How to rent your vacation home…without losing your mind

by October 18, 2008 • 28 comments
As vacation rental property owners, we have gradually learned the importance of mixing exceptional hospitality with a good measure of common sense. It is generally the goal of any vacation rental owner to provide their guests with comfort, affordability and a place of respite. Isn’t that what we all need from time to time? My aim in this article is to provide new or struggling property owners with suggestions on what floats the boats of potential guests.

When my husband and I first entered into this business, we were what you’d call rental property virgins. Oh yeah, we’d rented vacation homes or condos from the Bahamas to Maui, but we had nothing to prepare us for this new journey. Our curriculum was hours of Internet research and “Googling”.

Our quest began with a visit to Panama City Beach, where we stayed at some relatives’ home, about three blocks from the beach. For months before our trip to Florida, I began to contact several real estate agents. Not an easy task when you’re doing it from your home in the Midwest. But we muddled through. This California native was beach-starved and I wasn’t going to let 800+ miles stand in my way of the beach dream. Then we narrowed our real estate agent list down to one we enjoyed working with. We also printed out listings and photos, and trimmed down our shopping list of homes.

Location, location, location! Although we desired an actual single family dwelling on the beach, our budget limited our search to beachfront condos. So letting our agents know our price range, this helped narrow our search considerably. To make a long story short, hours of condo shopping resulted in finding our dream condo. We now owned a ground floor, beachfront condo on the quiet west end of Panama City Beach. I prefer a view closer to the ground as I’m agoraphobic (fear of heights) and I hate using an elevator. I have no aversion to using stairs, but I already use them at home. So I figured why not provide my older guests and those with young children with nosebleed-free accommodations. Nothing beats stepping right onto the sand from your patio. I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. We returned a month later to close on our property, refurnished, and enjoy our first week as condo owners. That was the easy part!

We always knew we’d eventually run the business without the help of an agency, but we needed some guidance to get our feet wet (no pun intended). For the first couple of months, we used a rental agency while we figured out what we were doing. We knew we’d need to secure reliable housekeepers, obtain vacation rental web sites to list our property, and work our property into a successful business. Well, at least try to get it to pay its own bills. When we were ready, we learned that it was actually easier, for us. I won’t claim it’s easier for everyone. But since we only own one condo, it was a no-brainer.

I cannot stress enough how important record keeping is in this business. You must record every transaction relating to your business. Every loss, gain and receipt must be meticulously recorded…right down to the housekeeper fees, bed tax collected, and heaven forbid, stolen towels! By the way, we’ve only had spices removed! So find yourself a good spreadsheet template. Also, keep good records of your correspondence and emails with your guests, inquiries, housekeeping and maintenance staff. You are more likely to enjoy repeat guests if clear and friendly conversations exist between you.

I have made it a habit to contact my inquirers immediately (within that day). They are usually impressed that I took the time to get back to them. Some never get back to me even after I take the time to call or email them. But I figure, hey, it’s their loss! By the way, every email I receive from potential guests, whether they rent or not, get filed. I try to reconnect with them for the following season, or when I run specials. Never underestimate what an invitation to bookmark your listing site for future rentals can do for your business. Repeat guests can eventually become your bread and butter. This year we’ve enjoyed about 90 percent occupancy. There are other factors to contribute to this phenomenon.

Provide your guests with all the creature comforts. Upgrade your cable programming to HD and furnish the nicest high def television you can afford. Prices have really dropped as resolution and contrast ratio have risen. For the living room, a 40” to 52” LCD does nicely. However, be sure to put locks on pay-per-view. Also, it would behoove you to have a smaller HD LCD in the bedroom, instead of a bulky tube TV. The LCDs run cooler and do not attract as much dust. Also, provide DVD players in the living room as well as the master bedroom. If you have extra DVDs lying around, stock a few for your guests. Provide movies for younger guests. Mark them clearly and keep an inventory.

For the basic price of combining local phone service with DSL, the rewards are obvious. I’ve rarely had guests that didn’t need it or use it. Many ask for it and prospects just may choose your rental over another that doesn’t provide Internet service.

