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Help! My vacation rental doesn’t have electricity. Shouldn’t I get a refund?

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Michelle Couch-Friedman

Consumer reporter and ombudsman

Few things are more important in a vacation rental than electricity. But when John Burns and his family arrived at their Parisienne houseboat Vrbo, they found it was missing that crucial element. So why won’t Vrbo refund their payment?

Let’s find out.


Question:

Upon arrival, we found the code for the gate to the dock was not working, so we called the owner. He then informed us that the electricity was not operational on the houseboat. He stated that his brother, Pierre, was on the boat attempting to fix the problem. 

We boarded the boat and waited while Pierre worked. After a while, it was evident that he would not be able to repair the problem. The owner said that he knew it was late and that it would be difficult to find another accommodation at that late hour. So he offered to allow us to stay on the boat that night for free. We did make some calls to see if we could find a hotel, but given our family of five, the price per night exceeded $900. 

Left with no alternative place to stay, we decided to stay the night on the boat. We told Pierre that we would have to find another vacation rental the next day. He agreed and said he had no other solution for us.

At that time, I immediately contacted Vrbo and advised of the problem at our vacation rental.  They offered no solution either – no offer to re-book us at another location, no offer for financial compensation to find another property. Instead, Vrbo told us to work out the problem directly with the vacation rental owner.

Pierre eventually rigged an extension cord from a neighboring boat to power one duplex outlet. That was enough electricity to power the electric pump for the toilet, plus one outlet. Nothing beyond that, not the A/C, not the refrigerator, nor the hot water was operational…but at least the toilet worked.

In the morning, we were in touch via text with the owner. We told him that we were going to search for another vacation rental. He said that Pierre was coming to the boat to try to fix the electricity.

Late in the afternoon, after talking with the owner, we found an apartment rental for the rest of our vacation. In the early evening, the owner told us that he fixed the electricity on the houseboat and implied we should return. But we had already agreed to the new accommodation, so we told him we would not be staying. 

Vrbo rejected my refund request, saying that I should have given the owner of the rental more of a chance to fix the problem. My credit card rejected my claim, saying that the Vrbo insurance should cover this problem. Can you help me get my money back for a vacation rental we couldn’t stay in?

Answer:

Oh, the irony of staying in the City of Lights and having no lights to call your own. What a terrible way to begin your vacation. 

It’s an entirely reasonable expectation to have electricity in your vacation rental, unless of course, that missing utility is mentioned in the listing. 

And there are listings (primarily tents and other unique accommodations) on Vrbo that do not include electricity — but yours wasn’t one of them. 

To say the least, the images that came to mind as I was reading your narrative were unpleasant. I pictured your family in a dark, muggy houseboat hoping for morning to come so that you could leave. 

But I loved your attitude. You were looking on the bright side — at least you had a working toilet! Our case files prove that not all vacation rentals do:

You shared with me all the texts between the owner and yourself. And at no time did the owner appear confident that Pierre was going to be successful in his endeavors to restore electricity to the houseboat rental.

I believe that any sensible person, after that first dark night, would have hit the streets of Paris looking for alternative accommodations. Even the owner, in his texts to you, seemed to condone your move. 

So why did Vrbo reject your refund request? 

A refund under the Vrbo Book with Confidence Guarantee

Based on the terms and conditions of the Vrbo Book with Confidence Guarantee, you should have qualified for a refund.

Vrbo refund guidelines, Vrbo Book with Confidence Guarantee
The Book with Confidence Guarantee provides a refund for Vrbo customers whose vacation rental description is a mismatch to the reality of the listing.

That policy protects Vrbo users against owners who “materially misrepresent” their property. This typically means there is a significant difference between the property’s listing and how it appears in real life.

It also protects guests from financial loss in the case of a fake vacation rental, if the owner cancels or decides she is going to bunk with you, if the property isn’t located where it should be, or if the Vrbo is uninhabitable, among other things.

We’ve handled many vacation rental problems over the years, but your particular issue was a first. No electricity in that houseboat should have immediately qualified you for a refund and assistance with finding a new property. But Vrbo did not approve your refund and so you quickly moved on to what you believed to be the next logical step: a credit card dispute.

A credit card dispute can’t solve this vacation rental problem

When Vrbo refused to give back your money, you decided to file a credit card dispute to force the refund. That was a mistake.

If you’ve got a vacation rental problem, it’s best to work the problem out with the owner and the listing agent. Although the Fair Credit Billing Act protects consumers from merchants who don’t provide the goods as described, the very last step in your problem-solving mission should be a credit card dispute.

I say that because what a significant number of consumers don’t understand is that winning a credit card chargeback only ends your bank’s involvement in your dispute. The merchant (in this case, Vrbo) can pursue the debt in other ways, send you to collections, and put you on the company’s blacklist — permanently.

However, you didn’t even get that far. Vrbo fought your credit card dispute and won. That’s when you contacted my advocacy team.

Will Vrbo refund this vacation rental dud?

When your request for help landed on my desk, you had been unsuccessfully attempting to retrieve your refund from Vrbo for months. I assumed your case would be quickly resolved after the executive team heard that your rental had no electricity.

I was wrong.

Just so you know, sometimes consumer advocates get rejected, too. Vrbo soon sent me a brief confirmation that your refund request was denied because you hadn’t given the owner enough time to correct the problem.  

This didn’t sit right with me.

Perhaps, I thought, our executive contact hadn’t read all the details of your bizarre experience. In my next message to Vrbo, I highlighted the fact that the owner of this vacation rental had roped electrical cords from one boat to the next just so that you could have a working toilet. It sounded a bit like a safety hazard to me.

And that description did the trick. The executive team at Vrbo agreed with me on the safety issue and sent you a full refund.

You are quite pleased with this resolution and so are we. I hope you had a wonderful time in Paris despite your rough arrival. With electricity in your vacation rental or hotel, it’s a fabulous place to visit! (Michelle Couch-Friedman, 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.