A wealth of vacation rentals available online

Posted: March 18, 2007

A condominium in Manhattan. A six-bedroom house with private pool and hot tub overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. A cozy cottage nestled in the mountains of Colorado.

Depending on your travel pleasure, and budget, all of the above and more can easily be booked for vacation rental. All you need is time, access to the Internet and a phone.

"When I first started in this business, about 10 years ago, there weren't many vacation homes on the Internet - maybe 1,500," says Christine Karpinski of HomeAway.com, an online vacation home rental marketplace with 10 Web sites. "Now, just on our sites, there are more than 150,000 properties."

The best time to rent a place for the summer is right now. After perusing hundreds of vacation rental Web sites, it's clear some prime properties have already been booked for peak summer weeks (Fourth of July and during some local festivals), but there's still plenty to choose from, especially if you act quickly.

Getting started. First, decide where you want to go. Florida is the most popular state in which to rent a vacation home, and Destin, Fla., has the most properties to offer, Karpinski says. But you can usually find dozens, if not hundreds, of homes most anywhere you'd like to go.

Type your destination and "vacation rental" into your Internet search engine, and multiple listings will appear. For example, when we Googled "Outer Banks" and "vacation rental," 509,000 possibilities popped up.

Plan to devote several hours, if not a few days or weeks, to this project. The more you surf and scroll, the better idea you'll have of what's available and how much you'll have to pay.

On the Internet. Any good site will offer details about the rental, including the number of bedrooms and bathrooms, pictures of the inside and outside, and the price per night, week or month. Some Web sites include other features you might want, such as a private or community pool, hot tub, or screened-in porch. Look for properties that provide a lot of information, but don't be afraid to call the owner or management firm to ask for details.

Great view. It's a cliche, but location decides how much an owner can charge. Expect to pay at least $1,000 more a week for a house on the ocean than one inland. The better the view, the more you pay. Also, the size of the property, its amenities and furnishings figure in the price. If a house is large and loaded - pool, hot tub, game room, surround sound - it'll cost you. Look carefully at the pictures. If you find someone's decorating depressing on tiny Web images, will you be able to live with it for a week?

Agency vs. homeowner. Some sites require you to make arrangements directly with the homeowners; others work through a management agency. The main advantage of dealing with homeowners is personalized service. If you like to hike, for example, they can suggest good places to go, along with dining options, family activities, the best ways to avoid traffic, and other information not always found in guidebooks. You're also likely to find toilet paper on hand and the refrigerator stocked with condiments.

Some renters prefer agencies because they take credit cards, require contracts, and are on hand should something go wrong. It may be easier to ask questions of someone other than the owner because that person isn't as invested in the property and can recommend one over another.

When renting from homeowners, make sure you know what to do in case of emergency and where to pick up and drop off the key. Feel free to ask for a written contract.

Other stuff to keep in mind. No matter who you deal with, ask a lot of questions about the property and the neighborhood. Some sites have maps that show how close the house is to the ocean. How close is the property to its neighbors? Also, ask how recent the Web site pictures are and whether any changes have been made since they were taken. The more questions you ask, the more likely you are to get a feel for the property and whether you want to rent it. Don't be shy about asking for references. While checks are the standard way to pay when renting from homeowners, you may want a Paypal account set up so you can pay by credit card, Karpinski says. Then, if something goes wrong, you have a better chance of recouping your money. Also, find out whether the property will be professionally cleaned before your arrival. Before you bring your pet, make sure it's OK with the owner or rental agency.

Rental advantages. A rental often can be cheaper than a hotel - and a lot roomier. With a full kitchen, you can cook gourmet meals or at least save a few bucks by eating breakfast and lunch "at home." It gives you a chance to experience e locale like the locals. Many properties come stocked with board games, DVDs, bicycles, beach chairs and other frills that make renting feel more like home. It's also a great idea for large groups, such as families or good friends, that vacation well together. On surforsound.com, an agency site that rents in the Outer Banks, a five-bedroom, 2,900-square-foot home facing the Atlantic Ocean, with private pool, six-person hot tub and billiard room, rents for $4,795 a week in the peak summer season. With five couples sharing it, the cost is about $1,000 a couple. If those couples are willing to go in April, May, September or October, it'll cost each about $300, because the same house rents for $1,495.

Disadvantages. If you like someone else to make your bed while on vacation, book a hotel. Though it's not unheard of, most vacation rentals do not offer daily maid service. You may be able to arrange it, but you'll have to pay for it. Also, if you arrive and the weather is dreadful, you can't cancel and go elsewhere. While you can often get your money back when you cut short a hotel stay, the same isn't true with a prepaid vacation rental. Most vacation properties require a security deposit from renters, which makes some people - especially those with children who tend to break things - uncomfortable.

It's easy to get obsessed with finding the "perfect" rental. You start searching, and the next thing you know, you're consumed with finding the best property at the best price. Relax. Set an amount of time to look, then make a decision and go for it. Chances are if the property looks good and has the amenities you want, others will want it, too. The sooner you seal the deal, the sooner you can turn your attention to the vacation itself. By the same token, if you're flexible, you might be able to find a great rental deal at the last minute.

What to bring. If you're driving, bring food, especially non-perishable items. Groceries at vacation destinations tend to be pricey, so by bringing cereal, drinks and snack foods, you'll save. If you're renting from homeowners, ask about cleaning supplies and items such as toilet paper, paper towels and laundry detergent, because they may already be there. Also ask about bikes, beach chairs, boat-slip availability, and sand toys, because these things may be included. When renting from a homeowner, linens often are included, but that isn't typical when you rent through an agency, so ask. Even when towels are included, it's best to bring along extra ones for the beach. If bulky items such as cribs and beach umbrellas are not on-site, they often are available for rent, so ask about them, too.

Rentals on the Web

Lists hundreds of real-estate companies that specialize in vacation rental, by state.

For rentals by homeowners.

For the United Kingdom.

Call the local chamber of commerce and ask for vacation rental agency referrals in the area.

- Ellen Futterman

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