How and Why to Use VRBO

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.

vrbo.com screen shot

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!

 

Relevant Links:

Ciao Bambino’s family-friendly villa agency list

VRBO Rentals – experience notes

Top family-friendly hotel chains (US edition)

11 Comments

  1. As the owner of one of Ciao Bambino’s partner agencies, I would like to emphasize the unknown aspect of booking direct through an owner using vrbo or homeaway. There are innumerable things that could go wrong along the way – from a payment being mishandled or lost or a price change that arises after the booking is confirmed or a surprise extra charge demanded upon arrival or departure, to incomplete or misleading information given about the amenities of a property or vague driving directions and a nonexistent house book and no one to call for assistance. Using a reputable agency removes these risks, any one of which could potentially ruin a precious family vacation. In addition to knowing the property itself, and knowing if it will be appropriate for the 3-year old and the grandmother who has trouble with stairs, a high-quality agency knows the immediate and local surroundings and can suggest activities and also assist with travel arrangements within the country so that getting to the property is smooth and efficient.

  2. We too are one of Ciao Bambino’s agency partners, and I would echo Annie Flogaus’ comments. If you are considering using an online villa listing service (such as VRBO or HomeAway), it’s simply a case of ‘buyer beware’.
    Consumers need to be aware that fraud, misrepresentation of properties and amenities, and failure to disclose full information (e.g. the construction site nextdoor) are possible. On the other hand, it may just turn out perfectly. It really depends on one’s tolerance for risk.
    A credible villa vacation company not only removes this risk by handpicking and personally visiting each and every property in their portfolio, but provides customized itinerary planning and local services (like a friendly welcome, pre-arrival shopping, and a local ‘go to’ contact) to ensure the entire vacation is exceptional (and so frenzied parents don’t have to worry about it!).
    As the father of 5 children, and with vacation time as limited and precious as it is, I personally prefer the peace of mind of working through a villa company knowing (a) the villa is going to be exactly as promised, and (b) I can hit the ground running when I get there because the company has worked with me to plan everything out in advance.

  3. It used to be that the agencies had access to the best homes and were the only way to go when it came to looking for a home rental domestically or abroad. With the ease of use of the rentals by owner websites, this is no longer the case and today, consumers have a broader choice.

    I have used VRBO as well as rental agencies and clearly there are pro’s and con’s to both as outlined above. At the end of the day, it is important to be flexible in your expectations regardless of which route you take – the agencies can over promise and under-deliver as much as the property owners.

    If you go with a VRBO type property, try to develop a personal relationship with the owner and get to know them a bit before you go. They can be excellent resources too and if you have a list of pointed questions to ask, will likely be honest in their answers.

    The owner of the last VRBO rental I did coincidentally lives down the street from my mother in-law and when I left a jacket in the closet he was happy to return to her so I could pick it up. Additionally, I let him know that I used a private chef in his home and since that time, he has used her for a party he was planning at the house and now recommends her to people who stay there.

    There is truth that you have to kiss a lot of toads to find that prince of a property and that an agency can do some of that legwork for you. If you go it on your own, ask the right questions to the property owner, contact references, and do some backend work on your own regarding region and location, there is no reason why you can’t go direct to the prince and bypass the matchmaker.

    And finally, there is more room to negotiate when working directly with the owner. Price, arrival dates, and length of stay minimums are all things that owners tend to be more flexible with than agencies.

    In the end there is room for both and I would suggest looking into both options when beginning your search for that perfect place to call home.

  4. As a vacation rental owner listed on VRBO and many other sites (hopefully soon also this one!), I would like to make 3 comments:
    1. from an owner’s point of view, VRBO is considerably less than perfect! The scope of information which we can put on VRBO is quite limited, certainly from the point of view of photos – showing additional photos is very, very expensive, as is adding additional units. This makes it difficult to show one’s property off in the best possible way.
    2. vacation rental reviews ARE listed on Trip Advisor. They are usually called ‘Specialty Lodging’ which is not exactly clear! However, there is one clear advantage for people looking for a vacation rental in addition to the actual reviews: in order to qualify to be listed on TA, you have to be on site. This is a big advantage in terms of having somebody you can go to with problems, complaints – and even advice on where to go and what to do.
    3. VRBO and similar sites are excellent for making a first selection but the key is to find the owner’s own site – again VRBO are very restrictive in terms of whether they will publish owner’s web addresses or not, so use Google! An owner’s own site can tell you a great deal. A brief site with not much information can be a good indicator that this owner just wants your money and is not much interested in the quality of your holiday. A site with photos of every room, detailed information about the property and things to do in the surrounding area is a better indicator of an ‘owner who cares’. But there is no substitute for direct contact with the owner with all the questions you want answered. The reply will tell you a lot about the attitude of the owner. And if you don’t get full answers, keep asking until you do get them or the owner gives up answering – at which point you should cross the property off your list!

