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How to make a complaint about a self-catering cottage

The self catering accommodation industry has often been the brunt of bad press surrounding shoddy agents, properties not being of the standard advertised, (or not being available at all!) and agents washing their hands of things by stating the holiday booking is directly between the property owner and the guest.

The law for holiday rentals is not too helpful either, because while there is an extraordinary amount of legal cover for people booking a “Package Holiday”, the same cannot be said for renting a holiday cottage direct from the owner – whether there is an agent involved in the mix or not.

It’s probably fair to say that most owners and agents do an excellent job of maintaining high standards for their guests. They realise the importance of good customer service and ensuring the quality of their properties, and they work hard to benefit the tourism industry as a whole.

But when a property does not live up to its claims then it can completely ruin that precious holiday that you have so looked forward to – and maybe saved up a long time for too, so naturally you want to make a complaint and have something done about it.

It is important to remember here that complaints can be subjective, and there is a rather sad tendency in the UK to turn to litigation as a money-making scheme in the wake of consumer programmes such as Watchdog.

This means that the first instinct of an owner or agent is often disbelieving; “they are just trying to get some money back”, and unfortunately how your complaint is handled can depend very much on how you handle the situation yourself.

Taking a civilised and reasonable approach can do far more good then getting angry and shouting the odds, and you will find that most owners and agents do genuinely want to help.

Often a complaint arises due to the personal opinion of the guest, which may not be the fault of the owner, nor anything they can really put right.

Often too, the owner or cottage agency are not alerted to issues by the previous guests, so they have never had a chance to fix them in between bookings – there is only so much a cleaner will be trained to report and most companies will not carry out a thorough inspection more than once a season due to back to back bookings or internal policies.

What to do when holidays go wrong

If something is genuinely causing a problem and needs to be rectified, you should follow these steps to make a complaint :

  • Use your common sense – is the complaint more to do with your own subjective likes and dislikes, or is there a genuine quality or safety issue that needs to be addressed and is it having a serious impact on your holiday?
  • Report it immediately and without delay. If there is an obvious “solution” to your problem (e.g. please send cleaners to go round again, please replace dirty bed linen, please send maintenance to fix the broken swings/boiler/shower rail etc etc) then you have a duty as the customer to report the issues straight away so that the owner or agency can be given the opportunity to remedy the situation for you. With luck, it will be fixed quickly and you can get on with enjoying your holiday.

    If you continue to use the property and then only make the complaint upon your return home, you may seriously undermine your position. It’s a bit like complaining about a meal in a restaurant after having eaten all the food.

  • Remain calm and reasonable at all times.  An owner or agent will be far more willing to help you early on if you keep the hostilities to a minimum, even if you are very angry. If the complaint needs to be progressed later then you will stand a much better chance if you can maintain a civilised but serious stance, especially in the event of mediation or a tribunal becoming necessary.
  • Just in case it needs to be taken further, make sure you get photographs of all the items you are complaining about. Whether you are reporting broken equipment, dirty presentation or things not being as described (and photographed), having a pictorial record of the issues is very important in explaining what the problem is.  Owners are liable under Supply of Goods and Services Act to deliver the service and facilities as outlined in the contract, but the onus is on you to prove if that was not the case. (see more details at http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/1982/29 ).
  • Take a video if possible, as this will show the issues in better detail and helps to put things in context in a more visual manner.
  • Take down contact details of any relevant witnesses to the problem who may need to be called upon later to support your complaint.
  • If the issue is not resolved during or immediately after your stay, write an official letter of complaint to the company or owner within 15 days of your return, or as per their complaints procedure. Make sure you keep all subjective personal opinions and emotions out of this letter, and instead just make a clear concise list of all the facts relating to your complaint.

    You need to outline why the holiday did not live up to the contract between yourself and the property provider, so make sure you read through all the marketing material used to sell the holiday  as well as the terms and conditions of your booking first.

    Give each item its own numbered paragraph, matching these numbers up with the photographs you have taken.  Also make a note of the time and date each issue was reported, what the response was and what action has been taken so far.

    If you feel that action was inadequate, state clearly why you think that was the case and how it continued to affect your holiday.

    Finally, work out how much compensation you want to ask for. Include any additional expenses to cover alternative accommodation in the event that it was necessary to move –  but be aware that this may only be considered necessary if you first gave the company a chance to rectify the issue.

    For further advice on how much compensation to claim you can talk to the Citizen’s Advice Bureau http://www.citizensadvice.org.uk/ or if the claim involves some form of personal injury or illness then you should take legal advice from a suitably qualified solicitor who may be able to handle the complaint on your behalf.

  • If you still don’t get the desired outcome following your letter which you have backed up with photographic evidence, then there may be more “official” channels you can try. But be warned, as stated above the law covering independent holiday rentals is not the same as the Package Travel Regulations covering Tour Operators, who can be held 100% liable for the acts of their suppliers.

