As a frequent traveler, I have always paid attention to stories involving airlines, hotels, resorts, etc. As a travel consultant, it is now also my job to pay attention, and to use my knowledge to guide my clients' choices in their own travel.
Today I want to focus on the sharing economy as it pertains to lodging. When you check into a hotel, you can be assured that there have been safety measures implemented such as fire alarms, working smoke detectors, lighted hallways to lead you exits, etc. You also have a reasonable assurance that the room you reserved will be available when you were told it would be. When you rent a house through an online marketplace like VRBO or Airbnb, you may not have those assurances.
You have all probably heard the story of the family of four from Iowa who went to Mexico and rented a condo through VRBO. They were found dead last week in the condo from carbon monoxide poisoning, probably from a gas leak in the condo's boiler. The homeowners' association for the resort said "the condo was sold to an unidentified private owner in 2013 who was responsible for its maintenance." HomeAway, the parent company of VRBO said that as a marketplace for vacation rentals, it does not actively manage properties, and had no part in managing this condo.
Additionally, many cities and counties (such as Napa Valley) have started to take action against online marketplace rentals because they violate homeowner's associations rules and change the communities involved by bringing in a more transient population and putting extra burdens on the infrastructure. in some cases, renters have arrived at their paid for VRBO rentals, only to find that the rental is no longer available due to the local government issuing fines and shutting the property down.
I am not advocating that you not rent these types of properties. Renting a house or a condo can provide a much different (read: better) experience when on vacation. I AM saying that you should at a minimum read the reviews and contact the owner to ask questions regarding the safety of the property, the local city codes, and who you call in case something goes wrong while you are there.
In my opinion, I would only rent a property through an online marketplace if there is a property management company involved. Then you can contact them, as they will either be the ones who are responsible for the maintenance, or will have access to the records on the property. They will also be the ones you call with problems.
A good practice is to inspect the smoke and/or carbon monoxide detectors when you first arrive. Take care, everyone!