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Live it up, but first. . .

June 22, 2008|Christopher Reynolds

Here, based on my own adventures and conversations with several experts, are 14 things to know about vacation rentals.

-- Christopher Reynolds

1. Know whom to call when the AC breaks down: Get your host's cellphone number -- and his handyman's. Sure, it's nice if your host leaves behind some ideas of local attractions and restaurants, but chances are you've covered a lot of that ground with your own research. Better that your host -- who probably lives hundreds of miles away -- should leave you some domestic reassurance. If you know what number to call to reach a relevant human being when the pilot light dies and the dishwasher spews on a Saturday night, you'll be happier. This is a double imperative if renting through a management company, because those arrangements often add one or more players to the game of telephone.

2. Not every picture is worth a thousand words. If you're looking at photographs on a website, be sure to ask how old they are. What has changed since they were taken? You may want to ask for customer references, and if you have a friend who can do a drive-by, all the better. It's safest to assume that the website running those tempting for-rent-by-owner ads will take no responsibility for its accuracy. (The website says as much and goes on to implausibly suggest that "potential renters visit properties in advance to confirm all terms of their intended rental.")

3. Pay with a credit card or beware. Some legitimate owners ask for PayPal ( payments or money orders, and some accept personal checks or other types of payment. But one of the best ways to protect yourself from shady operators is to pay by credit card. Even though accepting credit cards costs homeowners a sliver of their revenue (usually 2% to 5%), more have decided it's the best way to assure customers a safe transaction. Homeowners generally ask for an initial deposit (usually 10% to 50%), plus a refundable cleaning deposit, with the balance of the cost due well before you arrive. Get your rental agreement in hand before sending any money, and make sure you understand the cancellation policy.

4. Ask about linens. Everyone has a different way of handling the sheets-and-towels issue. Never take any broad statement about linens at face value, and pay no attention to any rhapsodies regarding high thread counts. (Given variability of fabric, weave and wear, you might as well go by your host's shoe size.) Call and ask: Do bathroom towels come with the house, and if so, how many per person, and where are the extras kept? What about towels for beach or pool? If somebody is going to sleep on a fold-out couch, where will those sheets be? Extra blankets? Do we need to wash them at the end of our stay or just throw them in a single pile somewhere? And while we're on the subject, ask: When, dear landlord, did you last buy new sheets and furniture or paint the place? With busy rentals, that may need to be done yearly.

5. MapQuest is your friend. So is Google Earth -- and other sites (such as and ) that show houses in satellite photos. Using those sites, you can see a home's surroundings more thoroughly than a homeowner could ever describe them. How far is the beach? The freeway? Does the guy next door have a collection of Buicks up on blocks?

I learned the beach lesson two years ago, when we rented a vast home in Fort Bragg. It sat on a sleepy street within easy view of the coast and slept eight of us in great comfort and quiet. What we didn't realize until arrival, however, is that at the end of the block, private property blocked our access to the water. To reach the beach, we had to drive, not walk.

6. Get consensus. Got something specific in mind? Forget it. Very few rental houses look as enticing as a fancy hotel room (and lobby, and restaurant) photographed by a pro. And if you found a house that looked that good, would you trust your children in it? Anyway, you'll never find the one in your mind's eye. Instead, be alert to possibilities you haven't considered.

Six months ago, searching for a snowy mountain retreat in Idyllwild to accommodate four couples and four preschool daughters, our friend Ellen discovered a geodesic dome, painted lime green on the outside and orange on the inside, at the edge of a steep slope. I know, I know. Yet it called to her -- and to us. While we scrutinized the relevant Web pages, Ellen made repeated calls for explanation and amplification. Then we went.

It was a triumph -- the smallish kitchen adequate to our needs, the vast living room ideal for parading princesses, the patio Scrabble-friendly, the hot tub steamy, the vistas broad. True, the bedrooms were not all created equal (see No. 7), and we never did figure out how to work the pellet-fed stove properly.

Also, those rounded walls did have some startling acoustical properties. But we'd all signed on for some adventure and gone in with our eyes open. And we came out ready to rent it again.

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