A beginner’s guide to home rentals

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When staying at a swanky hotel simply won’t do (or your budget won’t allow), consider renting accommodations in the area you are travelling. Not only will you get more space with home rentals, but you will also save money and have the opportunity to experience your destination like a local.

The proliferation of home rental websites has made finding a home away from home much easier. For example, HomeAway has grown to include 1 million home listings in 190 countries. To put that size in perspective, HomeAway has more rooms in its 1 million listings than the three largest hotel chains in the world, combined.

It might seem a daunting task to rent someone else’s space, but it is easier than you think. Whether you rent a house, an apartment or even a room, it is sure to be a memorable (and likely cheaper) experience. You might even find yourself wanting to rent your own home or even swapping your home (luckily for you, we offer tips for these options, too!).

Getting started with Renting Accommodations

Rental Home - HomeAway
Book a home away from home. (Image: HomeAway)

Whether renting a home, apartment, condo or room, avoid unnecessary hassles by following these savvy vacation rental tips:

Figure out what you want. Do you want to stay on the beach or are you willing to save money and stay a few blocks away from the beach? You will also want to consider how many people will be travelling with you and how much space you will need.

Comparison shop. Found your dream vacation home? Compare the asking price and quality to other homes nearby by searching multiple vacation rental websites.

Book on a reputable website or through real estate companies or property management companies.

Book early to ensure the best value.

Be flexible with your dates. Book travel during shoulder season or off-peak season to negotiate deals or take advantage of lower rates.

Book further afield. To save money, book properties that are further away from popular tourist destinations. Consider lesser-known destinations that can be equally exciting but half the price. Check for last minute deals as late cancellations may make homeowners more likely to offer a discount.

Renters beware. Research potential rental homes carefully:

  • Check the guest ratings and reviews.
  • Do your homework and read the vacation rental website, online reviews and comments on social media.
  • Be sure the property isn’t in foreclosure by doing an Internet search.
  • Do a Google search, including a satellite and street view of the property to confirm location and description.
  • Research the homeowner by doing an Internet search and asking questions.
  • If your gut tells you the situation isn’t right or the deal seems to good to be true, move on to the next rental.

Ask questions – lots of questions. Talk to the homeowner via email and on the phone to learn more about the property, including:

  • The layout of bedrooms (i.e. size and number of beds in each room)
  • Maximum number of guests allowed in the house
  • The property’s amenities (i.e. pool, Jacuzzi, etc.)
  • Is there anything in the house you can’t use
  • What the neighbourhood is like

By asking questions, you might even get some great restaurant and sightseeing recommendations. If the homeowner isn’t forthcoming, trust your instinct and move on to the next rental.

Ask for more photos. If you want to see what all the bedrooms look like, but there is only a picture of the master bedroom on the website listing, ask the homeowner for additional photos. Don’t be shy!

Learn about the neighbourhood. Here are some important questions to ask:

  • Will I need a car? If so, is there parking?
  • How far is the grocery store from the house or apartment?
  • Is the neighbourhood noisy?
  • Do the neighbours know you are renting the home or apartment?

It takes time. Renting a vacation home or apartment isn’t the same as booking a hotel room. It’s often not an immediate process of a few clicks of a mouse and the swipe of a credit card. Renting a vacation home requires going back and forth with the homeowner to check availability, answer questions and send payment.

Exchange contact details with the homeowner. Some homeowners may have a property manager who manages the property on their behalf. Be sure to get the phone number of the property manager or homeowner in case you need to reach them before or during your stay.

Get everything in writing and keep all correspondence. If there is a dispute later, you will have a paper trail.

Know what you are paying for. In addition to a deposit/security deposit and the rental fee, read the contract carefully to determine who is paying for items like utility bills (electricity, heating, Internet, phone service, cable, cleaning/housekeeping, and propane/gas).

Negotiate. Don’t be afraid to negotiate on the deposit amount or weekly rental amount, particularly if you are booking last minute, for multiple weeks or a month or during shoulder season or off-peak season.

