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Austin company letting people book trips where travel is prohibited, still denying refunds

TurnKey Vacation Rentals is only issuing credit to people who canceled trips because of the coronavirus, and it has to be used at the same property within 18 months.

AUSTIN, Texas — Local and state governments have implemented stay-at-home orders and shut down short-term rentals across the country because of the coronavirus, which has forced people to cancel travel plans.

The KVUE Defenders first reported last week how Austin-based Turnkey Vacation Rentals refuses to refund its customers.

“Every way they are approaching this is ridiculous,” Claudine Ajeti said.

Ajeti owns a property in Palm Springs, California, and rents it through TurnKey Vacation Rentals. She heard TurnKey denied refunds to people who canceled their rentals because of COVID-19.

“I’m embarrassed by them; I’m embarrassed to be associated with them,” Ajeti said.

TurnKey has refused multiple requests to interview with KVUE. But the company sent us another statement on Friday, reiterating its policy to “allow guests to reschedule their trip up to 18 months in the future.” 

RELATED: Austin-based TurnKey Vacation Rentals refuses to refund customers canceling because of coronavirus

The company’s website offers one explanation, saying the company is protecting homeowners, who are “also experiencing hardship.”

But some owners, like Ajeti, say they’ve asked TurnKey to give renters a refund.

“They’re taking advantage of this,” Ajeti said. “We don’t know that any of us will be here next year, that any of the guests can take advantage of this credit. We cannot assure that. They cannot assure that.”

The KVUE Defenders checked online and found out you can still rent a vacation property through TurnKey in cities across the country. On Friday morning, the KVUE Defenders searched Turnkey’s website for properties available in the popular spring break destination of Port Isabel, Texas.

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Two available rental units were listed as available for this weekend.

But a city declaration from Thursday temporarily outlaws short-term rentals in Port Isabel.

You can also book properties in Port Aransas, despite the city’s ban on short-term rentals.

And rentals are available in Houston, Dallas and Austin – all over Texas – through TurnKey, despite a recent executive order from Gov. Greg Abbott.

“Stay at home, except to provide essential services or do essential things like going to the grocery store,” Abbott said in a video announcement about the order.

KVUE asked TurnKey why it is letting people book rental properties in areas where short-term rentals aren’t allowed.

“We work to close any affected locations as soon as we hear about them, and if any bookings occur in the meantime for prohibited dates, then we address them directly with guests so we stay in compliance,” a TurnKey spokesperson said in an email on Friday.

This all sounds familiar to Shoshana Karpeles. She tells us she booked a stay at a property in Palm Springs.

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Minutes later, she learned about a declaration from the city, banning short-term rentals until May.

Karpeles said she brought that back to TurnKey, but the company refused to give her a refund. 

“The terms of the agreement are now null and void and there’s no contract. So you have to return the money,” Karpeles said. “And they’re opening up the floodgates for litigation against themselves.”

Karpeles is a lawyer in Los Angeles who says she’s considering a class-action lawsuit against TurnKey.

“I definitely want to be a voice for a lot of people right now that don’t know their rights,” Karpeles said.

Last week, people had filed nine complaints about TurnKey to the Texas Attorney General’s Office. But, as of Friday, the number of complaints jumped to at least 50, according to the Attorney General’s Office.

Meanwhile, rental property owners like Ajeti say refunding people’s money during this time is the right thing to do.

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“Many people don’t have money anymore,” Ajeti said. “They’ve been fired, laid off, whatever. They may be sick, their medical insurance, who knows what happened. It’s their money; it’s not our money.”

Other vacation rental companies like Airbnb and Vrbo are offering the option of partial, if not full refunds to customers who had to cancel.

TurnKey told KVUE in an email that it's a different kind of company than those businesses.

The Texas Attorney General’s Office also couldn’t interview with the KVUE Defenders, but representatives said they’re looking into those complaints.

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You can read the most recent email statement from TurnKey below:

“We’re all deeply affected by the disruption that the COVID-19 pandemic is causing to guests, homeowners, our employees and our industry. We completely empathize with our guests not being able to travel during this time. Fortunately, we have been able to work with our homeowners to waive our cancellation and change policy to allow guests to reschedule their trip up to 18 months in the future, for whenever they feel comfortable traveling again.

"We continue to issue credits following a similar model to Southwest Airlines and other leading travel and hospitality brands.

"We realize that there is no perfect solution for all guests and all owners, but we wanted to offer a consistent policy that we could apply fairly for both, which we are attempting to do.

"We take compliance with local ordinances and laws seriously in all of the 80+ U.S. markets where we operate. We work to close any affected locations as soon as we hear about them, and if any bookings occur in the meantime for prohibited dates, then we address them directly with guests so we stay in compliance.

"We have also coordinated a program for our owners to either donate or heavily discount their homes for health care professionals and first responders in need. Hundreds of homeowners have already signed up, and by early next week, we expect to be offering nearly 5,000 homes for COVID-19 responders. These individuals can call us as we are not allowed to show the inventory online in many markets, and we will be offering our inventory online directly to government agencies and relief organizations."

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