Vacation rentals can be tricky to navigate, but the payoff is huge. Whether you’re a budget traveler who can’t afford the double-whammy cost of hotels and restaurants, or a luxury traveler who wants seclusion and over-the-top grandeur, you’ll get more space and privacy for your money by booking a rental property. And you’ll have a kitchen too. There are tradeoffs: you must be willing to give up certain services and amenities—chief among them a staff that will snap to attention when you pick up the phone—and you’ll have to invest time to find a good house. Vacation rentals are for do-it-yourselfers. The fall shoulder season is one of the best times to visit Lake Tahoe, Mendocino, and the Sonoma Coast. Tourists have gone home, and you can score terrific discounts. But be prepared for legwork. To help you get started, I’ve assembled a short list of key questions to ask property owners and rental agents.
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Find a Vacation Rental
Harbor Vista Half Moon Bay: This 4BR/3BA home in the hills of El Granada has panoramic views of Half Moon Bay and Pillar Point Harbor, and is 1 mile from the beach. Enjoy 2 master suites, 2 decks, a remodeled kitchen, a play structure and a new 6-person spa on the back patio. It’s a secluded retreat that is centrally located on the San Mateo Coast.
There are two ways to rent, from an agent or directly from the property owner. Each has its advantages. When you rent directly from an owner, you’ll be scrutinized more closely, but will have a better sense of what you’re getting into. Homes are an extension of their owners. If you like the owner, you’ll probably like the house. But homeowners only represent one home: theirs. Agents offer more selection and some extra safeguards, but you might pay more to cover their costs.
Plan to make phone calls. Successful vacation-rental hunting starts with the telephone. You can email agents and homeowners, but you can’t easily determine whether you like the person you’re dealing with via typed messages. Trust your intuition. If you don’t get a good feeling, chances are the entire process will be thorny.
RENTING FROM OWNERS:
• Be prepared to talk about yourself. Homeowners rightfully want to know who they’re renting to, and whether you’re a good fit for the house. If you don’t get along, move on.
• Return kindnesses. If a property owner has taken the time to hand write a welcome note, write a thank-you note in return, especially if you like the house. You’re not only being polite, but you’re building a relationship with someone whose home you may want to rent again.
• Ask very specific questions. Owners may take certain things for granted that agents do not, and they often have no objectivity about their homes. Assemble a thorough list of questions before picking up the phone. For more talking points, scroll down past the following section.
RENTING FROM AGENTS:
• Professionalism first. Ask if the agency is a member of the VRMA, the Vacation Rental Management Association. The VRMA sets baseline ethics and standards for agents. If the agency you’re calling isn’t a member, find one that is.
• Interview the agency. How long have they been in business? How many homes do they rent? Cross-check your findings with the local Better Business Bureau.
• Choose a local agency. If you work with an agent in, say, San Francisco, she won’t know what’s happening 100 miles away. Local agents know details out-of-town agents don’t, like if there’s construction happening at the neighbor’s house and if the last winter storm uprooted a tree in the yard.
• Ask to see the agency’s list of mandatory equipment. Agencies provide homeowners with a list of must-haves before they’ll rent the property. Some agents (but not all) will have this on hand. It will help you determine what to expect of their properties.
• Good rapport counts. Gauge the responses of the agent or homeowner, and trust your gut. If you feel like you’re being pressured, you are. And if you don’t like the person you’re talking to, chances are you’re not going to like the houses he’s renting either.
• Be clear about what you’re looking for. Do you want to spend a quiet weekend by the ocean, napping on a deck with a book on your face, or are you planning to cook all day and throw lavish dinner parties? The house you select must fit your needs. Make them clear from the start.
• Include children in the total headcount. This is important. If you exceed the occupancy maximum, you’re breaking the terms of the lease and rendering your contract void—even if you let just one extra five-year-old sleep on the floor. When an house is advertised as sleeping six, that means six total persons, big or small.
• On-site management can make or break a stay. Who will help in a plumbing emergency if the agent or property owner lives four hours away? Find out who handles problems, and what the procedure is if something goes wrong. This is especially important when dealing with an individual.
