Maybe you don’t like being tied down to specific arrival and departure dates, or you want to see the place you are renting in person before you rent it, or you don’t like the idea of paying an extra 10% fee to an online booking service when you could spend that money on food or renting a better place without the fee. Finding and renting a place on your own isn’t really that difficult. The main concern is making sure you are diligent in negotiating the terms of the rental and making sure you are not defrauded.
Online Bookings – A Scam Waiting to Happen?
Vacation rental scams are one of the most popular internet scams out there. They are so common that I hesitate to recommend that anyone ever book onlin, without going through a guaranteed service (AirBnB, etc.). But, if you want to go this way, there are number of things you need to do to protect yourself as much as you can.
So here’s a common scenario. You decide to vacation in Puerto Vallarta for a week. You look on Craiglist and find a place listed. The photos are gorgeous. The price is ridiculously low. You contact the person on the listing. It’s an international call and you only have domestic service on your cell phone, so you handle everything through email. The owner requests a deposit to hold the rental, refundable if you cancel with more than two weeks notice. You don’t have to pay for the rental until you arrive. This all seems very reasonable. The deposit is a little high, $500, payable by Western Union money transfer, but it’s a lot less than paying the cost of the full rental up front. Less risk, you think. The owner agrees to meet you at the property on the specified date and time to give you the keys and show you around the place. You book the rental and pay the deposit and two months later you arrive at the address. It looks just like the pictures. You knock on the door and a man answers. You hear kids laughing in the background. “Puedo ayudarle?” he says. You say, “Hi, I’m …” and introduce yourself. The man seems confused. Clearly, he is not the person you contacted about the rental. After some more confused English-Spanish exchanges you realized that the person at the door is the owner who lives in the house and that you have been scammed and have rented a house that isn’t for rent.
The most common scam is booking a property that doesn’t exist, or isn’t for rent. It’s easy to take photos of the exterior of any property, plus interior shots of some other properties, and make the whole package look authentic. In other words, you can’t trust the photos.
Another common scam is to overbook a legitimate property. You rent the property and show up to find that another party has rented the property for the same time period. Sometimes the owner will claim that it was a booking error and try to show you a different less acceptable property as a substitute, a “bait and switch” scam.
Another scam is just to misrepresent the property using Photoshop tricks, to make the property look bigger, cleaner, etc. Again, you can’t trust the photos.
Check out the property and verify it is a legitimate rental
The first thing you need to try to do is verify the authenticity of the property and the person offering it for rent. Get the address of the property and the name, address, and phone number of the person renting it and the owner (if different). Ask him to email a copy of the house title, deed, or owner’s lease contract, to prove ownership. Ask for additional information about the property and more photos. If it’s a scam, he probably won’t have the additional documents and photos and will have to manufacture this information. Ask him to give you references from other people who have rented the property that you can contact. That may be too much trouble and he will walk away. If not, it gives you more information to evaluate the legitimacy of the person and the property. Get an international calling card and call the person renting. This verifies the phone number is legitimate and gives you more information about how the person sounds and represents himself. Go on Google Maps and see if you can view the property on StreetView and verify that it’s the right property at the right address. Try to find out any owner information for the address and if it doesn’t match the information he gave you, avoid it. Contact the references he gave you. References are one of the best ways to guarantee the rental is legitimate. Few scam artists would go to the trouble to set up fake references, but you never know. If you’ve done all the above and everything checks out, you have a good chance that you are not being scammed unless the scammer is very resourceful. In saying this, keep in mind that even AirBnB and other online services have been scammed by fake landlords from time to time, despite their thorough vetting processes.
How to Pay
The only safe way to pay for everything is with a credit card. If there is fraud you can get your money back. Many people assume that Paypal purchase protection offers protection against this kind of fraud, but Paypal purchase protection excludes real estate transactions. Scammers will want you to pay using methods that are untraceable, such as Western Union or Moneygram transfers, mailed cashier’s checks or bank drafts, money orders, or cash. Avoid paying any money up front using any of these forms of payment. In fact, we recommend not paying any money up front until you arrive at the property and ensure that it is legitimate and have the keys in hand.