I cannot stress enough how important a good housekeeper is. Find one that has a spotless reputation, great references, flexible, has great attention to detail. Your housekeeper deserves to have good communication with you, for schedules, expectations, prompt payment and a good working relationship. She/he can make or break your business. Keep them happy and everyone wins.

Keep your rental like you would your home. Not only will it feel more like home for your guests, they will tend to respect it more. Provide plenty of linens and first-day amenities such as little soaps, TP, tea, spices, etc., will remind them they are not in a mere hotel. Little touches like bedtime mints, champagne for newlyweds, even a couple of loads of dishwasher soap will make them yearn to return.

A comfortable bed that they don’t want to get out of is sure to bring your guests back. Don’t scrimp on comfort here. A sturdy mattress will last years longer than one from a discount store. Do provide moisture-proof anti-microbial pillow and mattress covers. Let your guests know this, as it will ensure them that you have their health and comfort at the top of your list.

Keep your appliances updated and good working order. If you buy new, get extended warranties. I guarantee it will be worth it, and it’s tax deductible. Provide your guests with tips and information on how to use them. High efficiency front loading washers use only HE (low sudsing) detergent. Remind them to keep the lint traps clean on your dryer. Provide coffee filters! They are cheap, and even if you don’t provide coffee (which can go stale anyway), your guests will appreciate not having to buy filters.

It’s nice to keep a broom and dustpans, bagless vacuum and some cleaning supplies available for your guests to use. Some may never use them; after all, they are on vacation! But then you may have guests like myself, A-types that can stand to see dust or sand on the floor. My housekeepers are always delighted to walk into a recently vacated unit that was sparkling clean. It can happen!

When the deal is closed and your guests have only weeks until they arrive, be sure to send them receipts for payment, email to print out of what you expect of them, how to check in and out, how to get keys, times, phone numbers and anything else that will make their arrival and departure as smooth as silk. Encourage your guests to sign a guestbook. Others will enjoy reading pages of kudos and you can write their entries into the much-forgotten online guestbook!

Every January, I create a letter to email all my contacts, whether they actually stayed or just inquired. Then I write them and invite them to check our web sites to start planning their next vacation. I remind them to book early, especially for peak times like March through the end of September. Guests that you expect to return will appreciate the reminder. If you prefer not to rent to college age guests, and we strictly avoid this, do be cordial and diplomatic when emailing them back. Firmly remind them of your policy but don’t burn the bridge. Let them know to share your link with their parents, should they be shopping around for great accommodations. A little diplomacy may lead to a booking you didn’t expect.

Lastly, I’d encourage rental owners to remember what it is like to be on the other side of the door. Treat your guests as you would like to be treated. Do for them what you can afford, try to break even, and try to enjoy your vacation home yourself when you can. We’ve developed some great relationships with our renters. The dividends will be great new friendships and happy memories for all. Have fun with it and many happy returns!

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1 PJ October 18, 2008 at 3:38 pm

When you rent from a distance, how do you handle things like seeing to the little amenities you describe? Is tat done entirely through your housekeeping service? We use a rental agent, but feel guests would feel more pampered if we could provide a few extras for them.

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2 Lori October 18, 2008 at 3:48 pm

Hi PJ!
We keep our guest ammenities in a locked closet in our unit. Our housekeeper has a key and she just replenishes those items, soaps, filters, TP, etc., at each cleaning. I have a lady that cleans for me, and several others in the area. Yes, guests do feel more pampered, it’s the little things! I even put out Andes mints on either side of the bed in the master bedroom. They also get individual use floss, lotions, etc. I keep a pump bottle of Softsoap in the bathroom and kitchen. I buy large refill bottle at Sam’s as well as case of individually wrapped TP. You can Google hotel supplies online to order single use items in bulk. Your guests really appreciate not having to run to the store immediately, or in the middle of the night for shower soap their first night! It costs so little, but they appreciate so much. Good luck!

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3 Jason October 18, 2008 at 8:35 pm

This is great stuff Lori, thanks a ton.

