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Book An Online Vacation Rental? It's Up To You To Make Sure Property Is Safe From Gas Leaks, Fire Hazard

By Marco della Cava, USA TODAY

March 27, 2018

https://www.usatoday.com/story/tech/news/2018/03/27/book-online-vacatio…

SAN FRANCISCO — Although online vacation rental companies are stepping up efforts to ensure properties are safe, the sprawling nature of that mushrooming marketplace means the burden still falls on renters to secure peace of mind.

That's particularly sobering after an Iowa family of four died last week from gas asphyxiation at the condominium they had rented in Tulum, Mexico. A water heater was the source of a gas leak, according to a prosecutor in Mexico. The privately owned condo was listed by HomeAway and VRBO, which are owned by Expedia.

Although some platforms now require smoke and carbon monoxide detectors and even give them away to homeowners, consumers need to make sure a host property is following these safety precautions.

It "might just mean you show up at your holiday rental and start looking for smoke detectors and fire extinguishers, because really it's renter beware," says John Simpson of advocacy group Consumer Watchdog.

"It's tough for (companies) to really enforce these measures in private homes," he notes. To really get things to change,  "It may end up coming down to cities issuing homeowners rental permits based on inspections."

Airbnb, HomeAway policies

In the case of HomeAway and other such sites with global reach,  hosts — those renting out their properties — commit to making sure homes and apartments meet local building rules.

"We require that owners and managers around the world agree to comply with local safety codes and regulations when listing their properties with us," says HomeAway spokesperson Jordan Hoefar.

The company said it had removed the Tulum, Mexico property from its site. "Our most heartfelt condolences go out to the loved ones of the Sharp family for their tragic loss," it said in a statement.

Carbon monoxide is an odorless gas that can be emitted from faulty gas, coal or oil burning devices such as stoves or water heaters. Symptoms can appear flu-like at first, including headaches and vomiting, but such poisoning can also be deadly. 

Airbnb, a tech startup that popularized the private-rental trend, currently is providing 36,000 combination smoke/carbon monoxide detectors to hosts through its website, which notes that in the U.S. only 40% of homes have such a device, according to a 2013 U.S. census survey.

All Airbnb hosts have to certify that they follow all local laws and regulations, and the company also runs home safety workshops, such as recent one in London, where local fire and emergency services brief hosts on best practices. 

But given the millions of home and apartment listings accounted for by these sites, there is no way for a company to enforce that suggested safety measures are truly in place short of a renter getting in touch to complain.

Airbnb does have one new category of property that are guaranteed to have smoke and carbon monoxide detectors. The company recently created a new segment, Airbnb Plus, which showcases thousands — as opposed to the site's millions of properties — of homes and apartments that must meet a variety of luxury and safety standards.

"When booking, guests should always carefully read the listing description, amenities, and reviews to ensure the home has the safety features that meet their needs," said Nick Shapiro, Airbnb's global head of trust and risk management.

Smaller companies are using different strategies to generate consumer trust. Paris Vacation Rentals, for examples, owns its small pool of upscale Parisian apartments outright and shoulders all regulatory and safety responsibilities.

London-based Onefinestay, which was bought by large European hotel group AccorHotels in 2016 for $169 million, manages a few thousand properties on a number of continents, and gives AccorHotels a foot in the booming sharing economy that is cutting into more traditional options such as resorts.

"We follow any applicable local regulation, for example in London we require all hosts to have a valid Gas Safety Certificate prior to renting their home, and maintain a copy of this certificate on file," says Javier Cedillo-Espin, CEO of onefinestay. "We make any administration easy for our hosts by completing the process on their behalf if required."

The accidental death of a family in a vacation rental certainly is horrific. But while such incidents do not appear to be carefully logged, anecdotal evidence suggests they are rare, says Douglas Quinby, analyst with travel industry research firm Phocuswright.

“I get calls (from media) whenever something goes wrong at a (rental) property, but typically that’s when guests behave badly and not when guests die,” says Quinby.

With 126 million private property rental unit nights logged in the U.S. in 2015, and 22 million trips with an average stay of 5 nights, odds remain in travelers’ favor, he says. 

“Most private homes that are put on into a rental pool still have to meet building codes and are generally safe,” says Quinby. “So the data just doesn't show these tragic instances to be common."

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