VRBO (Vacation Rentals by Owner) has become a go-to resource for people booking independent vacation rentals. I just confirmed a villa in the Dordogne (France) found on VRBO after an extensive online search that included our partner agencies. A few years ago I never would have booked a rental outside of a trusted rental agency, but the inventory on VRBO and other direct listing sites like HomeAway is too compelling to ignore.
I’m thrilled with our decision to go this route in this case, although it’s not without a bit of risk. I’ve outlined some things to consider before booking directly with an owner via one of these resources.
What is the primary difference between using a resource like VRBO and using a rental agency?
To net it out, high-quality rental agencies vet their inventory thoroughly and in concept, any one of the properties in a given portfolio meet baseline quality standards. VRBO/HomeAway and other direct-to-owner resources don’t vet the properties they publish. One thing I’ve learned over the past several years is that pictures can be deceiving—a property can look completely different in person. I can’t tell you how many times I think a property is going to be amazing and I end up disappointed, and vice versa!
The other big difference is the number of services provided. A high-quality rental agency will usually offer additional value-added services like a local host and/or concierge-type activity planning — this list can be extensive. This can be an important feature for families that want to minimize work and logistics on a trip given that the primary downside of an independent villa is the absence of staff and extensive onsite amenities. That said, there are owners that provide the key additional services — a cook, babysitting referrals, activity advice, and extra housekeeping.
Given the risk and service differences — why consider VRBO at all?
Inventory and price are the biggest reasons. The high-quality rental agencies usually have inventory in the main tourist zones, but limited options in off-path areas. VRBO has options everywhere. The downside of this, of course, is that you may have to sift through many frogs before you find your prince. This is time-consuming. Also, VRBO listings are broken down by region so if you are unfamiliar with the layout of a destination, it’s challenging to narrow down an initial list of targets. Like any classified ad by an owner, the descriptions are not reliable — everyone uses descriptors like luxurious, beautiful, and charming — who knows if this is really the case.
In theory, there is price benefit to going through VRBO. Rental agencies make money via commissions from owners on the properties that are rented through them. This commission may be subtracted from you’d pay anyway (like the hotel industry) — however, many rental agencies do have a bit of mark-up to cover the costs of offering all of those additional services. I’m OK with this — if an agency offers something valuable, they should charge accordingly.
That said, rates though both agencies and owners are negotiable. There is no reason why you shouldn’t ask for a discount — the worst that can happen is that they say no. Compelling reasons to get a discount include: 1) multi-week stays, 2) off-season stays, 3) a down market like this one where agencies/owners need more bookings.
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If you go the VRBO route — how do you mitigate the risk that you may end up disappointed or worse?
References, references, references! It is critical to check references for anything found directly through an owner (noting that I like to check them for agency rentals too). Unlike hotels and resorts where things like Ciao Bambino and Trip Advisor provide validation from someone that has experienced a property that it is indeed a great place to stay, there is no validation for a VRBO rental (there may be testimonials available, but that is not a substitute for a live conversation). If an owner cannot provide at least 2 references, move on.
Some suggestions for questions to ask a reference:
1. What are the highlights, i.e. the features you liked most?
2. What is the state of the kitchen and bathrooms, i.e. are they updated and clean. How is the water pressure in the shower and does the kitchen have all you need to actually cook a meal?
3. What is the size of the bedrooms? How is the quality of the beds and linens? Are the bedrooms that will be used by the adults in the group equal in size?
4. What is the state of the outdoor spaces? With kids, we count on this! Are the outdoors appealing with plenty of seating space (assuming you are looking at a destination where this is relevant).
5. Ask them to comment on the overall location and any related pros and cons (traffic, convenience, walking/driving distances).
6. Ask for caveats. To me, this is the most important part of a reference call (what we call Families Should Know in Ciao Bambino reviews). Every property has some kind of caveat or trade-off. The caveat may not be consequential for you — but expectation setting is critical.
7. Who manages the property locally? Rental agencies oftentimes provide local management for owners. In the absence of an agency, is there a caretaker? If not, are you left to call the owner for issues (who may live in a different country)?
Regular users of Ciao Bambino will note that we have very limited inventory of independent rentals on the website. The growth of VRBO and HomeAway is one of the reasons for that. Yes, our value proposition in this category is the same — meaning we provide the ultimate reliable reference for families and content tells you what you need to know. That said, these direct resources are important to consider in any search.
Wendy Perrin publishes an excellent Annual Guide to Affordable Villa Vacations and has a list of preferred rental agencies. This is a must-read resource for families unfamiliar with the rental market. VRBO and HomeAway are new to me — if you have experiences to share or tips for using them more effectively, please share them!
Ciao Bambino’s family-friendly villa agency list
VRBO Rentals – experience notes
Top family-friendly hotel chains (US edition)