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Keys to the house

Put yourself in someone else's place. Vacation properties aren't ideal. But there's a lot to be said for a home away from home.

June 22, 2008|Christopher Reynolds | Times Staff Writer

The visionary in Fort Bragg, Calif., who ordered up a living room large enough to accommodate a rugby match. The risk taker in Idyllwild, Calif., who one day must have said, "Hey, what about a round house?" The fearless renovator in Santa Fe, N.M., who asked, "Why just one kitchen?"

I've never met these people, but you could say that I've slept with them -- under their roofs, that is, in beds they bought. I know them, dear readers. The guy in Joshua Tree who insisted that guests not only re-shelve books alphabetically but also line up their spines. The Paso Robles couple with the saddle in the living room and the canary preserve in the frontyard.

Yes, this is what a travel writer does on vacations: He rents private homes and critiques them.

For several years now, my wife and I have been relying more on rented homes, cabins and condos.

Sometimes, they're handled by property-management companies, other times by the owners themselves. The arrival of our daughter pushed us even farther down that path; along the way, we have learned plenty.

First, we've learned that we're not alone. In 12 years, the website -- that's Vacation Rentals by Owner -- has grown to hold about 100,000 rentable residences (86% of them in the U.S.), drawing millions of hits yearly from would-be tenants like me.

About 115,000 homes, cabins, cottages and condos in the U.S. and abroad (50% U.S., 43% Europe) are listed on, which consolidates information from smaller sites. (The VRBO and HomeAway websites are two of many owned by Austin, Texas-based HomeAway Inc.) Then there are,,, and, plus scores of local property-management companies.

This is a trend fueled in part by the Internet -- homeowners can advertise on some of these sites for less than $230 a year -- and in part by the rich getting richer: About 6.6 million Americans now own second homes, according to a 2006 report by the Research Institute for Housing America, so it's not surprising that so many are rentable.

Two other likely and closely related factors in this trend: the slumping national economy and psyche. Consider Christine Hrib Karpinski, an Austin-based rental-property owner who works for the HomeAway empire and has written a book about how to rent out your home.

Karpinski, who owns homes in Florida and Tennessee, was astonished when requests to rent them surged after Sept. 11. And with the sagging economy, demand has surged again in the last two years, she adds.

When you compare HomeAway's February-through-April statistics on popular destinations for Californians, you find that 2008 inquiries for Manhattan are running 166% ahead of 2007 figures. For San Francisco, they're up 77%; for Las Vegas, up 67%; for Palm Springs and environs, up 26%; for Napa/Sonoma wine country, up 47%; for San Diego, up 17% . (And the number of properties available is up in all those places, as much as 108%.)

Karpinski's conclusion: In the smorgasbord of American travel, vacation rentals are comfort food.

I guess I agree, but just as not all meatloaves are created equal, neither are all rentals. Think of the rustic cabin where the room temperature never gets above 50 degrees or the pseudo-Victorian with potpourri bags the size of bowling balls.

I remember a Mission Bay condo in San Diego where we waited for hours for a workman to fix a backed-up toilet. Or the Thanksgiving when we landed in a cottage in Cayucos, Calif., so poorly set up that we spent hours -- hilarious hours, fortunately -- composing a list of its faults. Less than a year later, a new owner leveled it.

In fact, the trade-offs that come with a home rental would crush some travelers -- no industry standards, no promises from HomeAway that its ads are accurate, no bellhops to drag the bags, no room service, no shampoo to steal, no $7 bowl of cereal in the lobby restaurant.

But we're happy to do without the ice machine down the hall, the wait for the valet to retrieve the car, the resort use fee.

With a house rental, we get a kitchen, and the more we use it, the more money we save. We usually get some kind of yard, so having a pet -- if the owner approves -- is more viable. The more family and friends we invite along -- and that's a big part of the fun -- the greater the economies of scale.

Also, all dollars and cents aside, in a rented home, we tend to slide into a more relaxed schedule, which allows more time for speculation about our host's wealth. Or quirky tastes. Or possible personality disorders.

No amount of boutique-hotel posturing -- not the fortune teller in the lobby, not the complimentary goldfish crackers on the counter -- can match the serendipity that comes with sleeping between a stranger's sheets.


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