McCoy & Hiestand Attorneys at Law
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By Shelly White

Online vacation rentals and homestay networks are extremely popular right now, as they allow travelers to rent great residential places in which they can feel at home wherever they go. These residential properties have been known to be very reasonable price-wise when compared with hotel stays, as well as very comfortable and convenient. While the renter is benefited by this new phenomenon in travel, so is the individual residential property owner wanting to list or rent out their residential properties for some extra income. More companies are branching out into this industry, including giant Airbnb and Expedia’s HomeAway with its newly acquired VRBO. With their overwhelming popularity and the availability of residence rentals that benefit owners and travelers, there also comes concerns over problems such as safety and scams.

Right now, an issue rearing its ugly head is that, while Expedia’s HomeAway is trying to go head-to-head with Airbnb with its acquisition of VRBO, the company is being accused of rolling over loyal property owners in its quest. New service fees, matching algorithms and guarantees are causing property owners to cry foul. Many feel the company is going back on its original intent and trying to put its success before the rental and guest relationship.

Operations are being switched up to the point that property owners feel like they are working for the homestay network company rather than the network working for the owners and renters. A class action suit is even in the works with Expedia’s HomeAway being accused of “bait-and-switch tactics, which have materially damaged Plaintiff and hundreds of thousands of other vacation home owners and managers.” When property owners are taken advantage of and losing income, this unfortunately gets passed on to the renter and ultimately damages the owner-renter relationship. It is important to add that, while owners might feel things are at a disadvantage to them in changes like those of Expedia’s HomeAway, matching features, guarantees and the like are security measures that can be protective for both the property owners and especially renters.

In addition, there is, of course, safety and security issues that can cause injury and even death. With each property rented through these networks being unique—rather than the cookie cutter accommodations of the hotel industry—comes the challenge of each property having unique safety and security issues that are less than predictable. Vacation rental websites and homestay networks don’t do much in the way of guaranteeing safety, rather they just make the statement that safety is of the utmost importance and then give disclaimers of their liability or responsibility for safety issues. The industry is not regulated like the hotel industry with health and safety rules or inspections. The safety and security risks range from sexual or physical assaults to physical injuries, with no guarantees that renters or property owners will not suffer harm.

One example of safety going awry is the story of a man killed in 2013 by a fall he took when he tried to sit on a charming rope swing that was part of an Airbnb network rental. Unfortunately, the tree trunk was rotten and broke, ultimately falling on the man and causing massive brain injuries that were fatal. Yet another horror story involves a 19-year-old male who was locked into a room he rented in Madrid through the Airbnb network and then sexually assaulted by the property host. Although the young man desperately tried to get help by texting his mother over and over, Airbnb would not give the parent any information about the property due to privacy issue concerns. Since that time, Airbnb has added a spot for individuals to list an emergency contact while booking properties.

If this litany of problems has brought vows to never utilize it, take heart, as there are things property owners and renters can do to be proactive in safety and security. Despite these stories, the industry is not doomed. Consider these tips to keep yourself safe and protected:

  1. Alert others to the details of your stay.
  2. Keep emergency contacts and information on other services at the ready.
  3. Research the area where the rental is located and make a decision on whether it might be better to stay in a hotel with 24-hour on-site management.
  4. Look for reviews or testimonials online and familiarize yourself with the FAQ section of any homestay network website. You’ll not only find information that describes safety and security issues, but you’ll be part of an online community in which members give real life recommendations and bad experiences.
  5. Don’t be afraid to be picky when narrowing down possible rentals.
  6. Look for properties willing to cite safety and security factors and ones with hosts willing to answer questions about things like the property, safety, security, rules, and cancellation policies.
  7. Watch out for either property owners or renters who want to do everything through email services like Gmail, Yahoo! or Hotmail. Property owners that take payment methods that are reversible, such as PayPal or credit cards, are preferable and immediately seen as more professional and secure for both parties.

It is important to know that thousands and thousands of stays occur without a hitch while using online homestay networks. However, even a handful of bad experiences and tragedies are too many. The main safety advocate in one’s life has to be one’s self, so it is important to do the homework and research—as well as ask all the questions—before committing to rent one’s property to others or rent a home-style experience from a property owner. Doing so could assure enjoyable, safe travels and literally save one’s life.

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MCCOY, HIESTAND & SMITH, PLC
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