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My vacation rental host won’t refund my security deposit. Is this a scam?

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Michelle Couch-Friedman

Consumer reporter and ombudsman

Can a vacation rental host refuse to refund your security deposit — no questions asked? The stubborn Vrbo host at the center of this cautionary tale says she can.

I have news for her: No, she can’t.

This story is another in our file of outrageous tales of travelers being fleeced by vacation rental hosts and franchise hotels alike. These owners are helping themselves to hundreds and even thousands of dollars of their guests’ money with little to no justification. And unfortunately, the cases are piling up at an alarming rate.

Here’s one more disturbing report.

“Smelly” trash and a lost security deposit refund

Courtney Kechner story begins after what she says was a “lovely” week at a vacation rental home in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware. On the day of her family’s departure, they cleaned the home and took all the garbage to the curb. As long-time users of VRBO, Courtney says her family of 12 knew the checkout drill well.

The trouble began about one week after their vacation when the host still hadn’t sent the $500 security deposit refund for the rental.

“When the Vrbo host didn’t return our deposit I messaged her,” Courtney reported. “When she finally contacted us she said she was keeping the security deposit because of smelly trash.”

Courtney was floored. She asked for further explanation. The host went on to explain a variety of reasons she intended to keep the security deposit. According to the host, the house was overly dirty. And as per her homeowners association’s rules, the garbage should not have been at the curb on Saturday. As a result, her neighbors had reported her to the HOA for a garbage violation.

The Vrbo host sent a photo of three trash cans at the curb. The cans were filled to the brim. The next picture had all the bags in the back of a pick-up truck.

Garbage and garbage cans piled on the street in front of a vacation rental.
The vacation rental host says isn’t going to refund the $500 security deposit because of these garbage cans.

My husband brought the trash to the county dump on Sunday. Then he spent time washing the maggots out of the bed of his pickup and washing his clothes. I will not return your deposit. In fact, the situation ruined our whole weekend between calls from upset neighbors, renters and cleaners and a 6.5 hour round trip drive in the middle of the night, we will never rent our house again. It’s going on the market Labor Day.

“There are no documentation requirements for the security deposit.”

Courtney continued to try to reason with the host, who was intent on keeping the security deposit. Following all the consumer problem-solving guidance we recommend when battling these types of vacation rental situations (See: I didn’t damage this vacation rental, why do I have to pay for it?), she asked the host to provide some concrete justification for keeping the $500 security deposit. Courtney was polite and tried to stay friendly.

The same can’t be said for the host.

“Could we please have a copy of the original documentation from the cleaning services documenting their concerns,” Courtney asked.

In response to that request, the owner told her that she was under no obligation to provide such receipts.

“As you can see, (by our contract) there are no documentation requirements around the security deposit,” the host claimed.

“Out of courtesy,” she sent a copy of a $150 PayPal receipt she says was paid to the maid.

A PayPal receipt the vacation rental host says, proves she can keep the security deposit.
Is this proof that the Vrbo host can keep the security deposit?

Strangely, that receipt has all relevant information blacked out except the figure of $150. So, in terms of evidence, the host scored zilch for that document. And she provided no report from a maid or any photos that supported her claim that the house was overly dirty.

And round and round Courtney and the host went, firing off email exchanges for weeks. The owner refused to provide any receipts or evidence to support her $500 cash-grab.

Finally, the host ended all negotiations with Courtney. She would not be refunding the security deposit.

Feel free to contact Vrbo and an attorney. Because of this experience, we will never rent our vacation home again. The pictures of the trash on the street came from the neighbor. The photo of the trash in the pickup is my husband’s car headed to the dump on Sunday.

Realizing she was never going to get anywhere with this unreasonable VRBO host, Courtney turned to the company for help.

This is why you should never pay your security deposit away from Vrbo

Courtney reached out to Vrbo and asked for assistance retrieving her security deposit refund. But that’s when she received some bad news.

Although the family had paid for the vacation rental through the Vrbo system, they had made a mistake and paid the security deposit via check. Vrbo could not reverse the security deposit because it had never gone through their platform.

Courtney then sent Vrbo the email trail from the original reservation.

In that exchange, the host first asks that Courtney pay for the rental outside the Vrbo system. She said it would save the family $160. Courtney rejected that suggestion and told the host they didn’t mind the extra fee.

The host then allowed Courtney to pay through the Vrbo system. Soon after, though, the host asked for a $500 check for the security deposit. She claimed not to know how to process a security deposit through Vrbo. 

