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Rental warning: Vacation to Big White soured by hidden costs

The family stayed at a rental home on the mountain to ring in the new year
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The rental vacation home in Big White. (theslopesarecalling.com)

A New Year’s vacation at Big White has left a family with a large damage deposit, serving as a cautionairy tale for those who find themselves navigating a short-term rental agreement off-platform and privately.

Nicole Gies was excited to book a ski chalet at Snow Pine Estates in Big White for her and her family back in January 2023 through popular rental website VRBO. She searched the platform specifically for pet-friendly rentals, intending to bring her two four-legged family members with her.

Gies officially booked the rental listed on VRBO as “Big White is Calling” on Jan. 7, 2023. She received notice on Jan. 16 that the booking had been cancelled. Upon messaging the host, Gies was told it was a mistake and the booking was still held for them, although she says it was never explicitly said that the booking was now private and not through the vacation rental platform.

“At this time I still thought I was protected under VRBO,” Gies said. “This has never happened to me before, so I didn’t actually realize that the whole VRBO thing, she was basically using their platform to contact me but I had no protection under VRBO. I feel like that was a little misleading.”

Gies was asked by the host to commit a $1,000 damage deposit.

The family arrived at the rental on Dec. 29, 2023. The family found a few problems with the rental and informed the host of needed maintenance, some of which she was already aware of. The host did inform the family the washing machine was broken the day before arrival.

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The VRBO booking summery received by Nicole Gies upon booking the vacation rental through VRBO. The booking clearly states pets were part of the reservation. (contributed)

The family made the best of their stay despite some of them falling sick before checking out on Jan. 2. But it was when Gies followed up with the host about returning her damage deposit that she wouldn’t be receiving it all. What would be kept included: a $224 processing fee, $150 for the dogs and $70 for additional cleaning fees beyond the original $350 charge.

Confused, Gies reached out to the host to clarify a few things. Through messages sent over VRBO, and obtained by Black Press Media, the host informed the family that her rental is not pet-friendly and they would be charged for not disclosing they had dogs in the unit. The host claimed the processing fee is a requirement of the company she uses to process payments and it had yet to be charged to the family.

“When you go through Stripe, as of this last year, they charge a processing fee. [The guest] should have been charged on their credit card when they put it through, but it didn’t go through. So, the processing fee that I was charged was taken off their damage deposit,” the host told Black Press.

In the listing found by Black Press Media on Jan. 16, it did say pet-friendly, however, it has since been changed to service animals only. The private listing has also changed to “The Slopes are Calling” after the host was informed of a trademark violation with the use of “Big White”.

It’s not uncommon for hosts to cancel bookings on rental sites and take on the booking privately to avoid fees associated with sites like Airbnb and VRBO. Gies said she feels like the host lied to her and it ended up costing the family extra, despite feeling like they were secure under the agreement policies within the rental platform.

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A screenshot of the VRBO listing for Laurinda Summers vacation rental at Big White taken Jan 16, 2024 stating the rental is pet friendly. (VRBO.com)

A customer service representative with VRBO said the booking did not include pets on its end of the site, however, he explained that they don’t encourage people to book on a mobile phone as not all information for listings can be viewed.

The family also claimed to find a camera inside the rental unit, a clear violation of VRBO’s renting policies. The complaint was passed on to the rental site and it was confirmed by an investigation team that a camera had been operating inside the rental unit, facing a side entry of the house. VRBO told Black Press Meda that the camera has been removed upon speaking with the host and the listing was reinstated on their site.

While Better Business Bureau doesn’t have any particular recommendations on vacation rental protections, in August 2023 it did release a warning over short-term rental scams being on the rise and a common tactic being that a “host” may offer discounts to pay privately.

“Legitimate websites like VRBO and Airbnb have certain policies to protect renters and rental owners,” the BBB said. “If there’s a problem with your rental, you can open a case, and you may get your money back. If a seller asks you directly to book outside a website, think twice.”

Other tips include researching the rental property and look for complaints online, pay with a credit card to have a better chance of getting money back if a charge is disputed and save any documents related to the booking.