Home Sweet Rental

Published on Thu, 07/16/2015 - 3:23pm

Tips for securing a vacation rental for summer

  By Jonathan Reed

  To really appreciate nuances of a vacation area, you have to live there, as in staying in a home, condo, or cabin—not a hotel. While hotel stays are restful, they somehow manage to sanitize the experience. Bringing some of your everyday life to a new, home-like location can make for a richer, more rewarding vacation experience.

Here’s how to secure a rental for your vacation with the fewest problems and disappointments. After all, if your vacation ends in tears and an early trip home, it probably wasn’t what you had in mind.

Why rent someone’s home?

Booking a vacation rental offers practical differences from a hotel. There is no maid service, key-cards, or room service. Doing everything yourself with a vacation rental imparts a sense of adventure and discovery to an otherwise unremarkable vacation stay.

  • It’s a home, with a kitchen you get to use and clean yourself
  • Ditto for bathrooms
  • You get to make the beds and do the laundry
  • If decor is important, the owner’s design sense will amuse, offend, or confound you
  • Shopping for groceries in the local stores can introduce you to new foods

Vacation rentals are ideal for people with restricted diets who can’t go out every night, or those who find a hotel’s mid-morning double-knock followed by “Housekeeping!” too intrusive. Multiple bedrooms in a vacation home means extended family can stay and have fun, too.

How do I tap into it?

The internet is your best friend here. Fire up Google and see what comes back when you enter the name of the town, lake, beach, or city followed by “vacation rental.” The result will probably show VRBO, HomeAway, TripAdvisor, FlipKey, and maybe AirBnB. Your destination area may even have some similar, independently-operated websites similar to these.

It will be worth your time to pore over online offerings to get a sense for the market: Are most rentals simply bedrooms in homes, or freestanding dwellings? Has the market become saturated with condominiums, driving competition for renters, or will it be competitive for the weeks you want? How do online reviews treat properties that catch your attention? Chances are, they will set initial expectations, or send up warning flags for you.

For areas where “remoteness” is part of the attraction, there may be few vacation rentals offered, and you may have to do some online sleuthing to tap into local classifieds.

What do I look for in a rental?

Basic facts—such as location (thankfully, most websites include maps) number of bedrooms, and bathrooms—should be clearly spelled out to see if it offers what you want.

How do the photographs look? Most homeowners are not professional photographers, so you have to cut some slack here. Still, you can probably make a value judgment based on what the rental owner has posted. Is the sofa dumpy and stained? You might have to overlook this if the rental is right on the beach you want.

Rates should be clear, although many owners give a range to account for lower demand during less-attractive seasons. Sometimes you have to ask with a specific date in mind.

Some locations or home owner associations may require a minimum stay, or clearly defined period—as in “Rentals shall be from Saturday afternoon until the following Saturday morning. No exceptions!” (This is not unusual, as owners need to clean and re-stock between rentals.)

What are the amenities? For most, you can expect all the appliances found in your own home. However, is there a coffeemaker? A toaster? Are towels, bedding, and paper products included, or will you have to bring your own? What about soaps and shampoos? Is there WiFi? If it isn’t spelled out on the website, you’ll have to ask the owner.

Laurel Greatrix, a manager with TripAdvisor Vacation Rentals, urges prospective renters to take it one step further. “Look for perks!” she says. Laurel tells us many rentals come with unexpected extras like free airport transfers, free breakfast, private beach access, use of a boat, an in-house cook, or private pool. She points that some websites like hers let you search for specific amenities in property descriptions. “You never know what unexpected freebies may lay in wait,” she says.

Can you contact the owner directly? Some websites are attractive to rental owners because they have a “blind contact” form for inquiries, meaning the website sends an email to the owner with the information you fill out. They might get back to you, or they might not.

Be patient when reaching out to the owner of a vacation rental. Chances are they have a regular job, like you, and it may take a couple of days to respond. Be persistent, though, so your inquiry isn’t lost.

Will I have to sign a contract?

Yes, and you should read it carefully, mostly to see what is included and what is not. Most contracts are drawn up by the rental homeowners themselves and are simple to understand. Others, not so much.

At the very least, your contract should spell out:

  • Check-in day and time for that specific property
  • The price for the days you and the owner have agreed upon, including any taxes and fees. You may be required to post a deposit to hold the rental.
  • The contract should note cancellation policies, although most vacation rentals are non-refundable in the event of your early departure
  • Basic amenities provided. The contract should also mention any perks or special items (cribs, strollers, extra beds, etc.) that you and the owner have agreed upon
  • Expectations for check-out regarding cleaning and condition of their property when you leave

It is not unusual for owners to require a separate damage deposit or credit card number, to account for accidents or extra cleaning.

“Keep the manager or owner’s phone number—there isn’t likely to be staff on-site, so make sure you have a way to get in touch in case of any problems.” – Laurel Greatrix, TripAdvisor Vacation Rentals

How do I pay?

Many rentals are simply owners’ second homes from which they hope to derive cash flow. As such, they are usually honest and will take a personal check well in advance of your arrival (to give it chance to clear the bank). However, this is where it pays to actually speak to the rental owner, or at the very least have a detailed email conversation, so you both are comfortable with the transaction.

Some rentals are professionally managed, and these companies will take credit and debit cards, occasionally over the phone, and bank transfers. A few vacation rental websites have a secure online payment system similar to PayPal.

“Never send funds via instant wire services such as Western Union or MoneyGram,” advises TripAdvisor’s Laurel.  “If the property you’re interested in can’t be booked in this way (online), use a secure form of payment—such as a credit card—whenever possible.” 

How do I get the best deal?

Plan well ahead. As you read this, you might still be able to secure a vacation rental at a summer resort area, but don’t count on it. Most people typically plan their holiday rental stays months in advance.

So, consider traveling slightly off-season, or staying longer if “high-season” nightly rates put you off. You’ll have to actually ask for a better rate, though.