Note: It is a red flag when a vacation rental host claims not to know how to use the platform she is using. And any host who tries to lure a guest away from the safety net of the listing platform is violating the terms of their agreement with the listing company. As we’ve seen repeatedly, this behavior is indicative of a scam, and Vrbo users should reject properties whose host suggests such schemes

Vrbo: You didn’t pay the security deposit through our system

Although this family felt uncomfortable sending the $500 security deposit check, they did so anyway. Courtney says the host immediately cashed it — six months before the rental.

Courtney asked the Vrbo representative if anything could be done to force the host to refund the security deposit.

According to this Vrbo representative, he would make a note of this complaint on the owner’s account. He would also alert the owner to the problem. But there would be no way for Vrbo to refund the security deposit since the transaction occurred outside the Vrbo platform. He went on to explain:

Our procedure is to note both sides of the situation. Per our Terms of Use, we are an online marketplace that brings owners and travelers together. Our Trust & Security team closely monitors accounts that have had a complaint filed against them.

Vrbo

Hitting yet another dead end with her struggle, Courtney’s request for assistance soon landed in my inbox.

Is it possible to reason with an unreasonable Vrbo host?

I admit it. I like challenges. So when I read through Courtney’s months-long battle, I thought I could reason with this Vrbo host and extract the $500 from her. As you’ll see in a moment, I was wrong. But never fear, that’s not the end of the story. First, though, let’s see what this vacation rental host has to say about why she decided to keep the entire security deposit.

I sent a cordial email to the host. Explaining that I had the photo of the garbage cans, I asked if this was her basis for refusing to refund the $500 security deposit. I suggested a fair resolution would be to return some of the security deposit.

Soon I received a curt response from the host.

Feel free to report. The experience was so bad for us that we are now out of the vacation rental business. Our house is for sale.

So I tried for some clarification. I asked the host why her garbage pickup only came one time that entire week. The frequency of the trash collection for this vacation rental seemed to be the core of the problem. A family of 12 generates a lot of trash. And how could the removal of several bags of trash lead to a $500 penalty?

Again, the host quickly answered. She told me that garbage cans aren’t allowed on the street on Saturday. Those cans can’t go out before Sunday at noon.

I live in an HOA and the trash only comes once a week (Mondays). This is why I provide three trash cans. For four years this has never been a problem.

The extra bags were fine. It was the flies and maggots along with them leaving the trash on the street all week.

I’m out $520. They clearly didn’t follow our vacation rental contract. You think I should pay for their lack of care for my property? Publish whatever you want.

The host also complained that this family ate crabs and disposed of the shells straight into the cans. But Courtney says that the family properly bagged all the trash. And the photos seem to support her position.

How can a Vrbo guest comply with these HOA rules?

Noticing that the host’s response didn’t answer my question about the lack of garbage removal services, I tried again.

There is a failed logic here. How can a Saturday to Saturday renter comply with your current garbage rules? This family put the garbage out on Saturday morning and checked out. And why did your husband have to drive there instead of hiring an outside garbage pickup to take away the trash?

It would seem to me to be a much cheaper option. And then, you would have an actual receipt for the cost of clean-up. Your $500 itemized list is just a handwritten one that includes your husband’s time and mileage to pick up some trash bags. I suggest that returning some of this security deposit is the correct thing to do.

Michelle to the vacation rental host

Nope. That didn’t do the trick either. The host soon came back with more hollow points as to why she was keeping the $500 security deposit.

The trash comes on Monday. The contract says to pull it(the trash) down (the cans) on Monday. If the renters did not like this, they should not have signed the contract. They arrive on Saturday. Bring trash (down) on Monday. (That) Includes trash from people before them. States it in the contract.

I’m out $520. Maybe I should charge them more for their complete negligence.

So not only did this family of 12 have to contend with having just one trash pickup for their entire stay, but they had also inherited the garbage from the previous renters. Eww.

Clearly though, this vacation rental host was not going to return any of the security deposit willingly.

I took a look at the contract, and there is no information about the garbage days. The contract doesn’t even mention the strict garbage-can etiquette enforced in this neighborhood. I sent the host my copy of the signed contract. And I asked her to point out where she had provided this information.

Vacation rental contract security deposit information
Courtney says this was the only garbage information the Vrbo owner gave the family.

And that’s the last I heard from this unreasonable Vrbo host.

