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Thursday, August 14, 2014

Pros and Cons of Vacation Rentals by Owner

I first discovered Vacation Rentals by Owner (VRBO, part of the HomeAway family) nearly ten years ago when trying to find a condo for our multi-family annual pilgrimage to Destin, Florida.  Without much success booking directly through the condominiums or area real estate agents, I was really glad to find out that I could bypass the middle man and work directly with the owner.

The VRBO website has improved significantly over the years, now giving users the ability to select travel dates and other filters, such as number of bedrooms, type of view, and whether or not it is pet friendly.  It's updated interface has made it almost as easy to use as an online booking site.

Over the years, I've used VRBO for a variety of getaways... from beach condos, to an apartment by the Colosseum in Rome, and a charming villa in Tuscany....

VRBO Tuscany Rental

[PRO] Save Money / Greater Value

Booking a Vacation Rental through VRBO can be a great way to save money, and depending on where you're going or your type of accommodation, can be a greater value.

Some destinations are better for vacation rentals than others.  Beaches with high-rise condominiums, as well as mountains with ski resorts and outdoor activities tend to have more VRBO listings.  For example, a one-bedroom standard room with one queen bed and one sleeper sofa at oceanfront North Myrtle Beach resort, Peppertree by the Sea, runs $189 per night.  A few nearby Ocean Drive North Myrtle Beach VRBO listings include a 3-bedroom/3-bath oceanfront condo at Ashworth for $126 per night and a 4-bedroom/3-bath oceanfront condo at Ocean Bay Club for $139 per night.  For less money, you can get more space and even more amenities through VRBO.

VRBO isn't exclusive to beach and mountain getaways, though.  There are plenty of apartments available for rent in cities, too.  I checked out listings in one of my favorite Manhattan Neighborhoods in New York City, Chelsea (near the beautiful NYC High Line) and found beautifully decorated and photographed studio and one-bedroom apartments ranging from $200-350 per night, as well as 2 and 3-bedroom apartments starting at $300 per night.  Comparable nearby hotels are the Hilton Garden Inn New York/Chelsea at an average of $358 per night (standard room) and Courtyard by Marriott New York Manhattan/Chelsea at an average of $404 per night (standard room) for the same weekend.

Of course, with the typical savings comes sorting through all of the available listings and inquiring with individual owners.  So whether or not it is actually a greater value depends not only on where you're going, how many people are in your traveling party, and what amenities are available with your rental, but also whether it is worth the added time to find a rental and work with the owner.

[CON] Site Abuse / Owner Laziness

When searching through listings to book my most recent trip to Destin, Florida, I filtered the search based on the number of bedrooms I wanted and the days that we'd be staying.... then I selected a few and sent inquiries to the owner.  Within the next few hours, I got back all rejection emails stating that the units were unavailable for the dates I had specified.  But what I found extremely peculiar is that all of these emails came from Ashley Sierocki, a "Vacation Planner" from a different vacation rental website called Go Southern.  Frustrated, I went back to VRBO and sent more inquiries... and got even more standardized rejection emails from Ashley.

While I was very grateful when VRBO added an availability calendar to help filter listings a few years ago, the calendar is only as accurate as the owner who updates it.  When the owner doesn't modify the calendar every time he or she creates a new booking, it wastes your time as a potential renter and makes weeding through the not-always accurate listings a more daunting task.  However, VRBO has more recently added a "Book Now" option, allowing the renter to immediately reserve the unit for the dates available with no booking fees, if the owner has enabled the function for their listing (note that there is a 24-hour period during which the owner can confirm or decline the booking reservation).

Ashley Sierocki was not only being a lazy user by not updating her calendar to reflect the available dates of her many listings, but she was (and is) abusing the site to promote her own vacation rental website.  When there was finally one (and only one) condo available for the dates that I would be visiting, she sent me to her personal vacation rental website to book it.  After going back to her VRBO property listings, I realize that she has links in the description which send users to her vacation rental website, as well as advertise other properties that she manages.  And having read the User Terms and Conditions (yeah, sometimes I actually do that... usually when I'm looking for a loophole or a reason to complain), she is violating the Content Guidelines which state "At a minimum, user contributed content must: [3] not include promotional content that would promote other websites, businesses, services or products unaffiliated with this Site without our express permission."

Of course, with years of use, I have only encountered one person who I believe is truly misusing the site.  I believe that most of the people who list their rental properties have good intentions, but as always when working with individuals rather than a company, exercise caution when giving out personal information.