Request a reservation and billing confirmation and a copy of the rental rules. Read them carefully and ask questions if you are unsure or if information is missing or incorrect. The reservation and billing confirmation and rental rules should include:

  • Contact information for the renter or property manager.
  • Vacation property address
  • Total fees
  • Cancellation policy
  • Early checkout policy
  • Deposit policy
  • Provisions for security deposit refund
  • Payment schedule
  • Check-in and check-out dates
  • Pet and smoking policies
  • Check-out policy
  • Policies for inclement weather, emergencies and accidents

Pay your deposit promptly. Most renters do not consider a reservation confirmed until a deposit has been received. Some also require full payment for the rental in the days or weeks prior to check-in. Confirm with the homeowner to avoid disappointment. Do not send full payment until you receive a reservation confirmation and rental contract.

Consider getting insurance. Some vocational rental websites offer property damage policies and rental guarantee policies. It’s a good idea to understand what your level of responsibility is should something go wrong whether it’s an accidental double booking or a water pipe break.

Seek out renters who accept secure payment via PayPal or credit card payments. Some renters may require personal checks; if so, be sure to mail them promptly. Avoid renting from homeowners who request payments be made by money orders, cashier’s checks and instant wire transfers from agencies like Western Union and MoneyGram or in cash as these methods are often used by scammers.

Check the cancellation policy. Cancellation policies tend to be stricter than those at hotels.

Get the details on housekeeping. Some rentals have a housekeeper clean periodically while others do it after each visit. Some rental agreements require the guest to clean the home or apartment. Find out who is responsible for doing the housekeeping, what that entails (i.e. mopping the floors and washing all the bed linens and towels) or paying the housekeeping costs. Determine what the conditions are for getting your deposit back.

Take photographs or video. On day one, right after you check-in, take photos or a video of the property, particularly any areas that are damaged to ensure you aren’t blamed for previous damage or wear and tear. Do the same on the last day just before checkout.

Do a walk-through. Walk the property with the property manager or homeowner, if the homeowner is present, for the checkout. This can prevent any surprise bills and leave you with peace of mind that everything is in order and has been verified.

Be flexible. You might not like the furniture and décor or an appliance might break, but many rentals provide a variety of amenities not readily available at hotels like grand kitchens and a private beach. Despite the amount of planning required to find the perfect vacation home, renters say the benefits of renting an apartment or home far outweigh staying at a hotel, including location, amenities and the experience of living like a local.

Getting started with renting your home

Treehouse home rental - FlipKey
Have a treehouse to rent? (Image: FlipKey)

Renting out a vacation home or second home can be a great source of income. Follow these tips and your next vacation could be paying for itself in no time.

Set goals: Decide why you want to rent your home, how often you use the home and how often you would like to rent it.

Check the rules: Check the laws and ordinances in your city, county and province. Some places may require renters to have business licenses or permits to rent their homes. Be sure the zoning requirements in your area allow for short-term renting. In some locales, rental homes have to meet safety requirements like having a fire sprinkler system and fire extinguishers. If you have a home that is part of a homeowner association, be sure to check the rules regarding renting.

Set a price: Determine what your rental price will be. Some folks like to base this on the cost of the mortgage on the home. For example, if your mortgage is $1,500 a month, you might consider renting the home for $1,500 per week. How much to charge depends on several factors:

  • Home size and condition
  • Number of rooms
  • Location
  • Proximity to tourist attractions (i.e. beach, museums, etc.)
  • Amenities (i.e. pool, Jacuzzi, etc.)
  • Time of year
  • Length of stay
  • Unique features/selling points

Not sure how much to charge? Do some research online to see what others are charging in the area. Compare the size and amenities at those houses to yours. Consider what other fees you might want to include, such as taxes, cleaning fees, amenity fees, pet fees and/or security deposit.

