“Is it really safe to rent out your home while you’re away?” It’s the number one question I get when I mention that we can afford to travel so much because we rent out our home while we’re off to Istanbul or New York or Mexico City.
I wish I could answer that question with an unqualified “yes.” But the fact is that using our home as a short-term rental is always risky. That’s why we’re very, very careful.
To protect ourselves and our property, we keep our antennas tuned for scammers. We make sure our guests are who they say they are, communicate our house rules and expectations, check in with guests after they arrive, and have eyes and ears on the ground while we’re away.
Tip #1. Learn to spot the short-term rental scammers
Just about every short-term rental host I know has received at least one inquiry from someone who pretended to be a legitimate guest but was really out to make a quick buck. We almost fell for one ourselves not long ago.
I don’t have space to list every possible scam. Scammers can be particularly cunning, and new scams appear every day. But here are a few of the most common:
- Using an untraceable cashier’s or certified check, a wire transfer, or a stolen credit card, the scammer sends a payment for more than the amount of the rent, then convinces you to send a refund right away. The payment turns out to be bogus and the “guest” is never heard from again
- Scammers steal your listing and pass off your home off as their own, convincing unsuspecting guests to send payments directly to them. You know nothing about it until smiling strangers show up on your doorstep, suitcases in hand.
- Saying they need to verify your identity, scammers ask for your bank account numbers, social security number, and/or a copy of your passport or driver’s license. Then they assume your identify to clean out your bank accounts and open credit cards in your name.
- People lie about who they are, the size of their group and their reason for wanting to rent your home. After you’ve handed over the keys, they move a lot of people in and have a party. There are even stories of “guests” using a short-term rental home as a brothel – something that’s bound to make your neighbors (or your landlord) very unhappy!
Tip #2. Make sure guests are who they say they are
VRBO, where we list our home for short-term rent, keeps pushing us to sign up for “instant booking.” That’s a really bad idea. The only way we know to keep ourselves safe is to know the people who stay in our home.
Even online booking, now the site’s only listing choice, makes us very uncomfortable. One reason we’ve never had any serious trouble with guests is that we take the time to make sure they are responsible, reliable, and will take good care of our home. That means doing a certain amount of screening both before and after booking.
- Before accepting a booking, have a “conversation” with the guests. Best is to have access to their phone number so you can have a direct conversation. If the rental site blocks you from doing that, at least initiate a conversation via email. Politely ask guests a little about themselves and their reasons for wanting to stay in your home (or confirm what they’ve said in their inquiry). Legitimate guests are happy to share this information.
- Read any reviews of the guests you can find on your listing site and other short-term rental listing sites. Compare what the guests have said about themselves to what you find, and politely question any issues or discrepancies.
- Look the guests up on social media. Not everyone has a social media presence, but increasing numbers of people do. A Facebook or Instagram page or a LinkedIn profile can tell you a lot about a person and help you confirm (or call into question) the impression you already have.
- After booking, you can ask guests for their permanent address and copies of their driver’s licenses or passports to verify their identity. For longer stays, you can also ask for employment information along with references from a current landlord or a previous host.
Tip #3. Be sure guests understand your house rules and your expectations
We don’t have a lot of rules, but we do have some, mostly relating to interactions with our neighbors and how many people are allowed to stay overnight. We also have some expectations around such things as bringing in our mail, keeping the place clean, and getting in touch with us in case something breaks down (instead of trying to fix it themselves).
Taking the time to go over the rules and expectations helps to avoid misunderstandings that can lead to sometimes serious problems. We typically send them to guests in a polite email a couple of weeks before their arrival and then have a phone chat a few days later to answer their questions and assure ourselves that we’ve communicated everything clearly. We also leave a printed copy of the rules in the house.
Tip #4. Check in after guests arrive
We send guests a quick email or text a day or two after they arrive to see how they’re “settling in.” The check-in lets them ask about anything that baffles them or tell us about anything they need. It’s also a reminder that even though we might be across an ocean, we’re still paying attention to what goes on in our home.
Tip #5. Arrange for eyes and ears on the ground
Thoughtful short-term rental hosts don’t leave their guests completely on their own. Instead, they make sure there is someone around to answer questions and help with problems. Having those “eyes and ears on the ground” is also the best way to spot clues that not all is well.
You can schedule a trusted housecleaner to come in while guests are there – it’s well worth the extra cost. Or you can ask a friend, relative, or neighbor to be available, and perhaps to stop by a few days after the guests’ arrival to “see if you have everything you need.” If you rent out your home often, you might consider hiring a manager who can alert you if something seems to be wrong.
Have you come up with other ways to stay safe when you rent out your home? Please share them in the Comments or on our Facebook page.