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Booking a Vacation Rental: What You Need to Know

The trend toward staying in vacation rentals feels like a very 21st-century behavior — but like a lot of things, the truth is that it is not necessarily more common of late. It’s just much easier thanks to the Internet.

For example, Eric Anderson, a serial entrepreneur from New York City, used to find rentals in the classified ads of the New York Review of Books, which is just about as pre-Internet as it gets.

“We hate hotels, and have been staying in apartments — assuming a friend’s couch wasn’t available — for years,” he said. “Every trip to Paris over the past 25 years has meant finding a place — initially through the classified ads in the New York Review of Books, and now online.”

We have some great resources on the wherefore (Vacation Rentals: Right for You?) and the where (Finding a Vacation Rental) of booking vacation rentals. Together these articles outline some of the reasons you might want to find a vacation home and how to go about it. It is critical to remember you are not paying for a hotel room from a worldwide chain with established policies, more or less consistent quality control and another room down the hall if your own room is a dud.

Instead, you are going to be renting a house from an individual, with all of the personal quirks and potential conflict that might go with it. Even if you go through an agency, in the end the owner’s expectations and proclivities are just as important as yours, and you want to be aware of this fact from the get-go.

So what happens when you get there, put in the combo on the lockbox and walk in the door? Over the years, I have stayed in vacation rentals in Seattle and Whidbey Island, WA; San Diego, CA; Margate, NJ; Cinque Terre; Mexico; London and Henley-on-Thames, U.K.; Alaska and more — and at almost every one, I found small differences and peccadilloes that you would never encounter at, say, any hotel in the Marriott chain. One owner required that the dishes be done in a certain way, while another recommended that we space showers at least 15 minutes apart if we wanted hot water. And those are only the ones I chose; I have seen all kinds of odd features and restrictions while searching for places.

Since I’ve found something a little bit different at every place we stayed, I knew that I could not know all the possible tricks and trials of a vacation rental. To that end, I conducted an informal survey of my extensive network of hardcore traveler friends that revealed a few things to beware before you send a security deposit. In the absence of some of the amenities hotels can offer (on-site restaurants and small convenience stores, room service, a stock of toiletries behind the front desk, and even shuttles to airports and attractions), you will want to get a handle on the following issues and questions when you chose a vacation rental. Read on for essential tips for renting a vacation home.

Be Not Afraid

Before I start, and lest the following scare anyone off a vacation rental, I should say that under the right conditions, a vacation rental can offer an experience like no other. Very few hotels offer doorstep access to tide pools, a garage full of bikes, an unobstructed view of both the Cascade and Olympic Mountains, a direct view of a major sporting event, or a surf break out front — but I have enjoyed all of these at vacation rentals, including some on work trips!

The buildings and the owners themselves can be special, even extraordinary. Ex-pat Dan McLaughlin tells of a superb experience in Florence: “The fact that the apartment was in a 15th-century building … went a long way with the cool factor.”

And you never know what kind of surprise you might encounter that might never happen in a hotel. At a house on Whidbey Island in Washington, we stayed immediately next door to the home of the seventh-grade English teacher of one of our best friends back in New Jersey. The chances of that kind of “small world” encounter go way up when you ditch the Holiday Inn and go stay in folks’ homes.

Things to Know, Questions to Ask

Rather than rehash the specifics of any problems I’ve encountered, following is my catalog of questions to ask or investigate based on the various experiences of fellow travelers, which will help you anticipate almost all the issues you might encounter with a vacation rental.

1. “Do I need a car?” The answer will depend on whether you plan to leave the house much — many people get a vacation rental so they can sit around the house a lot — but talking to the owner or agency about your plans will help you figure out if you need a car to get to town, to local attractions or anywhere else.

2. “Is there parking, and if so, how much?” Many neighborhoods have on-street parking restrictions, and you don’t want to have to swallow your car at the outset of your stay — or park blocks away, pay for parking, etc.

3. “Is there a grocery store nearby?” If you are going to be cooking for yourself, you’ll want access to a grocery store within some sensible distance — or if it is far away, you will want to make a plan for a massive grocery run, hopefully with several people on the mission, so you don’t have to do it every day. During a recent rental in Mexico with several families, we divvied the labor thusly: As each family arrived at the airport spread over several days, they made a stop en route to the rental at the massive grocery store where they could buy the things they needed for themselves, as well as anything needed for the group. It worked really well.