    Firstly, check if you have booked through a company which is registered with ABTA or AITO, in which case you should make use of their own dispute settlement services.

    If you have booked with an independent agent or direct with the owner in the UK, you can make a small claims court application online at https://www.gov.uk/make-court-claim-for-money/overview. A money judgement awarded by the UK courts can also be recovered against an EU citizen under the Brussels Regulation and Lugano Convention, and against non-EU citizens via reciprocal agreements in those countries, though the costs can be high so you need to balance that against the amount you are claiming.

    You can also report the property to the Tourist Board responsible for grading the accommodation to begin with – if they are not registered then they may find themselves in seriously hot water and will be more than willing to settle your case amicably, so make sure you inform them of what you are doing every step of the way.

    To claim against a property or owner outside the UK you can also try the European Small Claims Court for amounts up to €2,000 http://europa.eu/legislation_summaries/consumers/protection_of_consumers/l16028_en.htm

    All of these channels can cost you money, so you have to weigh up the cost and energy required versus the amount of compensation you want to claim back. Also take care with the natural instinct to turn to Trip Advisor and slate an owner publically online, or it could be you who ends up being sued for defamation!

    The rule of thumb with complaints is to go calmly, sensibly, and stick to the facts for the best possible outcome.

What about compensation?

Before you start demanding a full refund from owners or agents, put things into perspective. Was the incident out of their control? Did they take reasonable steps to rectify the situation? Did you give them the opportunity to do so?

Your request for compensation should be warranted.

One thing that sets self catering accommodation apart from faceless hotel chains is the personal service you get – owners and agents care. It’s just one of the many reasons why holiday home rentals are surging in demand.

Until a court says otherwise any compensation is at the discretion holiday property owners. For minor incidents, such as no heating for a few hours, then a goodwill gesture such as a bottle of wine or, meal at a local restaurant or discount off a future stay may be sufficient.

If only one day/night of your stay has been affected then a refund of the cost of 1 nights’ accommodation is acceptable. Don’t expect a full refund.

If you feel you have been deliberately mislead e.g. no swimming pool when one is advertised, a construction site on your doorstep, an infestation of mice or had your security deposit wrongfully deducted, then you may wish to pursue a part/full refund via direct negotiation or the courts.

To summarise  

  • Taking a civilised and reasonable approach can do far more good then getting angry and shouting the odds.
  • You have a duty as the customer to report the issues straight away so that the owner or agency can be given the opportunity to remedy the situation.
  • Be reasonable, was the incident out of their control?
  • Just in case it needs to be taken further, make sure you get photographs of all the items you are complaining about.
  • If the issue is not resolved during or immediately after your stay, write an official letter of complaint.
  • How much compensation do you want? It may only be warranted if you gave the company a chance to rectify the issue.
  • If you are still unhappy with the outcome you can make a small claims court application, but weigh up the cost and energy required versus the amount of compensation you want to claim back.

Complaints are few and far between because most guests and owners resolve problems at the time. It’s when these procedures aren’t followed that complaints escalate.

18 Comments

  • Heather Bayer |

    Great article. I would add that review sites are not the platform to make an initial complaint, nor are they a place to complain about weather, or other issues beyond the owners control. I often see reviews posted that make negative comments about aspects of the vacation that could not possibly be the responsibility of the owner or agent – bad service in a local restaurant, or an attraction that closed early, for example.

    • Philip |

      Good point Heather. However, if guests have exhausted all other means to resolve disputes with owners or leting agencies and still feel unhappy with the outcome, then review sites are a useful platform to give feedback. Owners can also reply with their side of events so third parties can form their own conclusions.

  • Susy |

    Thank you for this article! We just spent our vacation at a cottage where the power was turned off for four days because the owner did not pay the bill. We were cold, no water, in the dark, food ruined and had to eat out. After the fourth day, we left. The price was 100.00 per day, the owner is pretty odd! What would you recommend for compensation?
    Thank you

    • Philip |

      Surprised you stayed for four days in those conditions. Have you been in contact with the owner to discuss a refund? Maybe suggest a refund for the 4 days affected as you can’t reasonably expect a full refund if you had a few days where there weren’t any problems. It’s usually better to come to an agreement where both parties are happy with the settlement rather than pursue the other alternatives suggested in this post.

  • Adele |

    Really useful article, thank you. We stayed in a cottage during the summer, it was advertised as having central heating-when we got there it had an old back boiler that didn’t work, so no heating for the whole two weeks! Yes it was summer, but for 5 days of our holiday it rained, making the property cold and damp-no other heating was available. The hot water was by an immersion heater which we had to switch on every morning. In addition to this the kitchen ceiling leaked when it rained. We reported it to the agents but nothing got done during our stay so we complained on our return. After 7 weeks they have just offered us £150, our holiday cost £1600! They haven’t answered any of our questions and the excuse for the delay is because the owner lives in Australia and hasn’t replied to their emails. Have we got a case for a full refund?!

