With a whole house you get more amenities, such as a full kitchen, and more privacy than a hotel room,” says Alexis de Belloy, vice president of HomeAway.com. The biggest perk? A house rental is often 30 to 50 percent less expensive than a hotel. Add in the money you'll save by cooking for yourselves and having a private garage or driveway to park in, and it's a deal you shouldn't pass up. Plus, all that extra space will provide families with plenty of room to spread out and stay out of one another's hair—making for a very relaxing vacation. Whether you’re looking for beach, mountaintop or big-city accommodations, here’s everything you need to know before you rent.
1. Rent from a trustworthy source.
Check out established vacation home rental sites such as HomeAway.com,VRBO.com, VacationRentals.com and TripAdvisor.com, which offer homes rented directly through homeowners or professional property managers. Real estate companies in the area where you’re planning to vacation are another great resource; many located in large vacation rental markets offer seasonal rentals. You can also check a destination’s tourism website for links to realtors.
2. Start planning early.
Many rental homes are booked months in advance, so it’s a good idea to pin down your dates as soon as possible to score the best location and amenities. Though “it’s really never too late to book, as you will find last-minute openings in many locations, the homes that families have visited before and loved or that have positive traveler reviews tend to book up quickly,” says Hank Hudepohl, director of vacation rentals for TripAdvisor. If you’re booking late, you can ask if there are any special deals. Some owners will offer discounts rather than let the home remain empty; you’ll typically have more leverage the closer it is to the arrival date.
3. Don’t be shy about asking questions.
“Be as specific as possible,” says de Belloy. “For example, if the listing says the house is ‘close to beach,’ ask what that means. Do you cross the street or is it a mile away? Do you need a beach pass? Are there beach towels and chairs you can use?” Ask if linens are included; in some parts of the country they’re not a standard part of the rental. Find out how close you are to restaurants, grocery stores and drugstores. What’s the layout of bedrooms and how big are the beds? Do you need to bring your own crib? Is it OK to bring your dog (most rentals don’t accept cats), and is there a fee? Does the house have air conditioning? Finding out as much as you can beforehand will prevent unpleasant surprises once you arrive.
4. Ask for more photos.
Most websites offer a few images of the exterior and interior, but it’s fine to ask for more. Request specific shots that show all bedrooms and bathrooms, the kitchen, seating areas and, if you're concerned about privacy, how close the home is to other houses. Focus on what’s important to you; if you want to spend lots of time outdoors, ask for photos of the yard and deck areas.
5. Look for traveler reviews.
On many sites such as HomeAway.com and TripAdvisor.com, travelers who have rented a specific home can post reviews about their experiences (the rental period is verified by the website so not just anyone can write a review). “Traveler reviews are a good way to get additional feedback about a home and the overall rental experience,” says de Belloy. Owners are allowed to respond, but they can’t take down negative reviews, so you’ll get real renters’ perspectives.
6. Do your own research.
Look at lots of different properties so you can compare features and locations, then make a short list of your favorites. Talk to the home owner or property manager; they’re great resources for recommendations on restaurants, nearby attractions and day trips to help you decide if the home fits your needs. Finally, be sure to get the exact address before booking; you can check it out on a site such as Google Maps, which often has street and bird’s-eye views to give you another look at the house and its surroundings, says Hudepohl.
7. Understand the terms before committing.
Most vacation rentals are rented by the week from Saturday to Saturday. But occasionally you’ll find weekend or daily rentals available in big cities, says Hudepohl. Also, some rental properties are discounted if you stay for more than one week. When you're ready to reserve the house, usually, you’ll place a deposit to hold the dates, then pay the balance 30 to 60 days before arrival. Refundable security deposits may also be required in case you damage the property; they range from $300 to $500. Most owners accept checks or PayPal for payment, with an increasing number now accepting credit cards. Cleaning fees (typically around $100 to $150 per stay), pet fees and local sales tax may also apply.
8. Ask for a rental agreement.
“The contract should spell out specific details such as how much money is required to hold the reservation as well as how much the security deposit is and when and how it will be returned,” says de Belloy. You’ll also want to get a copy of the pet policy, if applicable, and the cancellation policy so you’ll know what to expect if you have to change your plans. Many owners offer a refund minus a small cancellation fee; some offer a full refund if they can find other renters for your original booking dates.
9. Consider insurance policies.
Some websites, such as HomeAway.com and VRBO.com, offer property damage polices. Owners can choose to offer you the policy, which you purchase through the rental website for a small fee instead of having to put down a security deposit. The cost depends on total rental fee but runs approximately $50 on a $2,000 rental. There’s also a rental guarantee policy, starting at $39, which reimburses you if anything goes awry with the rental itself, such as the house is inadvertently double-booked or the owner wrongfully withholds your security deposit.
10. Plan ahead for unexpected circumstances.
You’ll usually be greeted by the owner or property manager to receive the key. But make sure you have a contact number, too, for the remainder of your stay. “You want to know who can assist you if the kitchen sink clogs or you lock yourself out,” says Hudepohl. When you arrive, walk around and look at the property. If something is wrong, such as a broken window, call the owner or property manager immediately. Most owners are quick to respond because they want you to have the best possible vacation experience so you’ll book again next year.
This article originally appeared on WomansDay.com and it's republished here with permission.