5 On Your Side

Beach rentals: Is what you see what you get?

Posted March 1, 2011 7:33 p.m. EST
Updated March 1, 2011 8:04 p.m. EST

— It's time to book that summer beach house rental. If you sign up online, how can you be sure what you see is what you get?

Brian and Liane West thought they did all the right things when they used the internet to plan a vacation and their wedding in one location.

“The rehearsal, the ceremony, the reception and my family's vacation,” says Liane. “I wanted it all bundled into one.”

They spotted a spectacular "oceanfront" house on North Carolina’s Ocean Isle.

“We just wanted the beautiful view of the ocean for our guests during the reception and the pier down to the beach,” says Liane.

“It was just perfect,” Brian adds. “I’m thinking I’m getting married here and I can’t wait.”

The couple forked out $8,697 to rent it for the week. They visited in person seven months before their September wedding. They even took home video of the incredible unbroken view from the house to the beach to show it to family and friends.

They say they talked with the owner, Robert Moscato of Raleigh, and the rental company about their plans to use a paved street behind the home for the dinner seating area. The property website showed how that was beautifully done at other weddings.

But just a week before their wedding day, right before their families were about to arrive, the West’s caterer called to tell them the great view they were counting on, was now a construction site.

“There were trash bins, port-o-johns, trucks, bull dozers and back hoes,” says Liane. “It was a complete mess from the ground up and I had no idea how bad it was until I got there and saw it.”

They made the best of it and tried to laugh as they paged through their wedding album. “This is my wedding day,” says Liane as she points to photos that clearly show the mess in the background.

With a quick Internet search, 5 On Your Side found rental busts like this are not uncommon. A complaint about a rental property in Emerald Isle says it "does not look like the advertised pictures," and that it’s "in some serious need of TLC."

A review of another home advertised as "oceanfront" claims it actually "sits behind two homes and the walkway goes in between."

Another rental property ad shows outdated pictures of a view that overlooks empty lots where homes have since been built. And yet another ad lists a home as "waterview" and includes what appear to be “zoomed” photos that make it look like the house is close to the water. The home actually sits rows back.

“Every summer brings a new and different challenge,” says Nancy Busovne, manager of United Beach Vacations. She hears plenty of complaints from renters disappointed when owners aren't completely upfront about a home's quirks.

“People have come down, moved into their house, didn't like it, packed their bags and walked in and asked what we had,” added Busovne.

She says renters get upset about everything from cleanliness and shoddy furnishings to limited hot water supply and toilet paper.

“We had a complaint about the free starter kit that included T-P,“ says Busovne. “They made a point to call and complain that it wasn’t soft enough.”

But Busovne warns complaints about views often top the list, especially when an owner or rental agency uses a "broad" definition of what ocean view is. She says United is clear about exactly what renters will see.

“We can't say it has an ocean view if it's just a tiny little sliver,” Busovne laughed.

That’s why despite what happened to the Wests, the best way to make sure you get the home you see in the pictures is to check it out in person. But that's not always possible. In that case, get contact information for people who have stayed there recently and call them.

You should also Google the property address, name and the owner's name. You might be surprised at what comes up. And make sure you carefully read the entire contract before you sign it.

In fact, the fine print of the Wests' agreement says the owner "cannot make refunds because of construction activity."

Robert Moscato did not offer any compensation to the Wests and would only tell 5 On Your Side that the realty company handles the contracts. He has since added a disclaimer to the property website about the construction. But considering the Wests talked with Moscato just weeks before their wedding, they don't understand why he didn't just tell them.

“I felt cheated,” says Brian. “That should never happen. People should be told completely and be up front. We deserve that." 

North Carolina’s Vacation Rental Act protects consumers who rent a vacation property for fewer than 90 days. Under the law, the landlord must give you a written rental agreement that spells out:

- Your rights and obligations as a tenant, including what you’ll pay
- The rights and obligations of the landlord and/or real estate brokers
- The amount of security deposit required and how the deposit will be held
- Any additional fees required to rent the property