The Navigator: A vacation rental too good to be true

Columnist July 26, 2012

Frank Leibsly says that his recent apartment rental in London was a disaster of Olympic proportions, and he has the pictures to prove it.

His story — which involves a supposedly upscale rental unit that he claims was unfit for occupation, user-generated reviews that might have been bought, a potentially litigious property manager and a vacation rental Web site that advertised the property — may seem difficult to believe. But Leibsly, who works for a defense contractor in Washington, documented his short stay with the meticulousness of a senior engineer, which is what he is.

Leibsly’s story is more than a cautionary tale for anyone considering a vacation rental. It’s also a by-now-familiar warning to read the entire rental contract from start to finish. You never know what rights you could be signing away.

The chain of events began last year, when Leibsly decided to plan a trip to England with his wife to celebrate their 20th anniversary. “We wanted to rent a flat in London for three days,” he says. “So we researched and chose a very nice-looking apartment in Stratford, next to the Olympic park. The pictures of the apartment were beautiful: very modern, bright and pristine.”

Any doubts were quickly dismissed when he read the online reviews, which raved about the property and awarded it five stars, the highest possible rating. He agreed to pay 548 pounds, about $850, for three nights in the apartment.

But when he and his wife arrived in late May, they found the opposite of what they’d expected. The apartment was in a depressed, crime-ridden part of London, he says. And it was a mess. “It was a far cry from what was represented in the flat description and pictures,” he added. After one night, they checked out and requested a full refund from FindaFlatinLondon.com, the company through which they’d rented the place.

Leibsly also sent a review to HomeAway.com, the Web site through which he’d found the apartment. In it, he described the apartment’s condition in detail, including a long list of complaints: worn furniture, linens that hadn’t been changed from the previous guest, no toilet paper, mold in the bathtub, lack of air conditioning. He also sent me photos of the apartment that appear to back up some of his claims.

What happened next depends on who’s talking, and not everybody’s talking. This much is not in dispute: The apartment’s rental managers refused to refund Leibsly’s money.

Shortly after HomeAway.com approved Leibsly’s review, the entire listing was removed, he says. I contacted HomeAway and asked why. Within less than a week, the listing, along with his review, reappeared. HomeAway won’t disclose why the listing returned to the site, but it said that the one-star review Leibsly penned was in compliance with its standards.

“The traveler’s review was published in accordance with our standard content guidelines, which state that content may not be posted for the purpose of trying to force a particular response or action from another person in an unlawful, abusive or otherwise inappropriate manner,” Carl Shepherd, the chief strategy and development officer for HomeAway, said in a statement. “In this situation, the traveler stayed in the property — even if only for a night — and so rightfully may post a review.”

A representative of Find a Flat refused to comment, citing the possibility that the company may take legal action against the Leibslys.

Why sue a guest? Because in the meantime, Leibsly had self-published a blog post in which he accused the company’s owners of “preying” on guests. Late last week, he deleted that post, and his review on HomeAway.com. But there’s another reason Find a Flat might take a customer to court: The rental contract Leibsly signed included a non-disparagement clause saying that he would not publish negative comments on a public Web site.

That’s not all. Leibsly took a picture of a notice, printed on Find a Flat letterhead, that was tacked to the side of the refrigerator in the London apartment. “Please remember our special rewards and incentives,” it said. “Earn 20 pounds cash back for writing a positive review of our flat on the website, 40 pounds for two reviews on two websites.”

Although Find a Flat wouldn’t answer my questions, it referred me to Chris Emmins, the co-founder of KwikChex.com, a U.K.-based site that publishes and promotes verified guest reviews. Emmins says that his company is investigating Leibsly’s claims and trying to mediate the dispute.

“At the heart of it is the online comments, including his blog,” he told me. “In the various and multiple postings made, he has complained about aspects such as no air conditioning and that the washer-dryer did not dry. Our initial investigations seem to imply that such facilities were not advertised, so this is obviously a concern at the outset.”

The investigation isn’t complete. Emmins is also trying to verify the identities of the five-star reviewers to determine whether they were paid for their positive reviews. He says that KwikChex.com disapproves of the practice of paying guests for ratings. Emmins showed me preliminary results of his inquest, which cast doubts on some aspects of Leibsly’s story and appear to validate others, but he would not allow me to include them in this article.

“Believe me,” he said. “We will not have our own integrity compromised.”

HomeAway takes a similar position on paid ratings, although it doesn’t formally ban them from its site. “We do not approve of owners offering compensation for reviews,” Shepherd said. “And we don’t have any evidence that this is happening frequently.”

User-generated ratings, he noted, “are supposed to be independent, and [Leibsly’s] seems to be strongly so.”

In hindsight, a closer look at the rental listing throws up a couple of bright red flags. There were only a few reviews, and all except for Leibsly’s now-deleted rating rave about the flat. What’s more, 548 pounds for three nights in what Leibsly believed was a “luxury” apartment during high season in one of the world’s hottest destinations seems almost too good to be true.

A further flag: the rental contract, which required a prospective tenant either to wire money or use PayPal and which included a non-disparagement clause.

When I mentioned these warning signs to Leibsly, he acknowledged that he should have paid closer attention to the listing when he was selecting the apartment. But he says that the listing also misrepresented the property.

More troubling is the fact that Leibsly’s experience lifts the veil on the lightly regulated, standards-free rental industry and suggests that a property’s reputation may be bought and sold almost as frequently as it’s earned.

And that’s a problem for anyone considering a home rental for their next vacation.

Elliott is National Geographic Traveler magazine’s reader advocate. E-mail him at chris@elliott.org.

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