[PRO] Accommodations for Larger Families

Yes.  It's time for me to use my favorite quote by Jon Gosselin (you know... Kate Plus Eight's ex-husband currently undergoing a way-too-public midlife crisis)...

The world was built for a family of four.

I'm not sure about the entire world, but when it comes to vacations, accommodations are surely easier for a family of four.  Most standard hotel rooms have a maximum occupancy of four people (sometimes five with a roll-away or trundle).

Fortunately for larger families, Vacation Rentals are not one-size-fits-all.  There are options ranging from cozy studio apartments to six-bedroom mansions with private pools.  And VRBO allows you to filter rentals in your destination by bedrooms and bathrooms, or number of guests it sleeps (Note: Just because the owner claims 2-bedroom condo can sleep up to 8 with a pull-out sofa, futon, and trundle, it doesn't mean it does so comfortably). When traveling with a party of six in Europe, I realized that rather than booking separate hotel rooms, we could all stay together and perhaps save a bit of money by booking multi-bedroom accommodations through VRBO.  We were able to stay in larger accommodations in great locations, all while saving a bit of money compared to what we would have been spending if we booked three separate hotel rooms.

[CON] Quirky, Often Outdated Decor

The vacation homes pictured on VRBO's home page are beautiful, magazine-quality homes.  Unfortunately, not every vacation rental listed on the website was decorated by a professional (and those that were will usually tell you in price).

Whether it's to save money, get the location you want, or the dates you need, you'll likely find yourself compromising.  So it might mean that you have to live with a sofa from '89 for a week... or that your children will just have to suffer on the uncomfortable pullout sofa in the living room.

Pictures sell.  When picking out a condo, before reading anything that the owner wrote in the description, I flip through all of the photos posted to check out the views, bed configurations, and to see if I can handle the decor.  One of the patterns that I've noticed is that owners will include a photo of the beach... but that doesn't necessarily mean it's the view from their condo, or even walking distance.  Read all of the photo descriptions carefully (does it say "view from our balcony" or "located near beautiful beaches"?), and if you're ever uncertain, double-check views and location using Google Earth and Google Street View.

Of course, I've also learned to not judge the rental solely on the photos posted.  Before, I've stayed in a condo with outdated floral bedspreads pictured on VRBO to learn that the owner must have recently purchased new bedding.  And just recently, we stayed in an oceanfront condo, but the photo of the view that the owner had put on VRBO made it look like you had to lean over the balcony railing and turn your head to the left to see the ocean.  Keep in mind that usually the photos posted are taken on low-quality cameras by people who are not professional photographers, so the pictures typically won't be as appealing as the marketing photos posted on a hotel's website.

[PRO] Home-Like Amenities

One of the great conveniences and money-saving advantages to staying in a vacation rental is the often added benefit of home-like amenities.  Rather than eating out for every meal, relying on the hotel's continental breakfasts, or surviving until noon on granola bars, most vacation rentals include a full kitchen set-up so that you can prepare meals there.  Not having to eat out for every meal saves money and allows you to eat a little healthier (or at least more like normal).  Also, with a full-size refrigerator, you don't have to worry about making room in the mini fridge for takeout boxes.

Another great perk is when the vacation rental includes a washer and dryer, allowing you to take home clean clothes or even wash your clothes so that you can re-wear (and pack less!).

[CON] No Resort Pampering and Amenities

The downside of choosing a vacation rental rather than a hotel is that along with the home-like conveniences comes the home-like responsibilities.... making your own beds, washing your own linens, replacing your own towels, and emptying your own trash.  You'll also miss out on accumulating loyalty rewards points that you can receive when staying at hotel brands... as well as the occasional surprise room upgrade.  Vacation rentals, while they can be fancy and even luxurious, aren't the most pampering.  Keep that in mind with the occasion for which you are traveling.  While it can be great for a large family gathering, a vacation rental might not be the best choice for a honeymoon or anniversary getaway.

However, not all hotel perks are removed just because you're staying at a vacation rental.  Many condominiums and vacation rental villages offer resort-like swimming pools, entertainment, and activities.  We've stayed at some vacation rentals with expansive pools, and we just returned from a condo that we found on VRBO which included a private poolside cabana.

[PRO] Prices are Negotiable

Just like when booking a hotel at the last minute or during a low-crowd season, you can receive discounted prices when booking through VRBO.  The advantage with VRBO is that by having direct contact with the owner, you can do direct negotiation.  If you're booking at the last minute and an owner usually requires week-long rentals, you might be able to negotiate a four-night stay, considering that getting paid for four nights is better than getting paid for no nights at all.

