KISSIMMEE – The recent arrest of the owner of a property management firm is forcing the trade association representing this fast-growing industry to take a tough look at its ethical standards.
It also means the industry may have to work harder to police itself, said An Flamand, a member of the board of directors for the Central Florida Vacation Rental Managers Association.
“That is a big issue for us,” she said.
Last week, Osceola County Sheriff’s detectives arrested Jeanne Kline, owner of Magical Memories, a property management firm on Poinciana Boulevard, and charged her with grand theft.
Flamand said this property management firm is well known, and a member of the CFVRMA. Kline’s arrested stunned everyone in the association, and it’s not an issue they can avoid, Flamand added.
“Magical Memories is very big,” Flamand said. “It’s a serious concern. We can’t have people in the association if they are unethical.”
The investigation started on July 6 when an acquaintance of Kline contacted Osceola County sheriff’s deputies to say she had checked on the property and noticed the furniture and décor didn’t belong to the owner. She told deputies the owner was foreclosing on the property and in mid-June had talked to Kline about purchasing the furniture and décor.
According to the sheriff’s office, Kline had offered to pay $200 for the furniture, far less than the $2,000 that the owner was requesting, and they couldn’t come to an agreement on the deal.
Detectives interviewed Kline and reported that she told them she was working with the victim to resolve the issue. Detectives also interviewed one of Kline’s employees, who told them Kline had the victim’s furniture and décor removed and replaced with less expensive items.
Based on this information, an arrest warrant was obtained, and Kline was arrested and charged with grand theft, dealing in stolen property and theft by a motel employee. She was booked into the Osceola County Jail.
Michael Eckersley, a member of the CRVRMA who serves on its ethics committee, said an arrest like this can be a challenge for the association, since Kline has the presumption of innocence until proven guilty by the legal system.
“We do have an ethics contract that everybody signs when they join,” he said. “We are aware of this situation. Until she’s taken to court and until it’s been proven that she was at fault, we won’t do anything about it. We’re not the judge, we’re not the jury.”
But he did note that the association sometimes gets complaints about property managers, and those have to be investigated. Sometimes the complaints come guests, and sometimes from the owners of the vacation homes.
“From time to time we get a complaint from owners that are complaining about a management company, and I’d say nine times out 10 they’re just bitter that the management company has dropped them,” Eckersley said. “When it comes to a bitter dispute over an owner and a management company, it is a very difficult situation.”
When a complaint is filed, “We have a committee of three, and one of those three people will deal with it, then we’ll come to a conclusion and bring it before the board, and the board could vote to expell. Last year we expelled two companies for gross negliecnce toward customers.”
Sometimes the complaints are legitimate, he said.
“We’ve had some horrific cases,” he said. “We had a property manager who locked the guest out on Christmas Eve. They did it because the owner owed them money. But that’s not the fault of the guest. We actually expelled that company for that. We can’t tolerate that from a member and we had to act accordingly.”
The vacation home industry has become concerned about protecting its reputation, since the field has grown so rapidly in the past decade, particularly in Northeast Polk County and Northwest Osceola County. These homes appeal to families that come to the region on vacation and would prefer staying in a home with multiple bedrooms, a kitchen and game room, and a private pool, rather than a hotel room.
The vacation home industry has gotten so large that an even bigger trade group, the Central Florida Hotel & Lodging Association, just added a member of the CFVRMA to its board of directors.
Pete Howlett, a Four Corners Realtor and property manager who operates Orlando Vacation Reality, said generally there are no specific rules and regulations that the vacation home industry has to operate under.
“I don’t think there’s a policing mechanism other than the association itself,” he said. “They’re kind of a self-policing trade group. As far as the state goes, I don’t think there are any regulations on short term rentals. It actually comes under the (Florida) Department of Hotels. There is no other state organization that monitors it.”
Howlett said the entire undustry was well aware of the Magical Memories case, and anxious about it.
“Any time you have a story like this, it puts a cloud on the rest of the market,” he said.
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