Consumer advocate and travel advisor Christopher Elliott was kind enough to share his post, This is How Vacation Rental Pros Find a Better Place, with us. Here’s an edited version of the post, with lessons for hosts from the experiences of frequent short-term rental guests.
Vacation rental owners lie. They post descriptions of their property filled with hyperbole and staged photos that use wide-angle lenses to make their homes look enormous. So how do the vacation rental pros find a better place?
I found myself asking that question after renting an apartment in Lisbon. The photos posted on various vacation rental sites made it look palatial, but it was small and cramped. I couldn’t blame the owner for putting his best foot forward, but now that foot was stepping all over my carefully-made travel plans.
This is the height of vacation planning season. In fact, the U.S. Travel Association just celebrated National Plan for Vacation Day. (Gosh, they have a day for everything now!) So chances are you’re looking at properties on Airbnb, HomeAway or TurnKey, and you don’t know what to believe.
And you might be wondering: How do the vacation rental pros find a better place?
The industry has developed several new ways to determine whether a rental is up to par. And experts say there are additional ways to spot a property that’s faking it.
Pro Tip: Here are the secret quality labels that help vacation rental pros find a better place
The major vacation rental companies have labels for their best rentals. They don’t call them “seals of approval” for fear of offending the other properties. But that’s what they are.
Airbnb has a “Plus” designation. To qualify, a host must receive at least 4.8 stars out of 5. The home-sharing site sends inspectors to such properties to monitor “comfort, consistency and design,” reviewing linens, bed comfort, bed and bath products and WiFi speed. However being “Plus” is about more than passing an inspection.
“Airbnb Plus hosts have impeccable style,” spokeswoman Rachel McAllister says. “With elegant design and personal character, the homes are as welcoming as they are beautiful.”
Vrbo has a “Premier Partner” badge that denotes a quality standard. “These are properties with a proven track record of success,” Vrbo spokeswoman Christina Song says. “They tend to have great ratings, high acceptance rates and low cancellations.”
Lessons for hosts
Special designations like Airbnb Plus and VRBO Premier Partner are great if you qualify. For guests, they signify short-term rentals with a proven track record and hotel-like services. But most of us ordinary hosts, who rent out their personal residences or second homes, a few times a year, aren’t likely to qualify. (Sorry.)
The good news is that you can make your place appealing without jumping through the hoops that these listing sites require. Give guests a safe, comfortable place to stay and you’ll get great reviews, which is the best way to attract more guests.
Pro tip: Read carefully before booking a vacation rental
How do the vacation rental pros find a better place? They read the property description. All of it.
Guests rarely take the time to read carefully property descriptions, according to Jessica Vozel, who co-founded Guest Hook, a company that helps owners write them. She says you can tell a lot about a person from the tone of their write-up.
“Do they seem enthusiastic yet genuine about their property and location?” she asks. “Or do they seem like they just threw the listing together in a minute flat, with grammatical errors and vague statements about being ‘the best’?”
Lessons for hosts
- Instead of stuffing your home description with flowery adjectives such as “fabulous” and “amazing,” use specifics that give travelers useful information about your home.
- Keep the reader in mind when you write your description. Instead of telling travelers what you love about your home, tell them what they will enjoy.
Pro tip: Look for little hints in the vacation rental description
Sometimes you can predict a negative experience without any special skills.
“Once I read a property description that said: ‘If you don’t know how to use technology like WiFi and TV remotes, don’t even bother staying here. I don’t have time to be your tech support.’ Red flags galore,” Vozel says.
There’s also an art to deciphering vacation-rental euphemisms. For instance, “quaint” can mean decrepit. “Rustic” can mean in the middle of nowhere. “Cozy” can mean there’s no room to move. (Double-check the square-footage if you see that word.)
Lessons for hosts
- Keep your description positive without neglecting to include possible negatives about your home. For the example above, you could say, “We have a ‘smart’ home, with a Nest thermostat, smart door locks, a smart entertainment system, smart lighting, and an Alexa that acts as a virtual concierge.” That tells people your home is filled with technology and warns them away if too much technology makes them uncomfortable.
- If you want to let travelers know your place is small, don’t mislead them with words like “cozy.” Say something like, “Our 600-square-foot home is on the small side, but it’s very comfortable, and you’ll have everything you need.”