• Pay the extra fee for cleaning costs. If you don’t, you may spend your last day vacuuming the house, only to find out that you didn’t pass muster and have to pay the fee anyway. But be kind to the laborers: Rinse dishes before leaving them in the sink, and pick up wastepaper and empty ashtrays. If you’re a slob and don’t want to deal, leave a big fat tip for the housekeeper.
• Ask about hidden expenses. Some agents and homeowner will nickel and dime you to death. Ask about utilities, phone charges, cleaning fees, and any other expenses that you may be charged. Make sure these are spelled out in the contract.
• Be clear about location, especially in cities. If the major sights lie an hour away, you’ll have to factor commute times into your itinerary—and they may be very long. Find out whether a car will be necessary, or if public transportation will be sufficient.
• What about parking? If you’re renting a house in a city, this is huge. Imagine showing up in San Francisco for a week with a car, knowing nothing about the difficulty of street parking or the expense of garaging your vehicle. Find out about transportation at your destination before you go.
• Find out about the hot tub. Make sure that the homeowner employs a maintenance service that checks the water quality after every rental. If the temperature and chemicals are off, you may wind up with a nasty case of hot-tub folliculitis.
• Negotiate, but be reasonable. If you try to lowball an agent or owner, you’re sending the wrong signal. Remember, they’re looking for clues about your character just as much as you are about theirs. You can play chicken and not sign the contract till the last minute, when you can bargain for the lowest-possible rate, but you may lose the house.
• Phone access should be included. Cell phones do not work in many remote locales. Your house should have a phone, and local calls should be free. Better agencies, such as Rams Head in Sea Ranch, require their rental properties to provide free worldwide calling, a nice perk.
• Ignore the term ‘luxury home.’ It means nothing. Realtors and rental agents are liberal with their use of English and often advertise ‘luxury homes’ simply because the house has a hot tub or other random amenities. Determine your own luxury items, and ask if the house includes them.
• Consider proximity to other houses. How far away are the neighbors? Might they see you sunbathing nude? Ask if the house’s outdoor areas are visible from beyond the property boundaries.
• Determine the location of the nearest grocery store. It may be half an hour away, a major inconvenience when you’re in the midst of cooking dinner and find you have no salt.
• Find out about the washer-dryer. Is laundry detergent provided? Chances are you’ll have to bring your own sheets and towels. You won’t want to do laundry once you get back home.
• Special access may not be possible. Because rental properties are not required to comply with the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), there’s no guarantee you’ll be able to get a wheelchair through the bathroom door. Choose a single-story house, and make your needs plain to the agent.
• Emergency medical help may be far away. If your health is tenuous and you’re considering booking a house in a remote location, find out the distance to the nearest emergency-medical facility. In some cases, such as Sea Ranch, you’ll have to drive two hours to Santa Rosa. Better to choose someplace in Wine Country, like Healdsburg or Sonoma.
• Get a signed contract. Period. Read every line and understand every clause before you sign.
• Rental houses are not resorts. There are no controls on what the neighbors do. If quiet really matters, inform the agent or property owner, but note that even locals can’t foretell if a nearby homeowner, inspired by an episode of This Old House, will suddenly haul out a table saw at 9am and start fashioning new kitchen cabinets. Understand that you’ll be staying in a neighborhood and that people need to mow their lawns. Bring earplugs.
• Functionality trumps style. Rental homes are individually decorated by their owners—chacun a son goût. If style matters, closely examine online photographs, but bear in mind that colors do not always reproduce properly on the web. You won’t know what a place looks like till you see it in person. Ultimately the layout and usability of the space are more important than the color scheme, horrendous though it may be. If you want well-maintained, high-end furnishings, stay in a hotel, or be prepared to pay a premium on a rental house.
• Don’t expect the Wi-Fi to work. If there’s a problem, rental agencies can’t help. You’re at the mercy of the tech-support call center of the homeowner’s ISP. Know how to switch your computer to dial-up service, and get the local access number before you leave home.
• No house is allergy-proof. Even if a listing says no pets, there’s no way to know if the owner brought his own dog to the house the previous weekend. If you have serious problems with allergies, take appropriate provisions and pack medications in case of an attack.
• Be flexible in your expectations. Every rental has its quirks. Remember, you’re staying in someone else’s home, and its features will be different from yours. Some details may be annoying. Factor it in.
