Villa Rentals: Scams & Warnings
The French Riviera is full of both good people and scammers, but the concentration of the latter is especially high when dealing real estate and luxury villa rentals. Renting a villa in the South of France can be a delightful experience, but like in many popular tourist destinations, it comes with the risk of encountering scams and dishonest tactics.
Our #1 most important tip: always visit the villa in person before booking it to avoid bait-and-switch situations.
Here’s what to be aware of if you’re considering renting a villa on the French Riviera:
Booking via an Agency
Booking through a large agency like Carlton, John Taylor, or others may seem safe, but it’s only as safe as you are savvy. There are many ways that these agencies can –and do– scam people, in both big and little ways. Knowing their tricks can help you avoid them, but be prepared to put in some work before renting anything.
Bait & Switch
You already know that all agencies try to make their listings look as appealing as possible. But what you can’t know until you arrive, is how much they’ve altered the photos, what they didn’t show you in the pictures and video, and what problems the villa has that they’re not telling you.
We audited luxury rental listings from the big agencies (in the price range of €20,000 to €50,000 per week) and found that they routinely advertised villas as “luxury rentals” even when they were in very, very bad condition, or not luxury at all.
We found that most of the villas were in very bad state of disrepair, with major water damage and mold issues, many maintenance issues, and things like massive overhanging power lines and overlooking neighbors that had been edited out of photos.
We even visited one “luxury villa rental” where –to our surprise– a new house was being built right next to it and there was one shared private road. It took the construction vehicles, that were blocking the entrance, 25 minutes to move, despite them knowing we had a previously scheduled viewing, with us and two agents waiting. When we finally got to the house we noticed that, unlike what the agent had just told us, the construction noise was very loud, and the ‘sea view’ photograph had clearly been taken with a telephoto lens, zooming in on the tiny far-away slice of sea view — and cropping out all the ugly rooftops in the view. Beyond that, the two bathrooms that weren’t in the photos were in a very bad state.
The only way to truly know what you’ll be getting is to visit the villa in advance, before you book it.
The big agencies’ rental contracts typically have many loopholes that would allow them to kick you out at any time. Don’t assume they won’t do this. We hear stories of big agencies evicting people at the beginning of their stay, and keeping the entire rent and deposit for a seemingly inconsequential infractions, like having a visitor or leaving towels outside. Many agencies also include clauses that let them evict you and keep the money if a ‘neighbor’ complains of noise.
Agents also often agree to terms verbally, then leave them out of the contract so they don’t have to adhere to them.
Usually, the agencies keep the villa listed online even once it’s been booked. If there’s someone else who is willing to book for the same time-frame, and they have a legal (unethical, yes, but legal) way to get you out, keep the money, and get paid twice for the same weeks, then they really have no legal reason not to. Agencies are more concerned with making maximum profit than potential bad online reviews. After all, most people don’t leave or check reviews, and there’s no way to review individual villas.
Volume is Down and Pricing is Very Negotiable
After Covid, when Americans were able to travel to Europe again, there was a boom in travel and bookings. Even then, the most that luxury villa rentals were booked was around 40% to 70% for the very best villas. In 2023, villa rentals were only been booked up less than 20% of the time.
Before Covid, the typical discount you could negotiate on a luxury villa rental was about 30% to 40%. However, we had been hearing that in 2023, people have been getting massive discounts on luxury villa rentals of around 50% to 75% off of the asking prices. We did some negotiating ourselves and found this to be true.
How to Protect Yourself
If you’re thinking about renting a luxury villa on the French Riviera via an agency, there are a few things you can do to help lower the risk of getting scammed:
- Do your research on the property before you book. Ask for a video tour and information about the villa, including its exact address and amenities. Read reviews from other guests and check the villa’s address on Google Earth to make sure it actually exists.
- Never pay for a villa in full upfront. Reputable rental agencies will only require a deposit, and you should be able to pay the balance once you arrive at the villa and have inspected it.
- Make sure the contract contains a clause that gives you a full refund (within a specified time-frame, with penalties for not refunding you on time) if you arrive and the property doesn’t meet your expectations, or has damage, privacy issues, or bedbugs.
- Read the rental contract very carefully before you sign it. Make sure you thoroughly understand all the terms and conditions, and that the contract includes all of the details you agreed upon with the rental agency or individual. Do not trust what is only said verbally.
- Don’t sign a contract that has loopholes that could allow the rental agency or owner to kick you out. If the agency won’t remove those clauses, you’ll know it’s because they plan on using them.
Our candid advice? Don’t book via agencies or directly with owners, where you have no way to get a refund if there are issues. Only book through websites like AirBnb and VRBO, where you can get a refund if the listing is a scam, doesn’t look like the photos, or other forms of bait-and-switch.
Online Booking Platforms
Sites like AirBnb and VRBO also have their issues (albeit less so than with big agencies), but they’re the safest option since you can complain to the platform if there’s an issue. The main problem with booking on these sites is that the owners sometimes lie about ‘damage’ and keep your damage deposit.
Never book a villa that you found on a classified site like LeBonCoin (France’s version of Craigslist). Fraudsters frequently use these platforms to create fake listings for luxury villas. These listings may have photos and descriptions that look convincing, but they’re could be for properties that don’t actually exist, or are copied from a legitimate listing.
Here are some of the common issues and scams to be aware of:
- Fake Listings: Scammers may create fake listings to attract attention and money before individuals realize the place doesn’t exist. Once a deposit is paid, the ‘owner’ becomes unreachable.
- Misrepresentation: The property doesn’t match the description in the advertisement, or has major problems with it.
- Double Booking: The property might already be rented out, and you could find no access upon arrival.
- Email Hijacking: The email address of the owner or agency might be hijacked or spoofed, and you could end up interacting with a criminal instead of the actual owner. An owner or agency avoiding in-person meetings could be a red flag as they might have something to hide.
By being vigilant and taking precautionary measures, you can significantly minimize the risks associated with renting luxury villas in the South of France.
Rental villas are the prime target of the crime rings and criminal gangs that operate along the French Riviera. They often don’t have bars on the windows and they know that tourists are not as cautious as locals. There’s a major problem with these criminals breaking in, often using sedative gas, and stealing valuables like your watch and wedding rings right off your hand. Learn more about that here.
Given all the risks associated with villa rentals on the French Riviera, we recommend that you book a hotel instead. But if you’ve got your heart set on a villa, make sure to follow these tips to protect yourself from scams and enjoy a luxurious vacation on the French Riviera.