Renting your vacation home? Beware the Dark Side

vacation homeRenting out a vacation home is a growing and largely unregulated industry. Pop the place up on Craiglist and a homeowner is in business. The National Association of Realtors reported that the number of second-home owners renting out their properties has increased from 18% in 2006 to 25% last year. And property management companies say that number has risen as the economy has slowed.

I understand why. My husband and I own a second home on Lake Erie and the cost of paying the non-homestead taxes and keeping it heated and cooled has soared in the last couple of years. Finding a tenant willing to pay big bucks (or even little bucks) to use it on the weekends we aren't is appealing.

But renting out a vacation home and keeping fun-seeking tenants pleased is no day at the beach. My husband still complains about the beds in the house we rented near Disney World three years ago so we could gather all 17 of us for a Mouse Ears Christmas.

The bed springs stuck through the tops of the ancient mattresses. You had to position yourself carefully, otherwise, when you rolled over, you'd get a puncture wound.

Then there was the lake-front place we rented near Michigan Speedway that smelled like rotten eggs and Valvoline.

And the house in Atlantic City whose owners boasted that it had a "breathtaking" view of the ocean. Well, you were certainly out of breath by the time you climbed three flights of outdoor stairs to the rooftop porch where if you leaned way over the railing, past the neighboring house, you could catch a glimpse of waves a quarter-mile away.

After all this renting from other people, I think I'm not up to the task. It's clear to me that most part-time landlords don't have what it takes to be an innkeeper. I can overlook my vacation home's foibles but I wouldn't be so understanding if the place belonged to somebody else.

Plus, doing the job remotely -- like so many part-time landlords do -- makes the job even tougher. For the last several years, my long-time friend, her 99-year-old mother and I have rented the same condo on the beach in Florida from an owner who lives in Minnesota. Last year, we showed up and the cleaning people hadn't been there. The dirty sheets were piled on the floor. Every dish in the place was in the sink, and the bath -- well, we won't talk about that.

Moving a 99-year-old elsewhere was out of the questions, so after several conversations with the landlord in Minneapolis, he agreed to refund 25% of our rent for the week if we'd be our own cleaning staff. We were still up at midnight scrubbing dishes and making beds. This year, we're staying elsewhere.

When things aren't perfect, appealing to my sympathies doesn't work. This holiday season, I've signed a contract to rent a ski-in and ski-out house for ten of us. In the course of explaining away a small problem with the property, the owner made the mistake of telling me that it saves him 40% to rent to me directly as opposed to going through the real estate office at the resort where we're headed. So, I've cheerfully held him up for my cut of the savings and insisted that he fix the issue.

Here are five other things besides "Honesty isn't always the best policy" that I've learned from renting holiday homes directly and would put in place if I ever become a lake-front landlady.

▪ Install Internet access. It's cheap and persuasive.
▪ Consider accepting pets. Pet lovers will love you.
▪ Make ever sofa a bed. You can never have too many places for people to sleep.
▪ Have a website with lots of pictures -- photos are enticing and reassuring.
▪ Don't nickel and dime the guests. Heating the pool is a business expense and so is hiring a cleaning team.
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