• Pack heavy and decorate. Colored light bulbs, fabric, and votive candles do wonders for sprucing up an ugly space. And don’t be afraid to rearrange the furniture, so long as you move it back.
• Mattresses in rental homes vary hugely. Don’t expect to find the same high-quality mattresses that hotels use. Consider yourself lucky if you score brand-new pillow tops. Ask the owner how long ago he changed them. (Note that agencies can’t answer this question.)
• Count beds, not bedrooms. Sometimes a house will only have three bedrooms, but will be advertised as sleeping eight. A pull-out sofa might count as a bed—fine for kids, bad for adults. Ask how the agent or homeowner calculated occupancy numbers, and determine in advance the exact size of each mattress. And if your kids fall out of bed, don’t book a house with bunks.
• Inquire about linens. They’re usually not included and may cost extra. If you’re into high thread-counts, bring your own sheets. If you decide to rent them, ask if they’re made of 100% cotton, especially in warm-weather destinations. Aside from being scratchy, poly-blend sheets don’t breathe like cotton does.
• Bring your own pillows. Agents never know if a house’s pillows are stuffed with foam or feathers; prepare to find the worst kind—thin, foam, and stained. Property owners aren’t much better at describing pillows. Remember, the owner made the decision to buy them; she’s not going to tell you they suck.
• Ask about towels. You may have to rent them. If you like to wrap a big, thirsty towel around your head after a hot shower, bring your own. Rental towels are typically like gym towels—thin, small, nubby, and boiled to within an inch of their lives—especially when they come from a laundry service engaged by an agency.
• Bring your own shampoo. Expect to find only a wafer-thin bar of paper-wrapped soap in the bath. That’s it.
• Find out if there’s a bathtub. Many houses have only showers—and sometimes only one. If you have eight people wanting to shower in the morning, you’ll lose half the day waiting for them to get ready. And the hot water will probably run out before everyone is washed.
LIVING AREAS & KITCHEN:
• Think about layout. How will you be using the space? It won’t matter if there are few seating areas if you plan to spend the day hiking, but if you want to while away the afternoons dozing with a book on your face, make sure there’s enough furniture.
• Ask about the deck. Most rental houses have outdoor spaces, but not all have furniture. If you rent a house with an ocean-view deck, make sure there’s someplace to sit.
• Audio-visual systems are a wild card. If you’re into television, make sure there’s cable. It will likely be difficult to figure out the synchronization between appliances; ensure that there are written instructions on how to operate them. And don’t expect Surround Sound and DVD players—most rentals have VCRs and stackable vintage cassette-receiver combos, often without CD players. If an agency can’t answer your queries, bring your own iPod, CD player, and speakers, if it matters.
• Find out about the fireplace. Is it wood-burning or gas, or is it a woodstove? Verify that there is a proper supply of wood, but don’t expect to find kindling.
• Fully equipped kitchens usually aren’t. Though there should be enough glasses and dishware for the number of people the house is designed to accommodate, ‘fully stocked’ means only the basics. Inevitably there’ll be a shortage of saucepans or skillets. If you have a favorite utensil—a griddle, Cuisinart, or even a whisk—bring it from home. The same goes for spices, foil and plastic wrap, salt and pepper, and coffee.
• Bring basic foodstuffs. If you have to stock up on everything from flour to olive oil at the local grocery store, you’ll spend a small fortune. Bring it from home.
KIDS & PETS:
• Verify safety. If you have toddlers in tow, don’t book a house on an ocean bluff. Fences don’t always protect kids from falls.
• Kids need space. Is there a playground nearby? A fenced-in yard where they can run around? Be honest about your children’s needs; they won’t act any differently just because you’re on vacation.
• Expect to hear no. Many property owners don’t allows kids or pets. Don’t break the rules, lest you void your contract.
• Pets are not people. It may sound obvious, but don’t automatically assume that you can bring your dog. Ask early in the negotiations. Many agencies rent pet-friendly properties, but will be upset if you bring up your animal as an afterthought during final discussions.
• Bring your own entertainment. While many houses have board games, they’re often missing pieces. Yahtzee is always a winner, and it hardly takes up any space.