Staying in a vacation rental can be riskier than staying in a hotel, which is part of the heavily regulated hospitality industry. “Most of the places you go, you’re going to be fine,” says Rob Walker, a travel-risk specialist for International SOS. “But a little prep and research ahead of time is going to pay dividends.” Here’s what to consider before you book your next vacation rental.

Remember that looks aren’t everything. In certain destinations, the security of the building and neighborhood safety matter just as much as—if not more—than the appearance and even the cost of the rental. The onus is on you to ask about safety, Walker says.

Bill Furlong, HomeAway’s vice president of North America, agrees. “If you’re renting a place in New York City, you might care a lot about the deadbolt on the door," he says. "But if you’re renting a ranch in Montana, it might not be much of a concern.” Before booking, make sure to get answers to any safety concerns you have.

Find out about fire safety. Ask the host ahead of time about smoke alarms and fire extinguishers, and make sure you know how to get out in case of an emergency.



Vet and verify the host. Individuals with verified profiles have shared their Facebook account or provided government-issued identification. Host reviews can reveal a lot about the person you’ll be staying with or renting from. Airbnb says it checks all U.S. hosts and guests for felony convictions or sex-offender registrations. “Trust your instincts if something doesn’t look quite right from the pictures or sound quite right from the host’s responses,” Walker says.

Inquire about insurance—yours and theirs. In the case of theft, you may be covered by your own policy. But if you trip on the stairs of the rental, the homeowner may not have adequate liability coverage to compensate you. HomeAway sells an insurance policy that hosts can purchase, but it's not required. Airbnb provides host-protection insurance that offers additional liability coverage free in 16 countries, but limitations and exclusions apply. Always read the fine print.

Communicate securely. Texting or calling a host might be efficient, but it could leave you unprotected if a problem arises later. Stay within the site’s secure messaging system.

Never book offline. Always complete the booking through the site’s secure payment processing system. Never agree to a host’s request to transfer money to his or her bank or to pay in cash when you arrive, even if he offers a discount or other compelling reason. Using the site’s payment platform also confers some protection. For example, HomeAway’s Book With Confidence Guarantee fully covers your payment if the listing is fraudulent or if the property is significantly misrepresented or inaccessible.

Understand your rights—or lack thereof. When you accept the terms and conditions of a vacation rental, you may be consenting to a background check and forced arbitration, among other terms. You’re also agreeing to the host’s cancellation policy and how you might be rebooked or refunded if something goes wrong. Be sure to know what you’re agreeing to before booking.

Editor's Note: This article also appeared in the June 2017 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.