First of all, full disclosure. I've used VRBO to book some of my own personal travel. I've used VRBO to find a lake house with killer views in Vermont and a lovely little flat in Highgate (thanks Krista) when visiting the UK, and I had great experiences with both rentals.
However. Yes, here comes the BUT.
As a ski travel advisor, I have heard more than my share of horror stories from guests visiting resorts from California to Maine. In listening to their stories over the years I have heard three recurring issues over and over.
1) Incomplete or inaccurate check-in instructions: I had a client call me in the middle of the night while he was on a trip out West (that he did not book through me. I chided him about that later). He and his wife had been driving around for over 90 minutes in the small Colorado ski town where they had reserved a small private home through VRBO. I managed to get them back on a main drag and pointed in the right direction, but the point is they were given absolutely horrible directions by the homeowner. I've had other folks tell me about their arrival at a large private home in Utah where not only were there no keys in the lockbox at the property, there was no lockbox. The homeowner had several properties and had send the wrong instructions for the home the guests were staying in. It was the middle of the following day before it got sorted out. Not the best way to start a ski trip.
2) Financial shenanigans: I've heard plenty of tales of phantom cleaning fees that were never disclosed, security deposits not being refunded in a timely manner, and various bills for things like trash removal, firewood, and internet service showing up weeks later.
3) Problems with the home/condo: This is the BIG one. I've heard from people that have shown up to properties that had busted water heaters and water, water everywhere, no heat because the electric bill had not been paid, or completely trashed units that looked like the ski team from Enormous State University had just left ten minutes ago.
The real challenges that you as a vacationer encounter when these type of problems arise (especially #3) is that in most cases you are dealing with an owner that has ONE property and they can sometimes be impossible to reach when you are traveling.
So, you just arrived at your destination and find that the beautiful home you rented is truly beautiful, but there is no heat or hot water. What's your recourse? It's Presidents Week and the owner is not answering the phone. When you finally do reach him/her, they can't arrange to have someone come out until the following day. Then, the following day the HVAC guy that gets dispatched let's you know that it'll a couple days before he can fix it. You only rented the place for 5 nights. Yep, full-on vacation nightmare.
The final takeaway? VRBO can be a useful tool to help you plan travel, but you must, must, pay attention to what you are doing, ask the right questions, and it never hurts to get advise from your friendly ski travel professional. More about that later!