DennisBeaverFebruary 25, 2010 (Original publish date) • By Dennis Beaver

You and the Law: Risks in renting a vacation cabin

Thinking of renting a nice little mountain cabin from the owner? You may be in — or out — for more than you expect, as Hanford resident Kristin Bettencourt discovered in early January.

So, if you’ve been looking at “Vacation Rentals by Owner” sites, before booking, consider Kristin’s booking nightmare, which began in early September.

“On one site, I found the ideal property, Clark Lodge at Shaver Lake, perfect for our large family get-together on the President’s Day weekend, February 12 — 15. As Shaver Lake is popular, it is critical to book months in advance, especially for a family our size. This property has six bedrooms and three baths, can sleep 12 to 14 people. It is just gorgeous from photos — and verified by comments from other renters.”

“I spoke with the owner, Dr. Jim Clark — who is a retired professor from the Graduate Business School at the University of Washington in Seattle, and was extremely helpful. I told him that we wanted it for that weekend,” Kristin explained.

Within days, a contract for the February date had been signed, and her credit card was charged $1,870. You and the Law has in its possession her contract and several confirming e-mails.

Well, mistakes do happen …

Her family having made travel plans, everyone looking forward to a nice President’s Day weekend. Life was good for Kristin until an odd e-mail from Dr. Clark arrived on Jan. 13, stating, “Hope the snow is falling for your visit to the cabin this weekend …”

“What? This Weekend?” Upon seeing the wrong date, she immediately replied, “Oh noooooo ….. we are reserved for Feb. 12 through Feb. 15. I hope there isn’t going to be a problem. Please let me know.”

Dr. Clark responded: “Regrettably we will not be able to honor your booking. I will issue a refund immediately. This was my mistake. I thought you were reserved for this current weekend.”

“While I thought we were organized, as new cabin owners, I somehow misassigned this early reservation. I just learned that my wife booked the cabin for us, and her handicapped mother has already made flight plans from Des Moines for that weekend. We now have a system in place that prevents future booking errors. I am happy to offer you a one-night complimentary rental at our cabin in the future.”

Mad scramble to find another cabin

Upon receiving that e-mail, “It was a race against time to find anything close to being suitable for our large family. I immediately contacted Shaver Lake Vacation Rentals and spent a day and a half online and talking with them, trying to find something” her e-mail to You and the Law stated.

“This late in the booking season, nothing as nice as the Clark property was available. That’s why bookings are often made months in advance,” explained Dana Smith, owner of Shaver Lake Vacation Rentals. “We were still able to find a nice cabin which was about one third smaller, had fewer bedrooms, not as spacious or as well-equipped, but at such a late time, you have to go with what’s available.”

Interestingly enough, the price for the replacement cabin was almost the same as what Kristin had paid for the Clark property.

Her question: “Because we had a contract, in addition to the refund, are we owed any other damages? We are now paying the same amount to not even get, two-thirds of what we should have had!”

Kristin is owed more than one free night

When presented with these facts, Dana Smith commented, “These things occasionally happen with inexperienced owners — who lack a good date-tracking system — or those who suddenly change their mind and want to use the property themselves, regardless of the fact that it has been booked. We have a clause in our owner contracts that prohibits this exact thing from happening!”

Kristin was caught in a classic breach of contract: A written agreement for a specific date, payment had been made and the owner decided to cancel. Referring to guests canceling a reservation, the contract states, “Between 30 to 60 days prior to the arrival date, a cancellation fee of $500 will be charged.”

But it’s the owner who pulled the plug and nothing in the contract addresses that weird situation. Does this mean that Kristin is owed nothing?

What is Kristin entitled to, under the law? She was paying the same amount and getting far less. The right thing for Dr. Clark to do is to reimburse that one third loss at least.

Next week: We’ll tell you what happened, as well as advice from Dana Smith on how to reduce the chances of things going wrong with your vacation rental.

Dennis Beaver practices law in Bakersfield and enjoys hearing from his readers. Contact Dennis Beaver.