How to get the most out of a private home rental.

WHEN I WAS GROWING UP in New Jersey, my family rented a house on Long Beach Island almost every summer. It was awesome. My grandparents, aunt, uncle, and cousins all came down for all or part of the time, and the whole family spent time together. To find the right digs, my parents would drive down to the island one Saturday during the winter, meet with our LBI realtor, Miss Joan Heart, look at photos in her office, and then drive around looking at houses. They’d sign a contract with her in her office that day and pick up the keys six months later when it was time to hit the beach.

Looking back, my mom says it was a lot of work, coordinating with the family and the agent and doing all of the cooking and cleaning during vacation, but it was economical for us because it let a big group of people share the expenses on a long holiday, and it let different parts of the family have more flexible schedules than if we’d been in a hotel.

This spring, my husband and I rented apartments in Paris, Vienna, and Munich via Airbnb. We stayed less than a week in each place, and basically only used them to sleep and do laundry, but renting let us stay closer to the city than any hotel in the same price level.

Renting long term for a big group and short term for a couple are different in planning and execution, but here are 12 tips my mom and I both agree on.

  • 1. Think hard.

    Do you really want this? Renting a vacation home is more complicated and potentially more costly than renting a hotel room. Does renting a home actually make sense for your vacation? What about the people you’re traveling with — are you sure you can not just travel, but cohabitate, for a long a period with them? They might borrow your razor. They might drink your soy milk. They might snore. Just think about it.

  • 2. Put a budget together.

    A hotel might be cheaper. Don’t just look at the difference in the hotel price and the rental price. Factor in an initial down payment whenever you do the booking, plus all household supplies and food you’ll purchase. Assume you won’t be paying restaurant prices for every meal, but you’ll probably be buying coffee and toilet paper. If you’re traveling with a big group, get a consensus from everyone about what household expenses will be shared. In Paris, it was a lot cheaper for us to rent an apartment for a few days because the hotels in the area we were interested in were expensive.

  • 3. Research.

    Research the shit out of your destination, the company you’ll be renting through, and the actual home you’re interested in before signing an agreement and paying a down payment. After your research you should be able to answer these questions:

    • a. What is physically nearby, and can I make that work? Some destinations are great if you’re staying in a hotel and all you need to worry about is which local news channel to watch when you blow dry your hair and get ready for your day of touristing. When renting a house, there’s no front desk to help you out with deodorant or salt and pepper. Is there a liquor or grocery store nearby? If you have children, is it a safe place for them? We didn’t have a car in Europe, so we made sure we were close to mass transit. My mom physically drove to the homes she was renting to make sure there was room for cars, kids, and dogs to run around, and that it wasn’t too long a walk to the beach.
    • b. Do I trust the owner or agent? I used Airbnb to find apartments in Europe, but there are many other global or hyper-local websites to shop for rentals. Decide what’s important to you in an agent, and find someone who meets that description. I wanted to be able to email potential hosts, see lots of photos, see member reviews, have a secure payment system, and have a 24/7 phone number to call if there was a problem. My mom says that today, even though Miss Heart was very sweet, she’d use the internet to find a place to stay. Or she’d ask me to do it.
    • c. What exactly am I getting here? Find out before you sign an agreement exactly what amenities are included in the home, and have a contact person for followup questions. Are there linens? A washer + dryer? Internet? Furniture for babies and pets? Pots and pans? My mom remembers one summer where they had to find a place to rent cribs and a store that sold cheap coffeepots on the first day of the trip.
  • 4. Be flexible.

    It’s unrealistic to expect that your kitchen will be as fully equipped as your home’s, but at the same time, you shouldn’t be using an outhouse if you’re not into that. Have an idea of what you absolutely need, and what you can live without, and pack accordingly.

  • 5. Realize the photos online were taken under the best possible circumstances.

    If you’re seeing the rental for the first time on the day you “move in,” understand it’s not going to be quite as awesome, or clean, or modern, as it was online. It’s just not. Don’t be pissed. You’re on vacation.

  • 6. Try to pay using a secure payment method.

    A lot of websites have secure payment programs so the owner will never have your credit card number or bank information. Read reviews online or check out the Better Business Bureau’s website, if going through a company, to see if anyone has had a problem with payments before.

  • 7. Read and understand the rental agreement before you sign.

    You’ll most likely be signing a legally binding contract with the homeowner, so make sure you understand exactly what kind of deal you’re getting yourself involved in and don’t send them any money until you understand. What’s the refund policy if you have to cancel? Are pets allowed? Who’s responsible for housekeeping and trash disposal on the last day? Are you allowed to smoke? Grill outside? Be loud after 10pm? You can also negotiate a little.

  • 8. Be ready for the first and last day.

    Understand how you’ll get to the house and how you’ll get the keys. Ask for emergency contact information. You might also want to confirm the person meeting you speaks your language if you’re traveling abroad. Most likely you’ll be liable for any damages to the property during your stay. If staying for more than a couple of days, take photos of the home on your first and last day and send the owner a list of anything you think might be broken on day 1 so you’re not charged for damages you’re not responsible for.

  • 9. Get insurance.

    Some rental agencies might have a policy built into their rental agreement, but it’s a good idea to get your own. Some products can protect you before your trip if you have to cancel, and during your trip if you have an emergency.

  • 10. Be a good guest.

    This might be someone’s full-time home. Have fun, but return the property in the condition it was rented to you.

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