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4 Lori October 19, 2008 at 9:05 am

Thanks! My great pleasure!

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5 Linda January 24, 2010 at 6:02 pm

Your article was extremely helpful. I have decided to advertise my unit on my own and not use an agent. Thank you. Can you please forward me a list of the sites you advertise on? I would appreciate it.

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6 Gregg October 19, 2008 at 12:27 pm

Do you find that an owner can do better, net wise, by renting through a place like VRBO than using the on site rental agency?

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7 Gary October 19, 2008 at 12:28 pm

Very well written article with a ton of useful info, Lori!

What is your website?

Another thing that needs to be addressed is method of payment by visitors, whether it is cash, check, or credit card.

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8 Lori October 19, 2008 at 2:23 pm

I most certainly believe that using a listing site is the best way to go. I most certainly will not go back to using an agency!

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9 Lori October 19, 2008 at 2:34 pm

Method of payment is totally up to you. But I will tell you what we do. We take credit cards. We went to our bank when we set up our business account. We used them for our merchant account which is what we use for being able to accept credit cards. We have a slider (knuckle buster) if there are folks we know that want to use a card. But for the most part, they just give us their number over the phone and we call it into our merchant services. We do the same for returning their deposits to their account. Very easy, a caveman could do it! LOL! We also take PayPal. The listing sites also make it available for you to just have your booking guests pay right online, for a fee. But we prefer to not pass those extra fees along to our guests. So far, everyone is fine with the system, never a problem! Never take a personal check! Be sure and pay your taxes each month…do not let it get behind. Keep good records of your credit card transactions. And I have found a lot of folks like using their debit cards too.

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10 Mike October 20, 2008 at 5:58 pm

Spoken like someone with a lot of experience. We bought a PCB beachfront 1.5 bdrm. last year and rented it 75 nights in the peak months. We did most of your suggestions except DSL/Hi-Def. With Wi-Fi available in the lobby it hasn’t seemed to be much of a deal breaker. Having said this 2009 will be a make or break year for us. We did not rent the anticipated 150 nights we needed to make the annual cost palpable.

When you say that you rented 90% of the time would you share with us how many rental nights that means? Competition is fierce here and we don’t know how to get to the 150 night threshold in rentals.

Thanks,

Mike

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11 Lori October 20, 2008 at 6:28 pm

Mike,
I count our peak months as March 1 through September, and I usually rent at least half of October. By the end of January this year, I had 3 weeks of March, 3 weeks of April, and all of May through September except for one week we used for my son’s honeymoon, totally booked, that far in advance! I always gently remind my past guests to come back (via email or phone calls). I contact past inquiries to take another look for the coming season, in case they’d like to get in, in case they wanted in last time, but it was already booked.

When I say 90 percent occupancy, that means 90 percent of the year to date, was rented by guests, and does not include our own use.

We chose our location where we knew that there would never be partiers, or partiers any time for that matter. So our guests know in advance that will never be a problem and so families know they are protected from that. Our resort is gated and so private so it’s never crowded. And being on the ground floor, literally you walk right out onto the beach from our back patio door, is I’d say close to 85 percent of our rental success. The other factors that our guests love is the furnishings and appliances/electronics, DSL, love the bed, quiet, and our prices. We lowered our rent when we quit our on-site agency, and saw our guest list spike beyond our dreams.

I won’t say it’s always easy, but if you have a couple of dead weeks you want to attract guests to, I runs specials, offer $100 gift cert. to Boar’s Head, things like that. Better to sacrifice a little cash or lower prices and have a filled calendar, than stick to prices that nobody wants to pay and have an empty condo.

Do what you can to bring in Snowbirds for November-February. This will be a deep discount if sold by the month, but like I said, better than an empty condo. If you can at least get a couple weekly stays in November or December if the whole month doesn’t sell, that will make up for it. Run a holiday special! Good luck!

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12 Gary October 20, 2008 at 7:31 pm

Lori, you never listed your website. Was hoping to view it.

