5 Rules For Summer Vacation Rentals

Last Updated May 19, 2010 9:30 PM EDT

With the catastrophic Gulf of Mexico oil spill causing consternation on beaches from Texas to Florida, would-be vacationers are scrambling to see if they can get deposits back on rentals from those areas and grab ones at different locales. For example, John Adams, a Georgia real estate agent, wrote earlier this month on the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's website that he was gaining vacation rental business that Louisiana agents were losing.

But no matter where you'll summer, this is a good time to take a step back and review five basics of vacation rentals:

  • Research as much as you can. We tend to book vacation homes from a picture and a short description -- but it's worth asking the owner about surroundings, such as whether there are busy streets around, or what the environmental conditions are. (Webcam technology can be a blessing here -- for example, our friends at Sand Key Realty in Florida have linked to the webcams for Clearwater, so you can see you're indeed getting clear water.)
  • Read your contract. It tends to be really, really tough to get a rental deposit back. Bad weather? Not the landlord's problem. No flights in? Not the landlord's problem. So don't spend more money than you can afford on a vacation, and consider carefully the risk that it might not be picture-perfect. (If you are heading to the Gulf despite everything, you're currently more likely to hit oil residue from cruise ships than from the oil spill. To defend against tar balls, the advice of beach experts is to pack baby-oil wipes.)
  • Figure out bad-weather entertainment and local necessities. Are you renting a house with board games? Video games? Books for family members of all ages? It's worth checking on that before you go, as well as the supply of cooking equipment, access to the nearest grocery store, and proximity to laundry facilities.
  • Bring references. Ever since my experience as a landlady where I trusted a student renter because he was wearing a tie (he did indeed turn out to be a shipshape and courteous tenant), I have believed strongly in the power of a good reference to help you negotiate small points. If you are swapping or leasing a house, make sure you let that homeowner know that you intend to be respectful of the property -- you can often get small sweeteners, like better checkout times, once you've proven you're a good scout. Social networks can be useful for this. Last year, when a group of us rented on Cape Cod, we found a connection to our landlord on LinkedIn, and made sure we were properly introduced.
  • Keep asking for your ideal dates. Some places fill up seasonally -- the best Hamptons rentals go in February, for instance -- and some places fill up fashionably. (I blame Ken Burns' wonderful six-part series on the National Parks for making some of the national parks popularity pop this year.) But there are often cancellations, and one way to find them is to call. If you are indeed feeling park-y, Kate Sitarz on SmarterTravel.com has a wonderful list of alternatives to the most popular national parks.
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  • Alison Rogers

    Since graduating from Harvard summa cum laude, Alison Rogers has been a reporter, an editor, a real-estate agent, a Wall Street desk jockey, a columnist, a failed flipper, and a landlady. A member of the National Association of Realtors, she currently sells and rents luxury co-ops in Manhattan for the Chelsea-based firm DG Neary. (If you've got $27,500 a month, the firm has an apartment for you!) Her book, Diary of a Real Estate Rookie, was called "a valuable guide for rookie buyers" by AOL/Walletpop, "beach-read fun" by the New York Observer, and "witty" by Newsweek.