Vacation rental shootout: Airbnb vs. VRBO

Whether you’re headed to the mountains or the beach, or even just out-of town, the Internet has transformed the vacation rental industry.

Here are some of the questions I am most often asked.

Q: What’s the best consumer source for summer vacation rentals?

A: Just fifteen years ago, local real estate companies dominated vacation rentals. Each company would publish a printed vacation rental guide that you could get by mail, then call to pick what was available.

Q: Then what happened?

A: The advent of the Internet totally disrupted the vacation rental market. The disruption can be compared to the fate of Blockbuster after Redbox was introduced.

Q: How did that happen?

A: In 1995, retired teachers Dave and Lynn Clouse created a little website to rent their ski condo, and the concept was born.

They called it, standing for Vacation Rental by Owner. (This was before Al Gore invented the Internet.)

Q: How did it work?

A: Anyone owning a vacation home could list it on for a small fee, giving prospective renters photos and info about the property. At that time, all prospects were simply directed to contact the owners for more info.

Q: So what happened?

A: The site met a powerful need in the real estate market. Previously, most owners listed their homes with local real estate companies. Most of these brokers charged from a third to a half of the total rental as a fee. With VRBO, there was no fee once the property was listed on the site, and the charge for listing was minor — less than a hundred dollars per year.

Q: Then what happened?

A: In 2006, the site exploded, adding almost 100 new listings per day. Renters took notice, and owners who listed were rewarded with quality renters at full price and no “per-rental” fees.

Renters loved it because they were connected directly with owners, rather than dealing with a realty agent. The middle-man was eliminated.

Q: So, what’s happened since then?

A: Not surprisingly, the Clouses sold their website. The buyer was continues to be the flagship brand for the HomeAway family of websites.

Q: Where does that leave the consumer today?

A: As you might imagine, HomeAway has boosted prices for posting a property on VRBO to stunning levels, now charging much higher fees. And add-on fees for photos boost the cost higher still.

In addition, earlier this year, VRBO added a 9 percent “service fee” to all rentals. Owners are desperate for an alternative.

Q: So what is your advice to the consumer?

A: The Internet often finds a way to meet a need.

There is a relatively new player on the scene called Airbnb, which is challenging VRBO on all fronts.

Q: How does it work?

A: Airbnb is a totally different approach to vacation rentals, and it has spread worldwide. It was launched in 2008 by two roommates couldn’t afford their San Francisco apartment. They made their living room into a “bed and breakfast” accommodating 3 guests on air mattresses and providing breakfast. It clicked — big time.

By 2011, they announced their 1 millionth booking, and the website has exploded since then. Fees are substantially less than VRBO’s, at least for now.

Q: So what’s your advice for summer vacation rentals?

1. Start with VRBO, then move to Airbnb. Also look at Craigslist for the destination you seek.

2. Carefully examine online reviews for each property. Know that one-off bad reviews are likely “blackmail” designed to get refunds and nothing else.

3. Talk directly to owners and demand lots of photos of the property as it exists right now. Google the street address to see if Google Street View looks like the property you see in the ads.

4. Finally, check as another source for unbiased reviews and more information about the place you want to visit.

In conclusion, shop and compare until you find the right vacation lodging for your needs. And be cautious. Rental scams happen with frightening regularity.

Atlanta native John Adams is an author, broadcaster and investor. He is also a property owner. He answers real estate questions on radio station WGKA (920am) every Sunday at 11:00 AM. For more real estate information or to make a comment, visit, where you will find an expanded edition of this column.