BTW, if any need a company to provide merchant services to accept credit cards, that is what I do, and is why I asked the question. I compete with the banks, so usually am much more competitive. I personally service all my accounts, and have not had one complaint or disgruntled customer. If you need to take credit cards, or want to see if you can get better rates, let me know.

Gary

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13 Lori October 20, 2008 at 7:41 pm

Gary,
I just sent you a personal email with my listing sites, as I was worried I wouldn’t be allowed to list my website (that would be like advertising). J, if it’s okay if I do add my site, let me know. Thanks all!

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14 Gregg October 20, 2008 at 7:43 pm

Lori, what do you see as the advantages doing it yourself versus using an on site rental agency?
Not really knowing but I would think that the on site agency would do better on off season being able to pick up walk ins, maybe I’m wrong. What are your thoughts?

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15 Lori October 20, 2008 at 7:57 pm

Gregg,
Here is my take on the subject of on-site agencies and off season walkins. First, let me state that if an on-site agency is worth it to an owner, not wanting any hands-on control, doesn’t mind the expense (or I should say, paying someone to do what I believe isn’t that hard, for what you get), and you like the job their housekeeping staff is doing, go for it. For us, paying as much as 37 percent of our draw for mediocre housekeeping, lackluster advertising, and other issues, there was no question but to take it back. We are SO glad we did!

Walkins: Hmm, we don’t want walkins. Sorry, but for a 3-night or less stay (we have a 3-night minimum), no correspondence with the prospective guests, and the chances it could be nightmare guests from not having a chance to screen them, sent chills up our spines. We live 13 hours from PCB, and it’s not like we can check them out. But honestly, since most of our guests, except for one family, stay at least 7 nights (Saturday to Saturday), walkins are a moot issue. Our guests roll in and out back to back, so really, no time for walkins anyway! I hope this answers your question. It’s much easier also to keep our housekeeper in tandem with planned guest lists.

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16 Allan October 20, 2008 at 8:53 pm

Lori,
Do you just have one unit or do you have more than one? When do have time to go for yourself? We rent ours out to Snowbirds but I dont know if I could handle not being able to go down on a weekend during the summer. Then again we are only a hour and a half away, not 13.

Thanks for the advice!!
Allan

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17 Lori October 20, 2008 at 9:07 pm

Believe me, it’s painful to not get to go down there more often than we do. We just keep our schedules open, hop down there when we have an opening, and we do block out time sometime in late summer or early fall, and in early spring. But lots of times it is last minute. And we just have the one unit! I doubt that with me working, I’d have time to deal with more than one at this time. Since I really work this business and I’m so detailed in everything, we just can’t have another right now. I’d love to since prices are down. Maybe we can when we are retired and can live down there at least half the year!

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18 Tony Santilli October 22, 2008 at 11:16 pm

What about travel insurance?

CHECK IT OUT. IT WORKS!!!

http://travelguard.com/vacationrentals/

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19 Lori October 23, 2008 at 8:47 am

Tony,
I’m sure there are several travel insurance companies have fine insurance for travellers. It is ultimately up to them. But as we run our business with much care and understanding, we also use caution. I don’t promote it one way or the other to our guests. And we’ve only had 3 cancellations in all the time we’ve been renting. All cancelled within their time limit to get their deposit back. One family had an emergency and had already paid in full, so we just rescheduled them for later in the summer. Because we were flexible, they were happy and their vacation was already paid for, for whenever they were ready to come out. Not all rental owners are willing to do that.

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20 Pat October 31, 2008 at 8:05 pm

Lori,
Great tips!! I’ve been renting my 2 condos in Navarre Beach for 5 years and have had amazing success. I must admit I’m reluctant to rent my PCB units (I own 4) on my own because I’m told the clientele tend to be more party types, however, my own observation (whenever I visit) is that more families are favoring PCB because there’s so much more for the kids to do. Navarre is great for what it is – and we love it but we love PCB as well. I’ve been looking for a blog like this where condo owners who rent on their own can exchange ideas. This is great!!! Currently I do have a rental management company but I’m paranoid that trying to handle 4 more units would make me crazy. Other than the obvious websites online – I would appreciate any marketing ideas you might have – other than the usual mass emailing of past clientele. I may try to do 2 of my units just to test the waters.