4. “Is it noisy?” Many vacation rentals are clustered together, often in neighborhoods frequent traveler Mike Sullivan calls “party zones,” and your plan for a relaxing, quiet getaway can conflict with your neighboring renters’ plan to play beer pong for a week.

5. “Do the neighbors know the home is being rented?” There can be conflicts with neighbors who would just as soon there were no rentals on their street; I have had this happen only once, but it is a possibility.

6. “Do you have a property manager I can call if something breaks?” If the toilet overflows, who fixes it and cleans it up, and very importantly, how fast will this happen? Mother of four Hilary Kempston has hired vacation rentals “many times with both good and bad luck. We rented a condo in South Carolina once and the sewer backed up — of course we had to deal with it. Not a lot of fun!!”

7. “Is there anything on the property we can’t use?” When you arrive, you may find that there are bikes in the garage, a basketball hoop, sports equipment, candles, music CD’s, etc., but you won’t want to use any of it without the owner’s permission. There can be a real upside to this; Mike Sullivan does an annual rental on the Balboa Peninsula in Newport, CA, and is able to “park the car once and never touch it until we leave; we can bike and walk to everything we could ever want or need.”

8. “What does the cleaning fee cover?” In most cases, vacation rentals require a cleaning fee, which is usually standard. What you want to know is whether it covers doing the laundry, or more extensive things like mopping the floors, doing the dishes, putting all the linens in hampers — that kind of thing. A few years ago we had an otherwise fantastic rental on West Galer Street in Seattle for which we arrived to find very precise instructions on how we must do and put away the dishes before we left. Yeesh.

9. “Are there reliable instructions for the Wi-Fi?” If you need Internet access, you do not want to spend the first two hours of your stay trying to hack your way online.

10. “Will the owners be visiting during my stay?” This can be both a blessing and a curse. If they stop in and can answer questions and get acquainted, that can be helpful and lead to a very comfortable relationship for future rentals. If, on the other hand, they are showing up unannounced and hanging around all the time, you can feel like you are under surveillance, which can become almost intimidating.

11. “How do I pay for the rental?” In most cases, you can’t just show up with a credit card that the owner can swipe. If they request cash or a bank wire transfer, you should insist on a signed rental agreement to protect yourself.

Not all the answers you get will be to your liking. For example, when I inquired about Wi-Fi during a rental search last year, I asked if the signal was strong throughout the house — it was only then that I learned that the password provided was for the neighbor’s Wi-Fi, and that “it should work in the front room, but if not you can go on the porch.” It turned out that the homeowner had permission to use the neighbor’s bandwidth, at least, but the idea of getting any work done on a weak signal used by multiple households was not that appealing.

Upon Arrival: Do the “Rental Car Damage” Review

When you arrive, the first thing you’ll want to do is walk the property to try to find anything that is broken, and then get that information to the owner or agency right away. Think about it in the same way as you would a walk around your rental car before you drive away; do this as soon as you arrive and before you start using things (the equivalent of “still in the rental car lot” for a car rental).

In most cases, the owner or agency knows about the problem, or takes your word for it. On a rental in a beach town a few years ago, the lock on the back door was loose, and even appeared to have been tampered with; I called the owner right away, and he acknowledged he knew about it. Thus was my security deposit secured.

The most likely items to be broken are things that renters use a lot, but that owners and agencies might not check or notice during a cursory inspection of the property before you moved in — as Sullivan says, “Vacation rentals can be accompanied with water/sewer problems as renters beat the crap out of that stuff.” A rule of thumb might be “things people have to touch a lot,” such as:

– Doorknobs
– Air-conditioning system
– Faucets
– Showers
– Toilets
– Telephone
– Television
– Fold-out beds
– Appliances (as Sullivan notes, “the can opener is usually bad”)

From there look for really obvious stuff that can come from simple abuse by previous bad renters — broken windows, water damage, dents in the drywall, that kind of thing.

Good Traveler = Good Neighbor

Part of the point of getting a vacation rental is to get out of the zoned hotel locations and into the neighborhood among the people who live there. Go outside, show your face, introduce yourself, play on the basketball court, use the bikes, even connect to the Internet from the porch. You never know, you might run into your grade school teacher.

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