Ask Trip Coach: Vacation Rentals

From decoding rentalese to avoiding extra fees, our Trip Coach has all the keys to making your next stay a successful one.

By Brad Tuttle, Tuesday, Mar 23, 2010, 12:00 AM

Ask Trip Coach (Illustration by Chris Gash)

READERS' TOP QUESTIONS

For our first vacation rental, would you recommend booking directly with an owner or going through a management company?
Each has its advantages. If you're going for the best price, cutting out the middleman and dealing directly with the home owner is definitely the way to go. It's never been easier, thanks to a boom in rent-direct websites (see our list, below, of rental sites). The worldwide financial collapse has forced owners around the world to lease houses and condos, flooding the market with a huge range of options. HomeAway—one of the most popular rent-direct companies—now lists a total of almost 430,000 properties, up from 255,000 in 2007, a growth of nearly 70 percent.

The price may be better when you go direct, but there's real risk. The level of professionalism varies widely among owners, and the due diligence is up to you. You should always closely examine photos (and if they don't tell you enough, ask to see more), scout out the property's location with Google Maps' satellite view (does it border a noisy highway?), and probe the owner as well as previous renters for additional details (you'll probably elicit more revealing responses via phone than via e-mail).

Of course, some of these questions still remain when you rent from a realtor or a professional management company, but if anything goes wrong, you have recourse. The property's manager can usually address even small problems (the heat won't go on, etc.) pronto, and if you run into big issues, like a pipe bursting or an infestation of ants, the company should be able to provide another place for you to stay in. It's rare to find an off-site owner able to deliver that level of service. However you choose to book, make sure to sign a contract, so you're all on the same page about who is responsible for what.

What are the key issues I should consider before sending in a deposit?
Where do we start? The listing! Like real-estate agents, rental owners are masters at finessing language—after a few small embellishments, a shack three miles from the beach sounds like an oceanfront villa. Pay close attention to language, and whenever you come across something vague, ask for clarification. Does the listing claim that the property is walking distance from the beach? Ask how far, exactly, and what the walk entails (a treacherous sprint along the shoulder of an interstate isn't quite the leisurely vacation stroll you had in mind). If the place has been recently refurbished, find out if we're talking a state-of-the-art chef's kitchen or a new toilet seat. Check out our red-flag alerts below for some of the most common offenses.

Also pay attention to what's not being said. Don't assume anything is included in the rental unless it's specifically mentioned. This goes for everything from the most basic amenities (linens, towels, coffeemaker) to things like a DVD player, an outdoor grill, and Wi-Fi. Always ask, so you'll know just what you need to bring with you.

Many rentals have house books filled with info on everything you need to know about the place itself (such as how and when garbage is collected), as well as insider tips on the area, like where to shop for groceries, a list of favorite local restaurants, and the best nearby activities. Find out if the house has such a guide. If it doesn't, get the lowdown from the owner.

Finally, remember that rental contracts are often drawn up by the owners themselves—probably late at night, after they get home from their day jobs—so you'll want to double check the dates, price, and address. And take a close look at the deposit, payment schedule, and cancellation stipulations: Some travelers are unpleasantly surprised when, for example, they're hit with a $200 service fee for canceling, even if it's months in advance and the owner has plenty of time to re-rent.

What are some common extra fees I should watch out for?
The most common charges are for cleaning, pets (when they're allowed at all), linens, and local taxes for sales and/or lodging. There may also be surcharges during high season, like New Year's in Key West or Jazz Fest in New Orleans. In Europe, renters are often responsible for utilities—your share of gas, electric, and heating will likely be subtracted from your deposit—and air-conditioning can run an additional $35 a day. To avoid getting hit with charges you didn't anticipate, ask for full disclosure and then make sure that what you're told matches what's in the contract.

GO-TO SITES

Homeaway.com
The giant in the rent-direct market has 185,000-plus rentals around the globe, plus one-click access to listings from partner sites.

Flipkey.com
Owned by TripAdvisor, this site rates its roughly 100,000 listings based on input from former guests.

Redweek.com
The time-share clearinghouse lets you rent units at more than 4,000 resorts for far less than you'd pay by booking directly.

Resortquest.com
This one-stop shopping option lists over 100,000 units—all individually owned—in 140 resort areas. Call to check availability (800/467-3529).

RED-FLAG ALERT
What to be wary of while you search.

The property "sleeps ___ people"
Where exactly will those people sleep? Triple bunks? Foldout futons? Does your six-foot-tall clan really want to sleep on fulls?

The rental has a "kitchenette"
There's a lot of ambiguity in that "ette." Will you be cooking on a hot plate all week? Are we talking full-size fridge with freezer? Are pots, pans, plates, and utensils supplied?

The photos are spare
Everyone knows that pictures are the way to sell a place. If a listing for a four-bedroom beachfront villa only includes a close-up of the living room sofa, you have to wonder what you're not seeing.

The owner is evasive
An owner who won't answer questions, return your messages, or supply references is the rental market's equivalent of a used-car salesman who won't let you kick the tires. This one could be a clunker.

The vacancy calendar is completely empty
Sure, you have your pick of any of 365 days, but that means there's not a single soul willing to pay to stay in this place. Do you really want to be the first?