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21 Lori October 31, 2008 at 8:52 pm

Pat,
Thanks for reading! Wow, 2 in Navarre and 4 in PCB…you must be doing something right! First, let me state that as far as renting on your own in Panama City Beach will be what you make of it. YOU decide who stays and it’s up to you to, sorry for the strong phrase, “police” your clientele. If you get an inquiry that the email came from “somekid@university.edu”, you have every right to question who they are, how old they are, teacher, student, just someone using the college internet library. It’s your business, your property, and if someone has trouble with your screening them, it’s their loss. Vacation home owners carry a huge burden of mortgages, insurance, tax issues, housekeepers, etc., and nobody wants to replace the sheetrock or coffee table every April. Where we are, that’s not an issue as our resort has 0 tolerance of college guests without parents being here the whole stay. Our security staff is really on top of it. I think it would be a great idea to try one of two of your condos next spring. On your inquiries, call them and email them as soon as you hear from them. Most college kids don’t write me back after I spell out our rules. Some have thanked me for my being upfront and tell me they will pass our info along to their folks and that is great! Staying friendly, honest, firm and diplomatic will get you far (and save your furniture)!

I always do mass emailings of past guests, but most of the time they contact me! I remind them how fast our place books by the end of January, and the deposits just roll in. Good luck!

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22 Pat November 1, 2008 at 2:31 pm

Lori,
Thank you so much – I shall check back from time to time. Can you send me your websites on my personal email. I have several as well and was curious!!

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23 Ann November 5, 2008 at 7:37 pm

Lori, thanks so much for your comments on vacation rentals. We have rented pretty much on our own in 2008 and did fairly well. You are correct in your comments, you have to keep your condo well appointed and state of the art to attract the best renters. The difficult issue seems to be finding good cleaning people and managing the relationship from long distances. Would love to talk to you more about that issue offline.

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24 Lori November 5, 2008 at 8:20 pm

I’m glad to help! I’ve emailed you! Thanks!

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25 Phil Work January 22, 2009 at 2:54 am

Lori,
My wife and I have bought both a condo in west end PCB and a small-fixer upper house in Laguna Beach, and intend to rent both. All your advice here has been very helpful to us, and thanks. We too, want to be do-it-yourselfers, and live about 8 hours away. One thing that would be helpful, if you can recommend, is a good cleaning company. If you are interested, I can provide contacts for a number of good, reliable tradesmen (carpenter, plumber, roofer, electrician, general remodeler) who do very good work at reasonable prices. Thanks, Phil

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26 Chris October 25, 2009 at 10:01 pm

You mentioned “Find a good spreadsheet” for keeping track of income and expenses.

Can you suggest one?

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27 Lori Duncan October 26, 2009 at 5:28 pm

Chris, we use Excel, but there are spreadsheets out there that do the same thing, and there are ones that are free. Google has one in Google docs. My husband is a programmer, so he designed one specifically for our needs, which calculate taxes, etc. Pretty handy! But if you already use Excel and are familiar with it, I’d use that and it’s not really hard to create all the fields and columns that suit your needs. Hope this helps!

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28 Kristina Wenninger December 15, 2009 at 1:04 pm

Hi Lori,
thanks for posting the informative writeup on renting your vacation home. My husband and I live in California, however, we just purchased a beautiful new condo in Atlanta, GA because we will be there some of the time during the year. My husband does work in Atlanta about 3 months out of the year so he figured this would be a good idea since his work will pay him for the time he spends there. The other months of the year the condo will sit vacant! I’ve thought about it and decided renting it out the other months of the year to vacationers might be a good idea. Can you give me any direction on the best websites to advertise it on? I think it could be making money for us rather than sitting vacant if we went the route you did with yours.
I’ve included the website with info. about the condo just f.y.i. and also it is a very artsy and upcoming area in midtown Atlanta with a gorgeous view of the city! I think it would do very well as a rental to vacation goers or even men who are looking for a place to rent while doing work in Atlanta.
thanks for any tips!
Kristina

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