BusinessNavigating the challenges of managing a vacation rental property

Amanda OrlandoOctober 17, 201917 min

Since the rise of Airbnb and other home sharing apps, it has undoubtedly become much simpler to run a vacation rental, especially remotely. The booking, money exchange and communication processes are far easier and more accessible than they once were. No longer do you have to make emails and phone calls, trust guests with cash or e-transfers, and cross your fingers that they won’t cancel a week before arrival. This has drawn up the misconception that running a vacation rental is as easy as lying back at home and checking your phone every once in a while.

But this is a broad generalization and doesn’t reflect the realities of running a vacation rental property. Although you don’t have to be there all the time physically, you have to be there virtually. The truth is that things will go wrong, usually when you least expect it, and often when you’re already in bed or at your best friend’s wedding. The good news is that you can prepare yourself to deal with these situations; providing a great experience for the guests, and the least headache for yourself. The goal is to give the guests the best experience possible in order to get those cherished 5-star reviews.

Let’s run through some scenarios and the possible ways they could be handled…

A guest leaves a surprising negative comment on your page

No matter how hard you work to get your house in tip top shape, you will undoubtedly not please someone. Think of a poor review like a rite of passage. When you’re working with a high volume of guests, you’re bound to get at least one sour grape. The important thing is to not let it get to you, and not let it stand. That negative review could speak louder to potential bookers than your 50 positive reviews, so take notice. Always respond to a negative review. And respond to positive reviews too—because we love those!

You may be surprised at the things that affected a group’s experience—you didn’t have enough pots, they didn’t like the paint job, the floors were too squeaky—but take them all with a grain of salt. Maybe these are areas that could be improved. Sometimes they’re a matter of personal preference. As long as you know that you have a good foundation (everything in the home works, it’s clean, it’s secure and safe) and you’ve accurately represented your home in the listing, you should have nothing to hide. When you respond publicly to their comment, avoid taking a negative tone that could be perceived as stringency or blaming. If you’ve already done something to remedy the situation, make mention of it. Otherwise, accept their feedback and ensure them that you will look into it. And really do look into it! If you feel the comment was entirely unfair or violated the policy of the site, report it.

Something breaks

Whether your home is 1 or 100 years old (like mine), things can break without notice. Maybe the air conditioner stops working on a hot and humid day, the dishwasher stops draining, or the stove won’t turn on. Whatever thing decides to break and leave you high and dry, be open and communicative with the renters. They will appreciate the transparency. I once had a family book my house for a reunion where they would be cooking all weekend. Guess what? The stove broke 48 hours before check-in. I contacted them right away to let them know that a repair person would be there that day, and that they may be finishing up working on the stove while the guests were checking in. If I hadn’t shared that, they would have rightfully been upset to check in and find someone tearing up the kitchen. Instead, they were thrilled that I worked so hard to get a new stove in time for their party. If you really can’t find a way to fix the problem in time, see if you can work around it, and if not, be prepared to offer a partial refund if the problem will affect the quality of their stay.

Guests are dissatisfied upon arrival

This may be a symptom of having a bad drive up, losing the check in instructions, or dealing with other issues or let downs aside from your vacation rental. But every once in a while, I get a call from a frustrated guest who doesn’t know how to check in, can’t work the bathtub faucet, etc. I don’t blame them—vacations can be stressful, especially when traveling with a large group or with the whole family. When I get a phone call on check-in day, I can anticipate that it’s due to a problem, as no one calls to tell you how much they love the place, they just leave that in the review. Customer service is so important.

I always take a welcoming tone for these calls, recognizing that the guest is likely stressed and tired and just wants to lay on the couch and unwind. It’s nothing personal. The last thing they want is an argumentative host. Even though I send all the instructions in advance of guest arrival, I don’t take the opportunity to directly point that out and be condescending. I politely tell them the lockbox code, or how to use the faucet, or whatever else they are inquiring about, and I may mention that any other questions they have may be answered in the check-in instructions email they received, which I am happy to resend. See my article about how to write a house manual.

Windows and doors are constantly left open

Although most people wouldn’t leave the windows and doors of their house open all day long, it seems to be very common behaviour in a rental property. No matter how many signs are posted or times it is reiterated in the guest manual, doors will stay open while people are loading and unloading, hanging out on the porch, BBQ-ing, or doing anything outdoors. The problem is that this allows ants, flies, and other pests into the house, as well as mould and water damage. This is a difficult one to deal with because it wouldn’t necessarily garner the guest a bad review, but it can be a big pain for the homeowner. I advise to have child and pet-safe pest deterrents ready (for example, washing with white vinegar or other natural remedies), and to have a company assess the house for pest issues with some regularity as a preventative measure. If window sills or drywall becomes wet with water damage from rain or snow, have them cleaned or patched before the mould sets in and starts to smell. Preventative measures can save you a lot of time and money in the long run, and contribute to an overall better guest experience.

Charging for broken or damaged items

I always feel awkward charging for broken or damaged items, but in many cases it is the right thing to do because you will have to replace or fix those items. If the guest notifies me that something broke by accident, or that towels or bed linens were damaged, I may let it go because I appreciate the honesty. Know what to let slide. If the cleaners or property manager finds something broken that the guest neglected to tell me about, I will likely send them a money request, including pictures and a description, through the app. Transparency with damaged and broken items has to go both ways for accountability.

You send the wrong dates to your cleaning service

I promise you, this will happen, even to those of you scoffing your nose and thinking, “not I, the best communicator in the world!”. We’re all human. I made this mistake myself in my first summer of hosting.

If you have a high turnover house, a date change, an early check-in, or a last minute booking, there is room for error. Maybe you just missed one date, or forgot to hit send. Whatever the reason, when your guests call you asking why there is laundry in the corner, and dishes on the counter, do your best not to panic. Always be on the guest’s side in these scenarios and work through it together. If you put your back up, you’re pretty much guaranteeing a mess. Let them know that you are extremely sorry for the miscommunication and that you will get on it right away. Be prepared to offer a partial refund if they ask, or go ahead and offer it yourself. Imagine how put off you would be if you showed up at an unprepared house. Call your cleaners immediately and work quickly to get the house turned over. If your cleaners are unavailable, find someone else who can rush over. You may have to pay extra for that, but it’s part of hosting, and this was your mistake. While the cleaning is happening, suggest some activities or restaurants for your guests to visit so that they will not be in the way.

Have an action plan; an extra set of linens and towels, a local cleaning service on stand-by.  And finally, don’t forget to check in with them again once they return to the home, to ensure everything is okay, and to apologize again. This last point of communication is important to ensure their satisfaction; don’t leave any open ends.

These were a few of the common situations that come to mind when I think of the challenges of running a modern vacation rental, but truly, anything can happen, so always be prepared and willing to tackle it. Never let them see you sweat.

Have you had to deal with any strange or stressful vacation rental situations?

Amanda Orlando

Freelance writer and photographer living in Toronto. She is the author and photographer of two cookbooks, Everyone’s Welcome (2019) and Allergen-Free Desserts (2015).

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