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When planning a vacation, once the destination has been selected, among the next most important decisions is where to stay. One great option often overlooked is vacation rentals. I'm not an expert in renting vacation homes, but I have done it a half dozen times, enough to make it clear that this is a great alternative to hotels or B&Bs for any extended stay of a week or more. Here are a few things about renting vacation homes I've learned along the way--and applicable to almost anywhere, not just where I am, on the OC, the Oregon Coast.

Renting a Vacation Home

When planning a vacation, once the destination has been selected, among the next most important decisions is where to stay. One great option often overlooked is vacation rentals. I’m not an expert in renting vacation homes, but I have done it a half dozen times, enough to make it clear that this is a great alternative to hotels or B&Bs for any extended stay of a week or more.

Here are a few things about renting vacation homes I’ve learned along the way–and applicable to almost anywhere, not just where I am, on the OC, the Oregon Coast.

I’m writing this, between glances out at the breakers crashing on the beach, in a cozy little house we rented on the OC. The point is, you don’t get this kind of ocean view from most hotel rooms or B&B windows where you have to pay three times as much to have such a view or twice as much for not having it.

On the OC, you can find thousands of vacation rentals, and that’s not an exaggeration, and a few minutes online tells me that’s also the case in many other popular vacation destinations. Most rent by the week only (usually Saturday thru Friday), so this option doesn’t work well for shorter stays or for vacations where you’re moving from place to place.

I suspect many of these houses started out as somebody’s second home, but then, the allure of having “a place on the beach” wore off for those homeowners. They realized they liked to go other places instead of always going to the same place, but because they owned it and invested lots of money and sweat equity into it, they felt compelled to spend their vacations there. In addition the burden of having a second home on the beach where taxes and operating costs, especially maintenance are high, mount up to take the shine off.

Then, suddenly, to recover costs and give these homeowners more flexibility, the house becomes a vacation rental. For those of us who rent them, that means we have years of TLC invested in these places. They have character and charm–and usually a great view and good access to outdoor activities, like strolling on the beach, because that’s why they were purchased or built in the first place. And lots of room, too, in most cases.

Affordable, too. In most cases, you can work a deal that comes out to be between $50 and $75 per night for all but a few premier places. That looks good compared to most hotels and B&Bs in vacation destinations.

Don’t be afraid to ask for a better price. With so many vacation homeowners wanting some income to cover the carrying costs on their second-home investment, you can often get huge discounts of the listed price, especially in non-prime times, such as February on the OC. In most cases, there’s a lot more supply than demand, but if you don’t ask for it, you won’t get it.

The prices I’m giving you are for two people, but if you have a larger party, the prices look much better. When we went to Europe last year, we rented two vacation homes and split the costs among five people. We cut costs down to about $2o per night, and both terrific places to stay in prime locations. This plan works great for any larger group such as large families, couples teaming up with other couples to share costs, reunions, or college chums getting back together for a week of partying. Depending on the size of your party, you’re looking at $20-40 per night tops, and it could be even less. And you get a whole house, not a cramped hotel room or B&B.

These big places are easy to find, too. In fact, I’ve had to pass on lots of places here on the OC simply because they are two big for a couple, but would be ideal for a party of six or more.

If you like to cook, you save even more with the vacation home because you have a full kitchen. If we’re careful, we don’t spend any more for food on our vacation than we do on a normal week at home. If you rent hotel rooms, you eat out all the time at three or four times the cost of home cooking.

The Internet makes finding vacation homes remarkably easy. Almost all homes have individual websites. Some owners use a property manager’s website, but this still gives you multiple views of the house. In fact, I’m not sure I would rent a vacation home without a website that gives me enough basic information to get me interested. After I narrow my search to a few places, I call to get specific information I need, which varies for renters. Some people might want to know what kind of washer-dryer, dishwasher or cable TV the house has, but I want to know if it has WiFi, a safe place to store my bicycles, and a place to park my boat. Parking, incidentally, is often a problem, so ask about it. Also make sure the place is thoroughly cleaned between renters (most are) and that bedding and towels are provided (some don’t).

Many vacation rental owners turn over their places to property management companies, but I consider having the middleman an advantage. These firms are set up to do deals, take credit cards, and offer multiple properties, which saves tons of time. If you want a discount off the list price, they will ask the owner for you, making the deal making more comfortable. The property manager has an incentive to do a deal, any deal, to get their commission, so use this advantage to make your vacation more affordable.

A few words of caution concerning property managers. I shy away from properties, often multi-family units and condos, the company built and owns just for vacation rentals. You’re really back in the renting-hotel-room dynamic, and you aren’t getting the TLC, charm and amenities you get from renting somebody’s special second place. Plus, you usually don’t have the extra room you have with a privately owned home.

Also, even though the property managers tell you to leave one house key in the lock box, I don’t do it. For ease of operation, property managers often use the same four-digit code for all or most of their properties. They want you to leave the key there in case the maintenance guy needs to get in, and I’m sorry about that, but leaving the key in the lock box also means anybody renting any of their properties for an unknown period of time (and I suspect it isn’t short) can get into your place anytime they choose. Right now, for instance, I could check on my property manager’s website for other places they rent and go over and check them out, even if they’re occupied, because most renters probably left the key in the lock box and I have the code! Sort of getting a hotel key that fits all rooms in the hotel, right?

Finally, be wary and avoid common pitfalls by asking specific questions. Two of my favorite red alerts are “ocean view,” which is way different that “ocean front,” and when I see the word “rustic,” I immediately go to the next listing.

About Bill Schneider

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Credit: Larry Johnson, "Denver Skyline at Sunset," December 17, 2009

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