Like renting a place that’s not a palace, but a pit.
Or learning your down payment money went to a ne’er-do-well who never had the right to rent you a property in the first place.
Looking online may seem to be the fastest and easiest way to get a reasonably-priced rental, but it’s also a great breeding place for real estate scammers.
Before you plunk down any money — especially if you’re a faraway traveler who can’t see a property ahead of time — follow these six tips on how to not suck at booking a vacation home.
1. If it looks too good…
There are plenty of reasons a vacation property may be listed for rent at a surprisingly cheap rate, but, well… We can’t think of any that are good.
Anyone can post photos of a beautiful seaside retreat and say it’s the property they have for rent. Maybe the photos are real, or maybe they were borrowed from a legit travel web site and a completely different property.
Before you put any money down, do some investigating of your own. Use online satellite map programs to get a real look at the address, or simply add the address to a Google search and see what you find.
If that’s not enough, consider contacting a local real estate agent or even a local shop to see if anyone can vouch for the quality of the property.
2. Know who you’re renting from
If you’re going directly through an owner and not a property management or real estate company, put on your sleuth’s hat.
Search for the owner’s name on social media and see what you can come up with. Plug the name into a search engine, too.
Some states have property ownership records online, or you can call the local municipality and request the info. You’ll want to make sure the person renting the property to you actually owns it.
If you can’t find public records to support this, ask the landlord for a copy of a utility bill with his/her name and the property address.
Even if you think you’re working with a reputable real estate firm, you still need to double check. Some scammers have hacked into listings of legit rental sites, stealing property info and pretending to unsuspecting vacationers that they have the right to rent a property they have no real ties to.
Also ask to have a phone conversation with the owner. Hearing a person’s voice is no guarantee, but it may help you go with your gut depending on what you hear.
3. Read online reviews like a skeptic
Anyone can post a positive review (or two, or six…) about a property on a rental web site. That doesn’t mean the author actually stayed in the property.
Most renters, even those who absolutely loved a home, may have small criticisms. Any review that’s all glowing words with no caveats could very well be fake.
Also look for mentions of the owner’s names in the reviews, and make sure they match the landlord you’re talking to.
4. Where you shop matters
While free listings services like Craigslist can be a good place to look for a rental, they can also be home to many unsavory characters.
If you’re not going to go through a real estate company, only use web sites that have a proven track record. Sure, some of the properties listed could be phonies, but many sites perform background checks on those who list properties, or at the very least they do some research to make sure a listing is the real thing.
5. Get it in writing
A huckster can certainly come up with a fake contract, or choose not to honor one, but getting the details of the property in writing is always a smart move. (A legit landlord should want this anyway to protect her property.)
If it turns out that the property isn’t what was promised, you may have some recourse with a contract.
6. Pay the right way
Many property management companies will accept credit cards for deposits, and that will give you the most protection should something go awry.
Landlords who rent directly may not accept credit cards. Ask if you can use PayPal or a similar service because this will at least give you some protections and the ability to trace the person who received your funds.
Your landlord may want a personal check. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but be aware that you’re putting your account number and address in the hands of the check-casher.
If something goes wrong, you won’t have much recourse, and the bad guy will have your banking information.
Of course, the flip side of that could work to your advantage if something goes wrong. You will have a copy of your cashed check with the casher’s account number and signature on it, and that may help track a scammer down… Unless they use a check-cashing service.
If the landlord wants cash, beware. Don’t use wire transfer services either because you’ll have no way to track down stolen down payments.
7. Home exchanges
One way to get a vacation rental is to trade your property with someone else’s for the week. Of course lots can go wrong here, too — not just with your rental but with your home — but you can do the same research mentioned above on possible home swap candidates.
Have a topic you’d like to see covered in How To Not Suck? Or maybe you’re an expert who would like to share your insight with Consumerist readers? Send us a note at firstname.lastname@example.org.
You can read Karin Price Mueller’s stories for The Star-Ledger at NJ.com, follow her on Facebook, and on Twitter @kpmueller.
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