When a vacation cottage comes up short

Consumers have legal recourse when rentals don't deliver as advertised – but relatively few bother to act

Americans on vacation this year may find that they can't get away from mop-and-broom drudgery.

With a record number of Americans buying second homes in recent years – often renting them to vacationers – travelers can choose from a growing number of casual, often low-cost lodgings in which to spend part of the summer.

That expanded choice has meshed nicely with an increased interest in domestic, away-from-it-all vacations.

But many consumers entering rented cabins and cottages this summer anticipating cleanliness, order, and charm, are instead confronting unpleasant odors, moth-ridden furniture, and views less scenic than those promised in brochures.

Often these "surprise properties," experts say, are being booked on the Internet, where layman lessors are able to pass off cheap properties with the help of a few attractive photographs and some creative hyperbole.

"These are people who are not experts in the world of business and rentals," says Kathryn Jones, president of the Better Business Bureau office in western Wyoming, which has witnessed an uptick in complaints about rental properties in the past year. "They are not being clear about what their property is and is not."

Many consumers hesitate to take legal action, or fail to follow through on a threat to do so, because they know little about their rights as tenants, experts say.

"The property owners figure that people won't bother, and oftentimes, unfortunately, they're right," says Janet Portman an attorney with Nolo Press, a publisher of legal-self-help material in Berkeley, Calif.

Get it in writing

Consumers' first opportunity to secure a smooth vacation begins with the property contract. In most cases, tenants can insist on far more guarantees than most currently do.

"Like any kind of contract, it depends on who's got the bargaining power," says Gary Eldred, author of "The Complete Guide to Second Homes for Vacation, Retirement, and Investment." "If they want your business, they won't refrain from taking your changes [to a contract]."

Tenants should first make sure the contract includes certain standards – from a list of specific items that they require, such a washer and dryer, to their general expectations for features such as cleanliness, quiet, and a good view.

To enforce the standards, consumers must include as a contract addendum a financial penalty in case the standards are not upheld. Mr. Eldred says the penalty is often about a $100 rent reduction for each day a problem exists, depending on the overall fee.

But consumers can feel justified in asking for their deposit or even the entire rent back – even in cases where they have stuck it out at the property rather than hunt for an alternative. "Until they get it repaired, they don't get rent. That's fair," says Eldred. "Otherwise, the owner has no incentive to get it done."

Vacationers should not take for granted that an oral agreement will be upheld by the property owner. It is appropriate, experts say, for consumers to attach a cover letter to the contract that describes the owner's spoken representation of the property and the promises he or she has made.

If the owner does not respond with another letter, the statement is considered part of the written record.

Consumers' decisions to remain in or abandon a property often hinge on their perception of the ease with which they can recover their money.

Unless specified in the contract, tenants rarely receive a full refund, experts say.

Leaving the residence does not improve their chances, though it may improve their vacation. Large rental agencies may be able to shift a vacationer to a comparable property – an avenue that often proves acceptable to both parties.

To secure the most appropriate compensation possible, consumers must first write a "demand letter" in which they state their grievance and ask for a refund of a specified amount.

If the request is not honored, consumers can take the property owner to small-claims court, where they can often recover as much as $3,000.

Consumer-protection statutes in most states allow tenants to sue property owners who negligently or fraudulently misrepresent a property or breach a customer contract.

Consumers should always try to do business through a company or travel agent in their own state. "[The rental company] must do enough business in your forum so your courts can assert jurisdiction," says Thomas Dickerson, a New York state judge and author of "Travel Law."

Most states define "business" broadly. Many grant consumers' home-state jurisdiction if they signed the contract there. With regard to the Internet, states will often grant jurisdiction if customers transacted business, like downloaded a contract or uploaded their credit-card number.

Once in court, the compensation awarded is difficult to determine, because claims of a property owner's negligence are often based on perception rather than fact.

"You have been damaged. The question is by how much," says Mr. Dickerson. "There's no easy answer to that."

Broker, or private renter?

Some experts believe real estate brokers and travel agents are more reliable than private owners to book vacation properties. Such businesspeople must be licensed by the state in which they operate. Consumers can consult states' real estate commissions to check for previous tenants' complaints.

Others argue that private owners are more attentive. Cynthia Cross, for example, always calls new tenants on their first day in her Nantucket house. "We always felt we had to maintain the property in order to get repeat business," says Ms. Cross.

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