Last May, two sisters — one in Wayland, one in Wisconsin — booked a condo to share along with their husbands in sunny Florida this February and March.
One big reason they liked the place was that it had three bedrooms to accommodate visiting children (the two couples have a combined five) and grandchildren (16).
But what really clinched the deal was the refund policy, said Karen Wallander, 83, who says the winters where she lives in Wisconsin are even worse than those in Massachusetts.
The policy meant they could cancel up to four weeks before the check-in date and still get a full refund of the nearly $6,420 Wallander put down as a deposit and upfront fee, she said.
“That was a big consideration because, as you get older, you realize you just don’t know what’s going to happen,” she said. “It gave us some protection.”
Two months later, Wallander’s husband, Jerry, 84, suffered a stroke, leaving him unable to get in and out of bed, let alone climb stairs to a second-floor condo.
For months, Jerry Wallander made slow but steady progress in intensive physical therapy. But he still needed 24-hour care. Finally, in October, a disappointed Karen Wallander knew she had to cancel the much-anticipated respite in Florida.
But at least they would get their money back. Or would they?
Karen Wallander’s sister, RaeAnn Duff, 77, of Wayland, reached out to me recently after months of being unable to get the promised refund from an online rental marketplace called Houzlet.
“My sister and I have exhausted all possible avenues to recover the deposit,” Duff wrote in an email, adding that her sister wanted to put the refund toward some of Jerry’s burgeoning rehab expenses.
It all started in May, Wallander said, when she began searching for a condo in Florida on Vrbo, the well-known online marketplace for vacation rentals. She had previously used Vrbo a dozen times, to her satisfaction.
On the Vrbo site, Wallander narrowed her search to the Sarasota area because they have friends there. Hundreds of possibilities popped up, some of them hosted by Houzlet, which has a partnership agreement with Vrbo. Eventually, Wallander clicked on the picture of a nice-looking adobe-style condo complex and typed in the months she wanted (February and March). The next screen showed the per night price ($166.66) and spelled out the generous cancellation policy.
Wallander paid half the total rental cost, as required, with a credit card. Vrbo, apparently acting on behalf of Houzlet, then sent her an email announcing “Your reservation has been confirmed.”
That email included many details, including a reservation ID number, picture of the condo, and a list of the particulars, like no smoking and no pets. It read like the terms of a binding agreement. It also itemized the costs: a Vrbo service fee of $663, a cleaning fee of $303, and taxes of $1,368. The rental itself cost $9,833 for 59 nights. The total was $12,168. Wallander paid the Vrbo fee upfront, plus half of the other costs, $6,415.
A second payment covering the balance was due two weeks before the check-in date.
Notably, the email included a section on cancellation. “Need to cancel?” it asked. “We know plans change. That’s why we made it easy to update or cancel your booking if you need to. Don’t forget, you can cancel for a 100% refund until Jan. 2.” Jan. 2 was four weeks before check-in.
Beginning last October, Wallander said she called Houzlet and Vrbo numerous times leaving messages to cancel. She said she asked for a callback but never got one. She and her sister said they also sent emails.
Finally, in December, Expedia, which owns Vrbo, acknowledged its cancellation and promptly refunded the $663 fee on Wallander’s credit card. On Dec. 14, well within the allowable “full refund” cancellation period, Houzlet acknowledged in an email “we have canceled your booking.”
In that email, Houzlet promised to release “any refundable amount” within seven banking days. But the balance of $5,752 due to Wallander was not forthcoming. Finally, last month, Houzlet stunned the sisters by saying “the best option we can do is to provide you a refund as a gift certificate.” (Not knowing when they would be able to travel again, the two couples weren’t interested in future bookings.)
I read the several emails Houzlet sent to the sisters and found them to be truly baffling.
Here’s an example: “As much as we want to refund the amount back to your card, the merchant we used to process the payment no longer allows us to do so since they set the rules about refunds for transactions made for over 180 days.”
Yet, in the same email, Houzlet told Wallander she could file a dispute with her bank — presumably meaning Wallander’s credit card company — “and once the bank notifies us, we will accept it immediately and your bank will credit back the amount you paid.”
I wrote to Houzlet that all the things it was saying were irrelevant because Wallander’s rental agreement was with them.
“Houzlet promised a full refund and the Wallanders want it” without having to muck around with a credit card dispute, I wrote.
I copied Expedia and Vrbo on my email with Houzlet and almost immediately a credit for the disputed refund appeared on Wallander’s credit card.
An Expedia representative responded to me by rebuking Houzlet: “It’s important to us that our hosts provide exceptional experiences, and we take traveler feedback seriously. Vrbo has been monitoring reviews specific to Houzlet and we recognize that this partner is not meeting our marketplace standards. We are addressing it with Houzlet directly.”
Here are some things to know when renting a vacation property:
- Know the contract, sometimes called the rental agreement. Ask for it in writing by email before committing to a rental and paying money. Say you want to be clear on what the terms are. If you have been told something on the phone or in an email before finalizing a deal, such as deposits being 100 percent refundable, put it in an email back to the company, saying you want to confirm your understanding of the terms. Doing so establishes a record you can rely on if a dispute arises.
- Pay special attention to the cancellation and refund terms and the terms regarding your liability for damaged or missing items. Usually you have to commit to a security deposit on your credit card.
- One typical obligation of a tenant is to leave the property in good condition. Take a video of the property when you arrive and before leaving.
- Know who you are contracting with. Is the other party an online rental marketplace, a partner of an online rental marketplace, or the property owner?