Pro tip: Let’s talk about those staged photos, shall we?
When it comes to photos, experts say you should be wary of stock images that show the general area but not the specific rental. For me, alarms start to go off when I see photos taken with a professional camera using a wide-angle lens. I also click away from a listing when I see high dynamic-range images, a special technique that shows a room in an unnaturally flattering light. It can be a sign that the owner is trying to sugarcoat a substandard property.
“Artsy photos of sun streaming in a window are all well and good,” says Jennifer Grimes, founder of Red Cottage, which manages about 60 vacation rental homes in Upstate New York. “But if there are neighboring houses nearby, or if the property is close to the road, we try to include at least a bit of that in a shot to manage expectations.”
T.J. Clark, co-founder and CEO of TurnKey Vacation Rentals, says a virtual tour of the home with a floor plan can be valuable. These immersive online experiences walk visitors through the property, giving them a better sense of the layout and the size of the rooms and even letting them see each room from different angles.
Lessons for hosts
- You don’t need—and probably shouldn’t have—a professional camera or a professional photographer for your photos. Your cellphone will be fine, as long as the photos are crisp and clear. Get the best light by taking photos during the day, not at night—and clear away the clutter before you start!
- Take lots of photos. Then select the ones that give travelers the most accurate “tour” of your home. We also agree with T.J. Clark that a video tour and floor plan add a lot of value to your listing.
- Posting misleading photos is one of the biggest mistakes a host can make. Photos create expectations in guests’ minds and they’ll be disappointed if what they’ve seen in the photos are a far cry from what they find in your home. Disappointed guests can lead to bad reviews, and disgruntled guests might even ask for a refund.
Pro tip: Do reviews predict the best vacation rental?
Pay attention to the reviews, too. Look for a history of generally positive user ratings that includes some negative comments and, most important, timely responses from the owner or host. If an owner simply ignores the negative reviews or reacts in a hostile way, blaming a customer for being a bad guest, that could be a red flag.
If a rental has only a few reviews, only reviews that are more than a year old or only positive reviews, that can also be cause for concern.
Last year, I rented a home in Colorado that only had positive reviews. To this day, it remains our worst rental.
Lessons for hosts
Happy guests often don’t bother to write reviews. Even unsatisfied guests might skip the review, not wanting to offend you.
Drop guests a note after their stay. Say how happy you were to have them as guests (if you were) and that you hope they enjoyed their stay (if they did). Ask whether they can suggest anything that could help you improve your home for future guests. Then ask them to write a review.
Pro tip: Can you read a map? You should before you rent
Experts suggest that potential renters do one more thing: Look at the home on a satellite map.
Michael Kugler, CEO of the vacation rental site Vacarent.com, vets thousands of properties in Branson, Mo. One of his pet peeves is parking on a steep incline. “I can go to Google street view and see immediately if the property is on semi-level land or not and decide from there if it will be a match,” he says.
The street view precaution is essential. I use it every time I rent a home to ensure the rental isn’t in an unsafe neighborhood. And there’s one final trick I recommend: typing the property address into a crime-reporting site like Crimereports. It will show recent police reports for the neighborhood, allowing you to make a more informed decision about the safety of the rental.
Lessons for hosts
- We agree that the Google street view is one of the best tools a traveler has for deciding whether a short-term rental is right for them, and not only because of safety. We once passed on a rental when we discovered from the street view that it was right over a motorcycle repair shop where groups of bikers hung out.
- Look up your own home on Google street view. What will guests see? If your home is on a busy street, don’t describe it as “quiet and peaceful.” If there’s a bar downstairs that’s open until the wee hours of the morning, say something like, “We’re above a lively, fun bar.”
- When guests check out your home on a map, they can zoom out to see where it is in relationship to the rest of the area. Don’t describe it as “in the city center” when it’s actually a bus ride away, or “a quick walk to the beach” when it’s a 20-minute walk across a busy highway.
Are you a frequent traveler? What lessons has your experience as a guest taught you about being a better short-term rental host? We’d like to hear about them in the Comments or on our Facebook page.
Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can’t. He’s the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes weekly columns for King Features Syndicate, USA Today, and the Washington Post. If you have a consumer problem you can’t solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter.