Summer vacation is coming, meaning it's time to decide what locale to visit and where to stay once you get there. If you're traveling with your family or a group of friends, a rental home can be a cheaper, more flexible option than hotel rooms.
The challenge is finding the right house for your vacation. There are multiple websites to research hotels but not nearly as many for vacation homes. You'll need to do your due diligence, but by asking these five questions of yourself and vacation homeowners, you'll ensure a home sweet home that meets your vacation needs.
Where is the right location?
Before selecting a house, think about where you want to stay first. If it's a beach town, is it important the house be right on the beach? Are there certain attractions you want to be close to? Do you only want a short drive to the airport, restaurants and child-friendly places? Do you prefer a quiet road or want to be in the center of everything?
"Figuring out where you want to situate yourself will narrow down the list of homes that meet your location requirement," says Alexis de Belloy, a vice president of vacation home rental website HomeAway.com.
All HomeAway properties have maps of their locations, but it's also a good idea to use Google Maps or MapQuest to see how close homes are to vacation venues. You also can call or email the owner to ask questions, says Heather Bayer, editor of CottageBlogger.com and author of "Renting Your Recreational Property for Profit."
"A homeowner can tell you whether the home is in a remote location you desire or down the street from the McDonald's you may need for your kids," Bayer says.
How many people can fit in the house?
Most houses list the number of bedrooms and bathrooms available, but de Belloy recommends also asking how many people the house sleeps, how big bedrooms and bathrooms are and what amenities are available.
"That's because certain configurations, like pullout couches, small rooms and (old-fashioned) bathtubs instead of shower stalls could make the house unsuitable for your group," de Belloy says.
Some owners will have maximum occupancy numbers to weed out party-hearty groups. "But if a house has a maximum occupancy of five, and one of your six family members is a baby, it's worth negotiating with the owner," says de Belloy.
If a house is described as pet- or child-friendly, ask for the owner's definition of that term because it may be different from yours. "You may want gates at the stairs and childproof cabinets, which the owner may not have installed," de Belloy says. "Or he may want your dog to be outdoors only."
What amenities do you want?
Bayer recommends making a list of criteria that a vacation home rental must absolutely have. "A dishwasher and two bedrooms may be vital, a hot tub not so much, so list what are must-haves, followed (by) would be nice to have. Then you can check through home listings," she says.
Beware of online descriptions that are too good to be true on websites such as Craigslist.
"There have been many scams where renters drive to places that don't exist or are not at all what the listing described," Bayer says.
She recommends going for houses with their own websites or a Facebook page with photos. "Good vacation homeowners are now using social media because it's a good way of becoming more real to prospective renters," Bayer says.
Never book a home -- and don't send a deposit -- without first talking to the owner or the vacation rental agent listing the house.
Ask questions such as: "What cable channels does the home have?" and "Does it have an Internet connection?" Find out if you need to bring your own linens, dishwashing detergent, food condiments and other items.
"Consider it like you're staying at a friend's house, what would you ask before you got there," Bayer says. "Can you just arrive and settle in, or do you need to stock up at the supermarket first?"
How are bookings, deposits and refunds made?
Always review and sign a contract before paying. It should specify the number of people allowed, pet and smoking policies, check-in and checkout times, and how the property should be left upon departure. Also, check for a waiver of liability to see what the owner is responsible for.
Make sure the contract includes payment and cancellation policies. "It's important to know how long you have to cancel without incurring a penalty, and whether you'll get your deposit back," Bayer says. Most landlords require a reservation or security deposit of 10 percent to 50 percent of the rent total in advance.
You also may have to pay a damage deposit. If so, ask if the owner actually cashes your check, and how long it will take for the refund, Bayer says.
"That deposit could add $500 or more to your total payment," Bayer says. If you rent through a management agency, you can usually buy an accidental-damage insurance plan. Plans typically range from $45 to $60 and cover $2,000 to $4,000 in damage. If you get a plan, you might not need to supply a deposit.
Credit cards and PayPal are frequently preferred payment methods. De Belloy recommends avoiding homeowners who want you to use money-transfer sites like MoneyGram or Western Union, or payment with a cashier's check. "For your protection, credit cards and PayPal are traceable and you can take recourse if there's a scam," de Belloy says.
What happens at checkout?
ou and the owner may differ on your terms of a clean home, so ask the landlord what he or she expects from you on keeping things clean, and how to leave the house when you depart.
"Ask landlords if they have their own cleaning service and what the fee is," de Belloy says. "You may just want to pay that amount instead of cleaning yourself. The last thing you want to do on your final vacation day is spend three hours cleaning the floors and later find out the owner says they weren't cleaned well."
He also says it's worth negotiating checkout policies, especially if it's during the off season or the house is not in a hot spot. "If there's not a lot of turnover, ask if you can have till 5 p.m. instead of a noon checkout, and have the cleaning crew come the next day. That way, you have more time to pack and extend your vacation time," de Belloy says.