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How to Rent a Vacation Condo

A condo or house can be a great option for a family vacation. Try these tips to avoid rental anguish.

Even when they're away, American travelers are opting to stay at home—just not at their homes.

On the heels of the 2008 recession, the vacation rental market is exploding. One service, HomeAway (homeaway.com), has grown to 335,000 listings worldwide since it was founded in 2006, and last year alone, it reported a 44 percent increase in inquiries. It's not hard to see why. Staying in a residence rather than a hotel can be more spacious and comfortable, can offer a more "local" experience, and can yield unexpected savings. For example, not eating out at every meal can be a windfall for families. Still, going the vacation rental route can be daunting.

Studies show that just 1 in 10 Americans have rented at all, and again, it's not hard to see why. Hotels are easy. A rental takes work. Where to start? Will the house be hotel-level clean? What if something breaks? Your entire vacation is riding on this decision, so you need to know what you're getting into before you book a rental.

Here are five tips to help you know what to look for, avoid common mistakes, and enjoy that well-earned vacation.

Home Away From Home

  1. Pick the right destination. If you're just dipping your toes into the water for the first time, pick a destination where there's plenty of competition, such as established vacation or resort areas where owners and rental agencies might be more service-oriented. Ski towns are great—even off season—because they tend to have a huge stock as well as infrastructure and activities catering to vacationers. Similarly, major family travel destinations such as Orlando or popular vacation areas such as Destin, Florida, or Door County, Wisconsin, are also good options. This is not the time to try to find that secluded, undiscovered spot. Save that sort of exploration for when you have a few rentals under your belt.
  2. Search smart. It's all about the Internet. Start with FlipKey (flipkey.com), a spin-off of the travel site TripAdvisor. With the largest collection of verified guest reviews, based mostly on actual booking records, this is a great place for first-timers. For sheer quantity, scoot over to HomeAway or Vacation Rentals by Owner (vrbo.com), which HomeAway now owns. A seminal rental site, VRBO has a faithful following of longtime renters and owners, which can ease the process. All offer plenty of variety, including resort condos and time-shares with hotel-style amenities, often a good choice for newbies.
  3. Read the fine print. You've settled on a spot and found a listing you love. Now check the details. How much money will the owners want as a deposit? Some want a percentage; others, the entire amount up front. Some won't refund you a penny if you cancel; others are more flexible. If it all seems a bit unreasonable, maybe that isn't the rental for you. Then there's the question of how they're asking to be paid. Do they want you to wire vast sums of money? It could be a scam—don't do it. In general, look for someone who will take credit cards for everything, whether it's the reservation deposit, the balance, or the damage deposit (often around $500). Unless you're looking at luxury rentals, cleaning shouldn't run more than $100 for a stay. If an owner can't figure out how to build any local taxes into your rental, find someone who can. Bottom line: Feeling nickel-and-dimed? Move on. And, whether you're dealing with an agency or an individual, stick to properties where you're renting from a responsive, polite agent or owner. If someone doesn't get back to you quickly when you make your initial inquiry, look elsewhere.
  4. Do your due diligence. But don't overdo it. The more work you have to do to get the rental, the lower it should go on your list. If you get the feeling you're jumping through hoops, skip it. Here's where you should direct your efforts: Investigate the location. You might have fallen in love with the pictures, but nifty decor won't do you any good if the nearest grocery store is an hour's drive. Do a Web search on the address or ask for a list of nearby basics (including medical services). Ask what         community amenities are available and whether you can use them. And always get a local emergency contact.
  5. Settle in. Whew, you made it! But wait—too many renters rush past the last, most important step in the process. Politely insist that whoever hands you the keys stay with you to go over the unit or home. You want to check that, say, the wireless Internet works, or make sure you know how to turn on the stove. You also want to ensure that any pre-existing damage is documented (it never hurts to take pictures). Ask to see an inventory sheet and take the time to make sure it's up to date. Unscrupulous agencies and owners have been known to attempt to pin damage and loss costs on unsuspecting renters. Don't be one of them.
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