A homeowner trying to cash in on the popular online vacation home rental business had her house trashed and precious valuables stolen by her very first guests, and HomeAway, the company she listed it with, won't compensate her for the thousands of dollars in losses.
"There's some jewelry that's irreplaceable, it's family heirlooms. I'm thinking $20,000 to $30,000," says Carmen Carrubba. Police were notified.
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Millions of people around the world use online sites to book private homes for short stays and vacations. And hundreds of thousands of homeowners have made good income listing their properties for rent on these sites.
But Carrubba's story is a cautionary tale that outlines some stark differences between different online vacation rental companies and their coverage policies for damage and theft.
A global industry
Carrubba's stylish Victorian semi is in a trendy Toronto neighbourhood and has three separate units. Perfect, she thought, for making a little extra income as a vacation rental.
A friend of hers who lives nearby and who claims to have made up to $80,000 a year renting his property encouraged her to list on HomeAway.
HomeAway Inc. is a $3-billion company listed on the Nasdaq, with an annual total revenue in the range of $500 million US. Based in Austin, Texas, it bills itself as "the world's leading online marketplace for the vacation rental industry," with more than 1,000,000 listings in 190 countries.
Carrubba's listing went live on HomeAway.ca in late May, and she was contacted almost immediately by a man who said he was from Montreal and wanted to rent her home starting the next night.
Everything seemed to be OK
Carrubba at first told him she wasn't quite ready yet, but when the man called back a few days later, she agreed to rent him her home for six nights, at a cost of $300 per night plus a $500 security deposit.
At the time he was supposed to check in, two other men showed up saying the man whom she had been talking to would arrive later.
"They were buff, young guys, dressed in nice jeans and T-shirts," Carrubba says.
She was suspicious, but understood the rental payment had gone through. The men also let her make copies of their Quebec driver's licences and health cards, so Carrubba gave them the keys.
"Everything seemed fine." she says. "I checked up on them a few times over the course of the week that they were here. They seemed very pleasant."
Trashed and stolen
After the week was up, however, when Carrubba came home, she found the unit in shambles.
The balcony was covered in rotting food, the bedroom had condoms on the floor, mattresses, bedding and clothing were strewn about, drawers had been pulled out and dumped, even her bathroom products, expensive hand creams and moisturizers had been emptied.
Worse, the guests had broken into two locked rooms upstairs and stolen thousands of dollars' worth of alcohol, rare clothing and jewelry.
"That's what's killing me the most," Carrubba says. "Some of it was family heirlooms."
You're on your own
When a similar incident happened in Calgary earlier this year, the vacation listing company involved — AirBnB — said it would pay the estimated $150,000 repair cost and even offered the homeowners a place to stay until repairs could be completed.
But HomeAway is different.
"We don't have a coverage similar to [AirBnB's] to cover homeowners." says Jeff Mosler, chief service officer at HomeAway.
"The incident involving the vandalism and burglary is very unfortunate." he says.
"Millions of people enjoy great experiences renting their vacation homes each year. So it's always regrettable to hear even one of these types of occurrences. And HomeAway will do everything it can to prevent these particular guests from renting on our site in the future."
Mosler, however, says the company is simply a marketplace and advertising venue. Unlike AirBnB, which offers a $1-million guarantee of coverage for damage and theft, HomeAway says owners of properties on its site are expected to get their own insurance that covers vacation rental activity.
Be your own private eye
HomeAway does not provide a rental history of travellers or screen guests.
"Although what we do have, is when we see poor traveller practices and we see behaviour that we don't condone, we actually do blacklist those travellers from our website. But as you mentioned, there's a whole host of things that travellers might do to get around that," says Mosler.
That's why it's up to homeowners, Mosler says, to do some "light screening" of their guests.
"HomeAway always recommends that the owner screens potential guests by phone, Google, social media, these types of research activities, before accepting the booking."
Had Carrubba Googled the phone number the man used for the booking, Mosler says, she would have seen it was associated with a series of escort and prostitution sites.
Mosler also says the request was for a next day booking, which can "sometimes be a red flag."
Toronto police tell CBC News the investigation is ongoing.
Besides the damage, thousands in lost jewelry, including family heirlooms, Carrubba had also spent $20,000 renovating her home to prepare it for use as a vacation rental, money she says she won't recoup because she no longer feels comfortable having strangers in her house.
"I've shut the [listing] down. I'm not allowing anybody ever in, ever again. I have to clean up and start new again." she says.
Do you have a consumer issue? Contact me at Aaron.Saltzman@cbc.ca