In-Person Property Search and Rentals
The alternative to online search and booking is to show up in your destination city and look for a place in person. Before the internet and AirBnB and online services ever existed this is how we used to arrange all our lodgings. In many ways it is the best method, because you get to see the place and its location before you rent it, can check out not only the place but the surrounding neighborhood, how far it is from stores, restaurants, internet hotspots, how sketchy or noisy it is, and so on. If we are staying in a place for a couple weeks or longer, this is our preferred way to find places to stay. On arriving at our destination, we plan to stay in a hotel for the first day or two and look around for a better place to rent long-term. Sometimes we find a place to rent before we even have to check into a hotel.
How do you find a place. In some places, particularly where there are lots of places available, often the lodgings come to you. If locals have places to rent, they will often have someone stake out the bus station, ferry dock , airport, or whatever to snag travelers as soon as they arrive. Many of these people will be shilling for hotels, but some may have rooms, apartments, or even houses for rent. You can also ask around at any of the local foreigner or expat hangouts and often someone will know of places for rent. If there is a local tourist office, ask there. In Leh, India, we asked at the tourist office, and the man that worked there had a room for rent on top of his building which was cheap and amazing. Ask local realtors. They may be handling short term rentals, usually for a fee, for some owners, but, if not, they may still know people who are renting. Before you leave you can look for traveler or expat forums online and try to make local contacts, either with expats or local landlords or realtors, who you can meet when you get there. As always, be cautious when meeting people you don’t know. You will obviously need to go with them to see the place you will be renting, but practice all the usual safety precautions you would use when dealing with strangers while traveling.
Negotiating and Paying for In-person Rentals
With an in-person rental you are usually talking directly to the owner, property manager, or a real-estate agent. If the rental is for a couple weeks or a month, neither you nor the person renting may feel the need to have any sort of written rental agreement, but if you are staying longer you (or they) may want to ask for a contract. If they ask for a cleaning or security deposit without a contract stating under what terms you will get that money back, I’d balk unless the amount was small (less than $50). No way I’m giving a $500 security deposit without a contract. As an alternative, it’s reasonable for them to ask for a cleaning fee, but it should be reasonable, no more than 4-6 hours local wages for a cleaning person. If the stay is longer than 2 months you start to get beyond the vacation rental category and into the short-term lease category and a contract will be more likely. The trickiest part about using a contract in any country that doesn’t have English as the primary language will be understanding the contract so you can sign it. If you don’t speak the language you may have to get a translator to help you read it.
Whether you have a contract or not, you should still negotiate with the landlord to find out what activities will be permitted, such as having parties, or guests staying over, what utilities are included, how to deal with problems with apartment, how to access the internet, who to contact with problems with the appliances or utilities, and any things about the way the apartment works that you should know about.
Again, even though you are standing there talking to the person renting to you, you should still ask for identification, phone number, address, and any information you need to prove that the person you are talking to is indeed the owner, or works for the owner, of the place you are renting.
If you are renting and physically taking possession of the apartment or house, being handed the keys, you can usually feel fairly secure about paying the rent up front at that time. After you’ve moved in there isn’t much the owner can do to scam you unless the “real” owners show up from their week vacation and find you staying in their home. I’m sure this has happened, but if the scammer has the keys and knows about the property this seems very unlikely. If the rental is for longer than a month, paying at the beginning of each month seems appropriate. I wouldn’t want to pay for longer than a month up front.
Fear of finding no rooms available
One of the concerns that drives some people to book online beforehand is the worry that when they arrive at their destination there may be no decent rentals available. This has never happened to us, but I suppose if you are traveling to a location frequented by locals during holidays or during particular festivals you could encounter this situation. One of the luxuries of being semi-retired or retired is the ability to travel when you want and time your visits to places at times when hotel rates are lower and availability is higher. If you are going to book your lodging when you arrive, you need to inform yourself about any local festivals which may interfere with your plans and work around them.