Don't Assume Your Guests Know Everything - Put It in Writing

    the importance of documentation for your vacation rental businessThink documentation is for the overly-paranoid? Think again. In our business, it’s really more of a necessity for three main reasons:

    1) to legally bind your bookings
    2) to set clear expectations, and
    3) to define the product you are selling
    Let’s think about this from the perspective of an everyday online purchase.

    When you order something online - a pair of shoes, concert tickets, a rental car - you generally expect some confirmation in writing, typically an email message including proof that your order was processed and details about the product you purchased. But what would happen if you didn’t receive this email confirmation? You’d probably be left wondering whether your item was ordered, if it will ever arrive and what recourse you have if it doesn’t.

    As for the retailer – well, this email confirmation is pretty important to them, too. If the store imposes a 30-day return policy, for example, or maybe even a no-refunds policy, they need to have this in writing or it’s going to be pretty hard for them to enforce this rule.

    Well, the same principles of documentation apply to vacation rentals. You could even make the argument that it’s more important for us because, although our transactions generally start online, most of us finalize our bookings over the phone. If you confirm a booking with a simple, “Okay, your card went through,” and don’t give your guests any more than the address of your home until check-in day, you and your renter could be left with unclear expectations.

    Putting everything in writing is of utmost importance throughout the entire vacation rental process, from inquiry to checkout. Although you might be thinking strictly about your rental agreement, all of your communications should focus on reinforcing the expectations between you and your renters. In fact, even the property description on your listing is a vital part of documentation, and your renters see this well before the booking even takes place. To protect your home and your business, you should consider the principles of truth in advertising for all of your communications.

    If documentation seems like a lot of work, well, you’re right. But the time you put in to creating thorough policies for you and your renters will be well worth it in the end – and here’s why.

    1. Enforcing Your Rights.
    Did you know that without a signed rental agreement from your guests, you may not even have the right to confirm a booking? Think about it – you and your renters are transacting blindly over the Internet, and the item in question is relatively intangible (a stay in your vacation home). Without a thorough rental agreement, your booking may not even be valid.

    Additionally, without the proper clauses in your rental agreement, you may not have the right to withhold money or collect fines from your renters for damage or broken rules. If your renters aren’t aware that they can’t bring bath towels to the beach, you really can’t charge them an arbitrary figure for your troubles!

    Depending on how you choose to accept payments, a thorough rental agreement can also help protect you from refund requests or even chargebacks. This is your opportunity to spell out any penalties, cancellation policies, storm policies, etc. to help protect you in the event of disputes down the road.

    2. Full Disclosure. When it comes to vacation rentals, you really don’t want any surprises. It’s far better to be up front about your home and booking process than to have disappointed guests in your vacation rental (who could end up requesting money back or writing bad reviews). Similar to obtaining full disclosure when you purchased your home, your renters have a right to full disclosure, too, so they know what they’re buying.

    Beyond your rental agreement, your directions and welcome book should also have information about any nuances with your home. If you don’t provide linens, tell your guests upon booking. Even if it turns out to be a deal-breaker, it’s better than dealing with angry renters in your home. Or if you can’t get to your cabin in the winter without snow tires, make sure they’re aware before arranging their rental car or driving cross-country. Spending the time to spell out these disclaimers in your documents will save you from having to deal with bigger problems later on.

    3. Clear Expectations. Renters don’t want to have to call you to find out whether they should start a load of laundry before leaving your home…and they certainly don’t want to be charged a fine if they didn’t even know about the laundry requirement. The best approach to take is to help them help you.

    Defining what is expected of both you and your renters goes far beyond your initial rental agreement. Expectations should be clearly outlined in all of your communications, be it inquiry responses, directions, check-in/checkout procedures, or a welcome book. For example, if you want all food removed from the refrigerator prior to your guests’ departure, you can notify them in your directions and the checkout policy written in your welcome book. The more information you provide to your renters, the fewer phone calls you will receive with questions or even complaints. (Hint: keeping instruction booklets for electronic items may save you some time.)

    With the “blind” nature of renting your home online, your renters will appreciate – and probably expect – the same level of detail offered by most Internet retailers and travel providers with regards to refunds, cancellations, and other policies. Although putting everything in writing may seem a little extreme, you’ll be able to build a thorough library of rules, household instructions and booking guidelines over time, making life easier for you and your guests.

    © Copyright HomeAway, Inc. 2010