Just like at the flea market or car dealership, when you walk away or stay quiet, you'll often get a better offer.  Respond to the owner when they first contact you, but don't act too desperate... they'll often follow-up later, offering a lower price.

I've also had vacation rental owners offer me additional perks, such as complimentary beach set-up for the week or discounted golf prices.  Just because they aren't associated with a large hotel brand doesn't mean that they don't have valuable benefits to offer.

[CON] Can Be Lacking in Customer Service and Hospitality

A disadvantage to booking through VRBO, rather than a hotel brand, that I recently discovered is the possible lack in customer service.  You have to remember that you're working with a home owner or property manager, rather than a concierge desk.  They don't have a brand to represent or a reputation to maintain, and they are often (and understandably so) personally attached to and proud of their property.  Therefore, don't be surprised if your issues don't get resolved in a timely manner or professional way.

I just returned from a stay at an oceanfront condo with a beautiful view and great location.  We had stayed in the area before, but never at that condominium, so we were surprised to find a sign on the walkway to the beach that prohibited set-up of personal umbrellas.  Being ones to (typically) follow the rules, we obeyed the  sign and walked to the adjacent public beach to set up our personal umbrella.  I emailed the owner to explain that we were pleased with the condo, but disappointed to find that we couldn't set up our own umbrella on the beach, and that is something I am sure renters would appreciate knowing when they book in the future.  The owner responded defensively, saying that it wasn't a rule and even suggesting that we had been asked to move from the beach due to rowdy behavior.  When I sent her a photograph of the sign, she continued to play defense and make excuses, telling me that no other renter had encountered that problem before.... she kept suggesting that it was my fault that I found or paid attention to the sign.  I was never really upset with the situation, but rather with how she handled it.  What bothered me the most was that in all of our email exchanges, I never once received an apology.

The response that I would have liked to have received would have been:

Dear Victoria,
I apologize greatly for this inconvenience and thank you for bringing it to my attention.  I have never before seen this sign, and as a homeowner, I have not been notified of this as a recent change to our policy.  I will contact the homeowner's association immediately requesting information and hope to get back to you shortly with a resolution.  I hope that you are finding the rest of your stay enjoyable and wish you a relaxing vacation!
Kind Homeowner Aware of the Importance of Customer Service

As someone who vacations frequently, I am accustomed to and respect quality customer service.  Vacation rental owners are not trained in customer service.  They are also not representing a brand... and if you are treated poorly, you can't request to speak to the manager or report the rude employee.  What you can do is leave honest, critical feedback on the VRBO listing.  However, whenever I have read an even slightly negative review on a VRBO listing, the owner has responded, making sure to note everything that the renter did wrong and how terrible they were to work with ("He knew this!  He didn't do this like I told him to!").... Because when you're working with vacation rental owners, they don't have a brand to represent themselves in good times and bad, so they tend to take everything very personally.

Is booking through VRBO right for me?

Whether or not booking a vacation rental is the right choice really isn't a one-size-fits-all answer.  A few factors that I consider when deciding whether or not to book a vacation rental are:

1. Destination

Not all vacation destinations have a lot of listings.  Some destinations are better for vacation rentals, while others have more choices and conveniences with hotels.  For example, Destin, Florida is a gulf coast beach town which consists primarily of condominiums and privately-owned beach houses, rather than resorts and hotels.  On the other hand, if I were planning a trip to Las Vegas, I really doubt that I would even look into vacation rentals, considering that the Las Vegas Strip consists almost entirely of high-rise hotels.

2. Traveling Party

Remember the perfect family of four I mentioned above?  Well, that's us.  My immediate family fits perfectly into a standard hotel room.  However, if we're traveling with friends, it might be much more comfortable for us to get a 3-bedroom condo, rather than three separate hotel rooms.

3. Location + Amenities

I travel to Walt Disney World frequently, but even when traveling with friends, I've chosen to stay at a Disney Resort rather than a vacation rental.  The reason for this is because I prefer the convenience of location and transportation available to me when I stay on-property, as well as other added amenities, such as Extra Magic Hours, room charging privileges, and more recently, Disney Magic Bands.

Even with the few negative experiences encountered with booking through VRBO, I wouldn't hesitate to book a vacation rental through the site again if it were right for the type of vacation.

Have you used VRBO when booking your vacation rental?  Share your experience in the comments section below!

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