Price according to the season. Travellers tend to be more budget conscious in the off-season. Plus, you can edge out the competition by offering reduced rates for off-peak time, like summertime in a locale popular with skiers or in the wintertime for beachfront accommodations.

Don’t forget taxes. Some places may require renters to collect sales tax on top of the rental fee. Contact the sales tax office in your area to determine if you are required to collect sales tax, which you then submit to the government.

Determine your role. When it comes to renting a home, you can choose to hire a property management company, who performs all the work for a commission, or rent-by-owner, where you do all the work, including advertising your home on websites, responding to inquiries and complaints, taking reservations and payment and managing the upkeep of the property including maintenance and housekeeping.

Hire help. Before you rent your home for the first time, you should consider hiring the following folks:

  • Lawyer to advise on local laws and help prepare a rental contract that protects you should your guests have an accident in the home or apartment or there is damage to the property.
  • Accountant or tax advisor to help with bookkeeping, income tax and reporting rental income.
  • Housekeeper to clean the home or apartment in between rentals.
  • Handyman to oversee the property and make repairs, change light bulbs, etc.

Prep your home. It’s obvious the home should be furnished, but make sure it is warm and welcoming by de-cluttering the space. You might also consider having these items in stock:

  • Plates, flatware and glasses for double the number of people the home sleeps
  • Coffee pot
  • Pots and pans
  • Mixing bowls and serving spoons
  • Basic appliances like a microwave, toaster oven and/or toaster
  • Bonus appliances like an espresso machine, mixer and/or waffle maker
  • Sheets and blankets (two sets for each bed)
  • Bedside table, lamp and alarm clock in each room
  • Television
  • Phone
  • High speed Internet and cable TV (with instructions for how to use)
  • Towels (two sets for each guest)
  • Hairdryer
  • Bonus appliances like a DVD player, satellite TV or washer/dryer
  • First-aid kit
  • Additional perks like books, games, DVDs, video game systems, pool table, crib or Jacuzzi.

 If you have valuables in the home, be sure to lock them up.

Provide perks. Offering a stocked mini-bar, stocked pantry or welcome amenity kit is a nice personal touch that guests will appreciate, particularly those who are accustomed to staying at hotels.

Reduce the minimum stay in the off-season. Making the length of the minimum stay more flexible in the off-season (for example, requiring two or three nights in the off-season versus one week in peak season) can help increase the number of dates your home is rented.

Be a guide. Create a guidebook or binder listing local attractions, restaurants and local services like grocery stores and houses of worship. Call local businesses and see if they will send you coupons or brochures to give renters.

Be a great marketer. Consider whom you are renting to when writing your description. Include the following details in your ad/description:

  • Location
  • Number of bedrooms (include bed size and number of beds in each room)
  • Number of bathrooms (include if there is a tub, tub/shower or walk-in shower)
  • Maximum number of guests allowed
  • Amenities (i.e. pool, Jacuzzi, crib, etc.)
  • Number of floors
  • Proximity to nearby attractions
  • Price (include nightly and weekly rates and if a minimum stay is required
  • Is the property is pet-friendly?
  • Is the property handicapped accessible?
  • Is the property child friendly?
  • Unique selling points
  • Excellent photos that showcase the home. Take interior and exterior photos on bright sunny days to show natural light pouring through windows. Consider including photos of the home in various seasons to showcase its beauty year-round. Your photo shoot list should include:
    • Master bedroom
    • Additional bedrooms
    • Living room
    • Bathroom(s)
    • Kitchen
    • View out the window from within the house
    • Exterior of the home or apartment
    • Pool or Jacuzzi
    • Any unique features or special selling points

Be sure to proofread and spell check your ad before posting.

Update your ad often. Update your ad and vacation rental profile to adjust for the season. Be sure to put seasonal amenities like Jacuzzis and fireplaces in the description during the winter months. Consider adding a frequently asked questions section to your ad or personal website to give potential guests more information.

