When Carol Swartz tries to check in to a condo in New Hampshire, she finds the unit in a state of disrepair. Now the site through which she booked the rental is refusing a refund, despite a written guarantee. Can it do that?
Q: We just had a frustrating experience with HomeAway and I need your help. I recently rented a condo in Laconia, N.H., that we found through the site. It was advertised as a "luxury" condo, and we paid a total of $1,886, which included $49 for HomeAway's "Carefree Guarantee Rental" program.
We felt so uncomfortable we did not take occupancy. We called HomeAway immediately to advise them the unit was misrepresented. The service rep advised us to find other lodging. The following morning we emailed photos to substantiate our claim that the advertiser misrepresented his condo and we requested a refund based on the guarantee program.
So far, we have made three attempts to collect a refund from HomeAway; all have been denied. The reason? HomeAway says the photos we took are "insufficient" proof of the property's misrepresentation. I've also contacted the owner, to no avail. Can you help me? -- Carol Swartz, Austin, Texas
A: If you rented a luxury condo, you should have received one. But how do you define "luxury" -- is it having a certain set of amenities, like a hot tub or a gourmet kitchen? Unfortunately, there's no commonly agreed-upon definition of "luxury" that I'm aware of.
A better measure would be comparing the property's listing on HomeAway against the photos you took. Based on the images you sent to HomeAway, I don't think anyone's going to mistake that property for a "luxury" condo -- let alone spend $1,886 on it. That seems like a misrepresentation to me, and HomeAway should have stepped up and sent you a refund.
HomeAway sees itself as a classified listing service for vacation rentals, but that's not how consumers like you view it. When you book through the site, you view HomeAway as a trusted intermediary that vets the listings and that you can lean on when something goes wrong. In my experience, HomeAway has done little to dispel that perception.
HomeAway shouldn't just stand behind your rental -- it should stand behind all of its rentals. (You shouldn't have to pay extra for it to guarantee its products, either, but that's beside the point.)
I'm impressed that you took so many photos of the shabby condo and that you documented your dispute in writing. Unfortunately, your next step would be to either dispute the credit card payment to the property owner or to take that person to small-claims court. Neither of those options sound like fun, so I contacted HomeAway on your behalf and asked it to review your claim a fourth time. It did, and after taking another look at your photos, it decided to honor its rental guarantee.
(Christopher Elliott is the author of "Scammed: How to Save Your Money and Find Better Service in a World of Schemes, Swindles, and Shady Deals" (Wiley). He's also the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine and the co-founder of the Consumer Travel Alliance, a nonprofit organization that advocates for travelers. Read more tips on his blog, elliott.org or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Christopher Elliott receives a great deal of reader mail, and though he answers them as quickly as possible, your story may not be published for several months because of a backlog of cases.)