  • Cathy |

    We have recently stayed in a cottage, which for November, at 27 degrees plus, was far too hot! The heating was underfloor, powered by an eco-wood burner that the owners looked after. We were told they did not know how to turn it down. We had to have doors & windows open – even though it was wet & windy outside. Also the wind made the tiles bang all through the night. The owners were aware of these problems but had not seen fit to fix them. We did not stay the full week. I have complained to the agency by email and requested a refund. I have not heard anything yet.
    If I have no joy I will resort to leaving my comments on Trip Advisor.

  • John |

    Not sure how I’m fixed…I booked a cottage in Cornwall earlier this year and it’s now time to pay the remaining balance. Just been on their website and it says that a neighbour is carrying construction work near the property. Obviously this may mean dust, banging, sawing etc, does that give me grounds to cancel and get my deposit back? £1500 for a week in total!!!

    • Philip |

      I would speak to the owner/agent and ask how much the construction work is likely to have an adverse effect on your holiday. Have any recent guests complained about the noise? Do any recent reviews from past guests mention the construction work? A goodwill gesture from the owner/agent (e.g. a % refund or a contribution towards a meal at the local pub, voucher for a local tourist attraction) may be warranted depending on the extent of the disturbance. Cancelling the holiday is an overreaction as it’s out of the owners control and the accommodation is still available. Speak to them, you might be worrying unnecessarily.

  • Harry |

    Currently renting a modern “two bedroom holiday let” for a week in Surrey for 1200 pounds a week. The agents advertised a designer kitchen with dishwasher, however the dishwasher does not work and the agents were aware of this before we moved in. Additionally the agents claim that no dishwasher was mentioned in the advert on Booking.com, but clearly it does ! Apartment is describing as having a “Designer Kitchen” with dishwasher. Also tiolets leak and cannot be repaired as plumber claims not to have the parts in stock. Window handle is broken, clothing / airer broken, one bed broken. Second bathroom stank when we moved in. All these were brought to the attention of the agent. They have offered an extra two hours on the day of departure as compensation. The agent continues to describe the flat as a designer flat with designer kitchen yet fully aware of the faults, surely a case of misrepresentation. I have contacted them on many occasions and they have promised to return calls but never honored. Once litagation was mentioned they then put the phone down, yet still advertising on Booking.com. What is the way forward ?

    • Philip |

      Hopefully the advice in this post covers the necessary steps to take.

  • Tash |

    I booked a stunning holiday home in Cornwall at £2400 p/w to which I had power cuts to the property for the first 2 nights. They sent an electrician to fix the problem which he couldn’t do so I requested to move properties. They did this but to a lower standard of property of £1500 p/w.
    So I have asked for a refund of the difference not any compensation. Do you think I have the right to claim this. I am prepared to go to court over this even if it looses me money in the process!

  • babs |

    The problem with private holiday accommodation can be that the host will have mostly had no professional training and so you will be at the mercy of their personal character traits. One place we stayed (self catering) we left clean and tidy and yet received an odd and confounding email complaining at the terrible state we had left things in and listing our ‘misdemeanors’! At another place, which had otherwise been lovely, the wifi didn’t work, and as this was fairly necessary to us, we reported this. After my second request for it to be fixed, I received an emotional reply saying that we should find alternative accommodation, which in the particular circumstances would not have been feasible (although to be fair they did offer a refund). I’ve also been told off for using the shower in the afternoon!!

    • Philip |

      Sounds like you have been unlucky. With attitudes like that I don’t expect their guests to return. Most owners/managers offer a personal 5* service which is what typically sets holiday rentals apart from large hotel chains.

  • RICHARD HICKMAN |

    We rented a terraced cottage where the property next door was undergoing a complete refurbishment. Day one was replacing the floorboards! This lasted for the entire period of our stay. I have video evidence. Do I have any redress?

    • Philip |

      I would have thought some form of compensation is appropriate. Did you report this to the agent/owner at the time?

  • Carl fisher |

    All good info. But what about if you rent a property from a UK resident but the property is in UNITED STATES. Can you still make a claim against them through UK small claims track? Or should it be pursued through the courts in its home state of USA.

  • Ray |

    I recently rented a carefully chosen cottage in Wales. During the first night there was a flood in the kitchen because of a fault with the boiler. The agency offered us an unsuitable, alternative flat which we declined. They then offered a second flat in a different location which we reluctantly accepted. Organising this meant that we ended up losing a day of our holidays, and spending the remaining time in a location we did not choose. What do you think is reasonable compensation?

    • Philip |

      Hi, as you mention losing a day of your holiday, the cost of 1 day pro-rata would be a starting point.

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