Here’s why a host can’t keep your security deposit without receipts

If this host wishes to remain on the Vrbo platform, she should familiarize herself with these guidelines concerning security deposits. Of particular importance to this case are these warnings:

  • DON’T keep a security deposit out of spite or because you think you’ve been inconvenienced. If you don’t have a receipt for a replacement item or a repair, you shouldn’t charge them for it. Simple as that!
  • DON’T forget to refund a renter’s security deposit. Most states have laws that define exactly how many days you have to refund the deposit (typically from 14 to 45 days), but in every state it is illegal to keep the deposit without just cause.

In this case, all the host had was a self-created list of items that included her husband’s time to drive to the rental. Her receipt for the extra cleaning was also questionable since she had blacked out any identifying information.

Lastly, it would seem that this host’s neighbors’ complaints to the HOA are what propelled her anger at Courtney’s family. But who caused this problem?

Based on the vacation rental guidelines offered by the City of Rehoboth, this host was not in compliance with the Good Neighbor policy. This policy requires property owners to provide clear information about garbage days to their guests.

The owner shall provide each occupant of a residential rental with the following information prior to occupancy of the unit and post such information in a conspicuous place within the residential rental:

(2)

The collection days for refuse, yard waste and recyclables and applicable rules and regulations pertaining to storing waste materials on the exterior of the property;

This ordinance also goes on to say that every owner must provide a copy of the Rehoboth Good Neighbor brochure. Courtney’s family received no information about garbage removal or the Good Neighbor brochure.

Can the Vrbo resolution team can help?

If you’re a regular reader of this site, then you may recall a similar story. In that case, an unreasonable Airbnb vacation rental host tried to fleece her guest by blindsiding him with a $1,470 excessive cleaning fee.

That host refused to return the money that she had been able to grab because of an error in the Airbnb system. And like this Vrbo host, she had the flimsiest evidence to support her looting of her guest’s finances. In the end, the Airbnb resolution team came to the rescue and refunded the money.

I felt confident that all facts were on Courtney’s side. A refund of this security deposit was the correct resolution. The only problem was that the family had made an error by paying the security deposit by check. And so Vrbo could not technically refund the security deposit.

Still, I felt strongly that minimally, Vrbo should be made aware of this host’s antics. Despite her claims that she was out of the rental business, I could see her listing still on the Vrbo site.

So I took this case to the Vrbo resolution team and included the host’s self-created itemized list of damages.

A receipt the vacation rental host created that she says allows her husband to be paid $520 for cleaning.
The vacation rental host’s self-created list of expenses she says justifies her keeping the security deposit

The good news: A security deposit refund from Vrbo

Our executive resolution friends at Vrbo quickly completed an investigation. And soon, I received good news and a helpful tip for our readers from Vrbo.

Hi Michelle,

Thank you for bringing this case to our attention. Vrbo offers protection against wrongfully withheld deposits for those who book and pay on our sites. Because this traveler paid their deposit offline, our system had no record of it ever being made.

One tip for your readers: always book and pay for your rental through Vrbo’s checkout to be eligible for our Book With Confidence Guarantee, which protects against wrongfully withheld deposits and more. If an owner or property manager asks you to pay for anything outside of Vrbo’s checkout, contact our 24/7 customer support team for assistance.

In this instance, our team has decided to refund the traveler for the cost of the security deposit in hopes they will travel with us again. We have also reached out to the homeowner to ask that they update their rental agreement with specific instructions on trash pickup.

Vrbo executive resolution team to Michelle

Courtney is pleased that her battle with this unreasonable host is finally over. And she’s learned a valuable lesson. When making future bookings, she’ll never again step off that Vrbo platform. (Michelle Couch-Friedman, Consumer Rescue)

Consumer Rescue

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Michelle Couch-Friedman

Michelle Couch-Friedman is the founder and CEO of Consumer Rescue. She is a consumer advocate, ombudsman columnist, mediator, writer, and licensed psychotherapist. Michelle is a public speaker, and her expert guidance has been cited in MarketWatch, Consumer Reports, Travel & Leisure, The Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, Popular Science, CNN, CNBC, Boston Globe, CBS News, National Geographic, Travel Weekly, Reader's Digest and more. You might even catch Michelle on TV reporting on a situation. :) Michelle is also the travel ombudsman columnist for The Points Guy and is the former executive director of the nonprofit Elliott Advocacy. During her six years in that position, she resolved thousands of cases for troubled travelers and other consumers. You can read hundreds of 5-star reviews Michelle earned during her service to the nonprofit since 2016 here on Great Nonprofits. She is also a member of the Society of American Travel Writers. Today, she continues to spend as much time as possible fiercely defending consumers and traveling the world with her family. Contact her at Michelle Couch-Friedman or on Linkedin, Twitter or Facebook.