VACATION RENTAL HANDBOOK

Rent by Number

Going straight to vacation-home owners often gives you more selection and better prices. But it can also mean no quick fix if problems arise. Follow these numbered instructions to reduce the risks within the rental process.

1 Choose a destination Consult guidebooks and visitors bureaus, ask friends for their input and recommendations, and do all the research possible to figure out where you'd like to rent. There are hundreds of thousands of vacation rentals available around the globe, so be as specific as you can to winnow down the choices.

2 Weigh your options Start by skimming the rental listings on a few websites for the location you've chosen (see Sites to Search on page 49). Note the sort of properties available, what you get for the money, and the typical rental policies, such as minimum-stay requirements. Compare your results with the nightly lodging rates charged by local hotels, real-estate agents, or management companies, which are often posted on the same sites. And then be honest with yourself: Are you really OK without maids, room service, an on-site restaurant, or hotel amenities? Decide which type of accommodations makes the most sense for you.

3 Rank your priorities Most sites let you sort listings according to the number of bedrooms, the price, and other variables, which can be a huge time-saver in finding what you're looking for. Don't be too rigid in defining your search, though—you may be willing to have one less bedroom if the location is exactly where you want. Leave yourself some wiggle room.

4 Contact the rentals on your short list First, ask if your desired dates are free. Even if they appear to be available on an online calendar, the site might not be up-to-date. Be sure to ask for the exact address of the rental as well as the layout of the property, more photos, and any other details you're curious about. Some owners have separate sites where they have more information about the lodging than what appears on the rental site. E-mailing is the best method for the first contact; give the owner 24 hours to answer. If it takes much longer than that, he or she could be just as slow to respond if there's a problem.

5 Do your own research Compare the listing with what you find when you plug the address into the satellite view on Google Maps or Google Earth. Scope the area for nearby attractions both bad (factory complex) and good (local park). The property might be three blocks from the beach as stated, but there could be a four-lane highway in between. Do a regular Google search with the rental's address or the owner's phone number in quotes. The results will reveal whether the property is listed at more than one website—an indication that the owner is serious about renting—or only listed on a single site. Reputable owners often run multiple listings for their properties. Your Google search might also bring up complaints, which you'll want to review carefully.

6 Call your top choice(s) Be candid and up-front about your expectations and your concerns: Tell the owner that you have kids, that you want to walk to the market every day, or that your husband is a light sleeper and needs a quiet neighborhood. Ask specific questions like "Where do you think the baby should sleep?" The answer you get, such as "Not in the front of the house, because traffic might wake her up," may well be revealing. You could handle these queries via e-mail, but it's easier to get a sense of a person over the phone. Be wary if he or she is evasive, impatient, or curt. Also, be cautious when someone seems to be telling you exactly what he or she thinks you want to hear. Conscientious owners want to find good matches for their properties and won't be so eager to rent to just anyone.

7 Check references A lot of websites have pages for renters to post comments on, but the bulk of properties have no reviews at all. The few reviews that are there tend to be positive, which is unsurprising considering that owners can generally edit or delete comments at will. Vacation-home owners are also in control of supplying references, so it's difficult to get an unbiased opinion, but ask anyway. And then call those references rather than using e-mail, because people tend to open up more in phone conversations than online.

8 Try negotiating If the listing says the owner only rents on a monthly or biweekly basis, ask if he or she can make an exception. Most owners are willing to deal at least a little bit, especially if your dates are coming up soon. (Then again, some owners raise their prices at the last minute.) Either way, it's fair to ask for at least 10 percent off if you're arriving within two weeks. Think back to the browsing stage: Did most rentals offer a seventh night free or waive the cleaning fee for guests staying more than five days? Ask for the same.

9 Know your different payment options If you're not comfortable with the owner's suggested payment procedure, request an alternative method. Credit cards are easiest and offer renters some level of protection, and more and more vacation- home owners in North America accept plastic via PayPal (an online payment service that keeps your credit card and banking details hidden from the recipient). For overseas rentals, you're more likely to be asked for a bank-to-bank transfer (see the sidebar at left). If you don't want the extra hassle or costs, and the owner is game, try to hold the dates with a credit card or a partial deposit via check, and then pay the rest in cash on arrival. Most owners are happiest with cash, anyway. Never—ever—pay with Western Union or a money order. They're virtually untraceable, so in the rare case of a scam, your money could be gone for good.

LOWDOWN ON LISTINGS
You should peruse listings closely for facts and details, but also know how to read between the lines. Watch how we do it on this fake website.
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Note:This story was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.
 

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