  5. I love the thought of homes when I travel with my kids. I have used VRBO and had a great experience in Del Mar, CA. That said, I was nervous and had the benefit of having my sister stop by and see the place. Sure enough, there was a caveat…the porch opened up to a busy street. It still worked out for us, because due to my sister, we were able to make an informed decision.

    Now, I’m booking a trip for London. I’m looking for an apartment for a week. I’m certainly considering VRBO. I will use the above questions when I check references. I guess the discount in the price comes with risk. Also, I will definitely miss the daily maid & room service! I agree with the above comment there is a time and place for both.

  6. This is a great discussion and great website. I love it. Wish I had found it before our San Diego vacation last March! We recently purchased a vacation home at a new Destination Hotels Resort outside Seattle, WA. We have two boys ages 1 and 4 and have geared our home to similar families. We are renting it through a local property management company that lists it on his own website as well as VRBO, CraigsList, and the like. I created a website more tailored to families with kids to attract additional interest.

  7. We have been using VRBO for several years now and we have never had a negative experience. As a family of four (our kids are 3 and 6), we love the extra space (full kitchens, yards, multiple bedrooms, garage, etc), the locations (great way to experience life as a local), and the price (often we are able to find a house for the same price as the cost of a single hotel room!). We like having direct contact with the owners so we can negotiate costs and also get more specific information or make requests.

    So far we have enjoyed VRBO homes in Portland, Bainbridge Island, Savannah, Charleston, Tybee Island, Chapel Hill, Orlando, Hilton Head…can’t wait until we move to Sicily this summer and we start to explore VRBO options in Europe. We highly recommend VRBO for family travel.

    Here’s a post I wrote last year about our VRBO experiences:

    http://bagelsandcrawfish.blogspot.com/2008/04/family-travel-tip-1.html

  8. We have used vrbo for many stays in the US, Belize, Cabo, and New Zealand. The majority of the stays were exceptional. One time the home was up a very steep dirt road, that required a momentum (don’t stop) to make it up. Another had a scary outside deck. These two items did not ruin our stay, we just worked around it.

    Items to ask:
    In more remote areas, is there cell phone service and the home phone service area.
    The number of persons a property sleeps, does it require sleeping in a sofa bed or a bunk bed.

    Be able to identify the home on a map so that it is easily found and you can plan trips.

    Do your homework to determine if the location of the home is close to the location of your activities, or does the property its self make the distance worth it. The exact location is not important, just a very near cross street.

    Now we actually purchased an exceptional home for rental, which will be available in May.

  9. I have used VRBO a few times in Florida and it worked out spectacularly both times. I focused on condo’s with good reviews and of course proximity to Disney World. 🙂 I found both time the owners were great with communication and the places had all the amenities. Read the reviews.
    I’ve also added a place onto VRBO and the site generates a lot of traffic for owners. Well worth the $289 a year or whatever it is.
    Good blog and article by the way.

  10. Read the VRBO listing closely. Does the owner seem passionate about his home, his service, his furnishings? If he simply describes the home itself, consider this a red flag as these homeowners assume because they like the home, your group will too.

    Look for a home that’s described as meticulously cleaned, stocked, well-maintained, sunny and free of commute traffic. Choose one set up optimally for the number of guests in your group and near activities of interest. Book early from a local owner with a background in hospitality or customer service, who can offer assistance during your stay. Always read their guest reviews!

    No management company can compete with a local, passionate, disciplined OWNER, as they have too many properties to manage and won’t (read: can’t) have the same pride and dedication it takes. Vacation renting is not as easy as it looks!

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