai last year, only to get there and find that it lacked the basics to prepare even the simplest meal: Not so much as salt and pepper shakers! The kitchen had professional grade appliances that awakened our inner-chef, but who wanted to start supplying a kitchen with all the staples? We wound up eating all our meals out except for cereal-and-milk breakfasts and felt ripped off that we hadn't been able to cook in without incurring great expense. The housekeeping staff later told us that they are instructed to discard all spices and kitchen supplies left behind by guests, so each guest has to buy everything all over again. To avoid the problem: Just ask what's there.

5. How private it is?

Here's where pictures don't always tell the whole story. Shot from an angle, you would never know that you had neighbors. And unless you investigate, you may think are renting the whole house, but in fact, other renters are staying on the first floor underneath you. Perhaps sharing space doesn't bother you, and in the Club Med spirit, you actually kind of like meeting new people anyway. That's fine, but it's always good to know in advance.

6. Does it have Wi-Fi?

Yes, of course you seriously intend to break free of the office and not compulsively check email. News flash: We live in the online information age and whether it's to check restaurant reviews or get the local museum's hours, you are going to want access to the Internet at some point on your vacation. The good news is that most vacation rentals do provide it. Yeah, but do they get HBO?

Want to know how to deal with other rental issues? Here are some AOL Real Estateguides that can help:

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