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Four questions to ask before you rent that Airbnb

Key Points
  • There's always a chance a vacation rental will have some problems or not end up being as advertised.
  • Here are some tips to protect yourself when planning your next trip, including turning off the Wi-Fi to guard against hidden cameras and getting a local contact number for any unexpected repairs.
Previous Airbnb screen showing insets of hosts.
Yamil Lage | AFP | Getty Images

The note taped to the TV in the Airbnb rental in what turned out to be a questionable apartment building in a sketchy neighborhood in New York City was the first clue.

"It said, 'Anyone ask, you say you friend of Jay,'" remembers Washington, D.C.-based documentary producer Richard Paul. "We never met Jay."

The note wasn't the weirdest thing about the apartment.

"You couldn't open the front door because it hit the fridge," said Paul, "The AC didn't work. The girl from the live sex show up the block smoked on the front steps. And we think a guy got pushed off the roof as we were leaving."

Not the kind of vacation rental you want to end up in?

There's always a chance the swank-looking, well-reviewed home, cabin, apartment or castle you book through a home-sharing site such as Airbnb or Vrbo (which includes HomeAway.com and a handful of other companies) will have some problems or not end up being as advertised.

Worse, you could end up booking an illegal short-term rental and, like some recent vacationers in Miami, have to vacate the property in the middle of the night.

Home-sharing companies post advice, rules and tips on websites to help minimize problems for both renters and hosts. And the companies encourage potential renters to be sure to read the reviews, rules and rental offerings carefully.

Millions of people have no problems with their home-share stays. But as the summer travel season comes around, here are some questions to ask yourself and your host during the booking process and your stay.

A 'friend of Jay?'

If you are worried about or unwilling to having to pose as a "friend of Jay," ask the host directly if their landlord or the rules and regulations of their condo allow short-term rentals.

"If they lie and say in an email or a text that everything is good and it turns out not to be the case, that's your legal basis for voiding that rental contract and possibly getting damages if you have to move out in the middle of the night and rent another property," said Scott Reidenbach, the founding principal of Reidenbach & Associates, a Philadelphia law firm that concentrates on a wide variety of real estate-related issues.

If they say: "Tell them you're a friend of Jay," and you go along with that, "Then you're complicit," said Reidenbach.

And while that happens all the time, the danger is you take the risk of being kicked out in the middle of your trip.

Who do you call?

Be sure to get contact information for someone you can contact if you show up and something doesn't work at the rental, the place is dirty or is otherwise not as advertised. And ask if that contact person lives nearby.

"A lot of these Airbnb or Vrbo-type owners aren't professional landlords and many don't live close by," said Reidenbach. "I've heard stories about people not being able to get anything fixed because the owner is a 1,000 miles away,"

Have you read the fine print?

A good vacation rental listing will not only include great photos and a list of property amenities, it will have some "house rules" that might include a curfew time for noise and/or parties, the number of overnight guests allowed and an age limit for children.

"You may have very young children, but the very fine print says a guest is not permitted to have children under 12 or 16. Or that the property is not safe for children under a certain age because of safety reasons such as being on a cliff, having an open fire pit or a pool that's not safe for small kids," said Reidenbach.

Ask yourself if you're willing to flout the fine print.

Are you being watched?

There have been recent reports of Airbnb guests discovering hidden cameras in bedrooms and bathrooms of the properties they've rented.

Airbnb now requires hosts to disclose the presence of security or other cameras in their listings, but in the spirit of "Say you're a friend of Jay," dishonest property listers may not always comply.

"Ask the question," advises Reidenbach. "And to really protect yourself disable or unplug the Wi-Fi."

Many home security systems and cameras are wireless and Wi-Fi-powered. "We've heard of people doing that and immediately getting a call from the owner asking if the Wi-Fi is down because the cameras stopped working."

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