Be responsive. Whether you ask potential guests to email or call you, be sure to respond as quickly as possible. Check your email several times a day and reply to emails and voicemails promptly, even if your property is booked.

Interview potential guests. Be selective in the folks you choose to stay in your home. Have a conversation over the phone with potential renters or ask them to complete a questionnaire to get to know them better. It’s a good idea to speak to prospective renters on the phone to ensure they are serious, legitimate renters. During the phone call(s), determine how many people are planning to stay in the home, if there are children in the group, if there are pets and discuss any questions or concerns you or they might have.

Put everything in writing. Protect yourself and your guests by putting everything in writing. An attorney can help draft an agreement. Send your renter a reservation and billing confirmation and a copy of the rental rules. The reservation and billing confirmation and rental rules should include:

  • Contact information for the renter or property manager.
  • Vacation property address
  • Total fees
  • Cancellation policy
  • Early checkout policy
  • Deposit policy
  • Provisions for security deposit refund
  • Payment schedule
  • Check-in and check-out dates
  • Pet and smoking policies
  • Check-out policy
  • Policies for inclement weather, emergencies and accidents

Take payment. Determine how you want to take payments. Some renters prefer checks. It’s a good idea to request certified checks to ensure personal checks do not bounce. To make booking secure and easy, consider setting up a PayPal account, taking credit card payments or accepting bank-to-bank wire transfers. If you insist on accepting personal checks, cash them immediately to allow enough time for the checks to clear before guests check-in. Avoid money orders, cashier’s checks and instant wire transfers from agencies like Western Union and MoneyGram as these methods are often used by scammers.

Thank and encourage renters to return. Send a follow up email or letter thanking the renters for staying at your place. Include a link to the vacation rental website where renters can leave comments about your place and the level of service they received.

Offer incentives. Offer a 10 percent discount or more for a return stay to encourage repeat renting. Send your in-season renters an email offering a discounted stay for “Friends and Family” for the off-season to encourage repeat stays.

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Getting started with house swapping

Vacation rental - FlipKey
Imagine staying here for free (Image: FlipKey)

Home swapping can be an appealing option for budget conscious travellers. As the name suggests, house swapping involves exchanging your home for another’s home for free. The options include

  • Simultaneous home exchanges where you stay at someone’s house and they stay at yours at the same time.
  • An exchange where you stay at the home swapper’s second home.
  • Staying as a guest at a swapper’s home while they are also in the home.

Once you get over the thought of complete strangers staying in your home, the experience can be quite rewarding, providing you a free place to stay and the added benefit of living like a local in an interesting locale.

These tips will help with your first foray into house swapping:

  • Search home swapping websites like HomeExchange.com, HomeLink.com, Intervac and LoveHomeSwap. To ensure safety, most home swapping websites require a membership fee and have a vetting process that includes supplying references
  • Start the search early to ensure enough time to get to know your exchange host.
  • Communicate with the potential host whom you will be swapping your home with.
  • Set expectations and be clear about them.
  • When swapping your home, lock valuable items in a safe place.
  • Discuss how to handle worst-case scenarios like inclement weather and natural disasters.
  • Discuss who will pay utility bills.
  • Confirm how you will get the keys.
  • Be sure the host leaves instructions for how to operate appliances, where the grocery store is, etc.
  • Double check all details before departure.
  • Mutual trust is important (as are great references!)

(Main image: Bart Speelman, Jeda Villa Bali via Flickr CC BY 2.0)

A beginner’s guide to home rentals was last modified: August 6th, 2015 by Lauren Mack
Author: Lauren Mack (298 posts)

Lauren Mack has traveled to 40 countries on five continents, including Cuba, New Zealand, Peru and Tanzania. For many years, she called China, and then Taiwan, home. Countries at the beginning of the alphabet, particularly Antarctica, Argentina and Australia are on her travel bucket list. Lauren is a multimedia travel and food journalist and explorer based in New York City.