Last year, the Marino family decided to splurge on what they imagined would be an idyllic summer vacation on Nantucket.
They picked a big, beautiful house with grand views and a host of amenities for their weeklong gathering. It would be a time for Lou Marino, 89, and his wife, Ellen, 77, to bask in the love of their three children and four grandchildren.
Then the coronavirus began to spread, and before long, it became obvious that Lou and Ellen couldn’t safely leave their Swampscott home, let alone hop on a crowded ferry and venture out to an island paradise, not at their ages and not with their health issues.
So they reluctantly decided to cancel and ask for a refund of the $8,100 they had plunked down as a deposit last September (the total cost of the rental was $18,600).
But the owner of the house, Nicholas Fiorillo, refused, citing a “zero refund” policy he said he has had in place for years. (The Marinos said they never asked about a cancellation policy and were unaware of it; however, it’s in the fine print of the rental agreement.)
Lou Marino made his case for a refund in a letter to Fiorillo that said: “We cannot be around the public if there’s even a hint of this terrible virus circulating. I’m sure when you wrote your policies a global pandemic was not a consideration. Since this pandemic happened months after our reservation and through no fault of ours, the zero cancellation policy seems unjust.”
The Marinos are certainly not alone this year in seeking a refund on a canceled vacation rental, whether at a magnificent manse on a storied island or a more modest cabin by a lake in Maine.
But, like them, you are likely to encounter cancellation policies that were not written with times like these in mind. Most say you will lose an increasingly large percentage of your deposit the closer you are to your scheduled arrival when you cancel.
And it’s exactly the unprecedented nature of the pandemic that gives you the opportunity to seek a full refund or, at the least, a full credit toward a later rental. You can hardly be faulted for canceling because you fear for your health (and the health of others) or because you have lost your job. And property owners may be willing to give you a break, not only because they want your good will and future patronage, but also because it feels like the right thing to do.
Owners of rental properties in the Berkshires are being urged to think long term, said Jonathan Butler, the chief executive of 1Berkshire, which represents the tourism industry.
“We want them to be fair and reasonable on refunds because, in the end, we want people to feel good about coming back to the Berkshires next year and the year after that,” he said.
That’s the apparent strategy adopted by Airbnb, the largest online marketplace for short-term rentals. It is providing 100 percent refunds on rentals booked before the virus struck, no matter what the cancellation policy says.
While cancellation policies are written by Airbnb “hosts,” the company has decided to override them in favor of its clientele. (It is also paying its hosts 25 percent of what they would have received under whatever cancellation policies the hosts had adopted previrus, a commitment the company says is costing it $250 million.)
Another big online marketplace for short-term rentals, VRBO/HomeAway, has pledged to refund its fees, which are usually a small percentage of the rental cost. But it is leaving it to rental property owners to decide how much, if any, to refund. On its website, VRBO says property owners should first offer a full credit for future visits. If the guest declines and continues to demand a refund, VRBO “advises” them to give a full refund or, at least, 50 percent.
VRBO is trying to nudge property owners to provide maximum refunds by promising to reward their generosity with higher visibility for their rental properties on its website.
After one of Lou Marino’s daughters contacted me, I called Fiorillo, who uses VRBO to help rent several properties he owns on Nantucket and Cape Cod. At first, Fiorillo refused a refund. But he quickly had a change on heart and promptly refunded the $8,100 deposit.
“I believe this was the right thing to do,” he said in a later e-mail. “They obviously, as a family, decided to stay in quarantine this summer and ride out this horrible disease that has brought our world to a halt.”
In a column in February, I wrote about a dispute over a $6,200 medical bill that began with a bat in John Downie’s house in Newton. It was last summer when Downie awoke to discover the bat flapping around, realizing, to his horror, that it had brushed against his face while he slept.
Downie followed standard protocols and the advice of his insurer, Tufts Health Plan, to get vaccines for his three family members to prevent rabies, a deadly virus, along with a shot of immunoglobulin to boost their immune systems. Preventive care is supposed to come at no charge, so Downie was shocked by the hefty bill he later received.
Tufts Health Plan insisted that, while the vaccines were preventive, the immunoglobulin, at a cost of several thousands of dollars, was not.
Downie persistently challenged Tufts Health Plan’s determination, through repeated rejections and multiple appeals. Finally, the insurer relented and agreed to cover the cost and to reclassify immunoglobulin as preventive treatment.
In a column earlier this month, I wrote about cable companies continuing to charge subscribers almost $9 a month for broadcasts of regional sports, even though there have been no broadcasts since early March, when professional sports leagues suspended their seasons due to the pandemic.
All this against the backdrop of extreme financial stress for millions of its subscribers.
A couple of readers reported to me last week that they called Comcast to complain, and came away with refunds of up to three months of fees on the sports broadcasts ($26.25).
No comment from Comcast.