Ten Tips for Successfully Renting Your Vacation Property

In the computer business, people are always searching for the “killer app”—the application that makes it essential to buy a particular piece of hardware or software. Well, for current or prospective owners of vacation properties, the power the Internet provides for renting out those properties, and reducing or eliminating the cost of a rental agent or property manager, is the killer app. But you’ve got to do it correctly. The ten tips presented here will get you started in the right direction.

Tip #1: Study the competition.

Before you begin offering your property as a vacation rental, take the time to analyze your competition. That’s especially easy to do on sites like FindVacationRentals and HomeAway, which provide state-of-the-art search tools.

As you review listings posted by your competitors, put yourself in the shoes of a prospective renter. Pretend that you’re searching for a place to spend your next family vacation. Which listings do you find most appealing and why? What are the rates? How do the owners handle deposits, cleaning fees, and other charges? Print out the property listings you really like and mark them up to remind yourself of the furnishings, features, and amenities you want to provide for your guests.

Tip #2: Take the time to shoot lots of really great photos.

In the vacation-rental business, photos are crucial. If your property is in a highly competitive location, the quality (and quantity) of the pictures in your online listings can make all the difference in the world. Remember, most of your guests will be renting your property sight unseen. So the more you can do to show them its charms and eliminate their doubts, the better.

You should also make an effort to “dress the set” for each shot. A colorful vase of flowers or a bowl of fresh fruit on the kitchen counter can go a long way toward transforming a photo from ordinary to extraordinary. You might even want to consider hiring a professional photographer. A pro will have the knowledge and equipment to advise you on composition and to properly light each scene.

Tip #3: Write a wonderful description of your property.

Sure, easier said than done. Many people freeze up when they have to write something. That’s why so many of your competitors’ property descriptions are so bad, so short, and so thin on details. At FindVacationRentals, you’re allowed an unlimited amount of space for describing your property (unlike a lot of sites that allow you to enter only a few lines of text), so take advantage of it!

Here’s a trick you can use to overcome writer’s block and get your creative juices flowing:

Imagine that you are describing your vacation property to a very special aunt and uncle. They’ve never seen the place before, and you’re thrilled that they’re coming to stay for a week. What would you tell them? Why do you love the property? The location? What joys will they (and your renters) find there? Put some personality into your property description to set your place apart from every other “2BR/2BA Condo w/Ocean View.”

Tip #4: List your property on several leading vacation-rental Web sites.

Many new vacation-rental owners make the mistake of putting their initial efforts (and advertising dollars) into designing a Web site for their vacation property. Then they try—without success, in most cases—to get their site recognized by Google and other search engines.

What they should be doing instead is signing up with FindVacationRentals and other well-established vacation-rental advertising sites. They should put their time and effort into creating detailed and well-illustrated listings, post them on several leading sites, and leave the Web-page design and SEO (Search Engine Optimization) to the professionals. We recommend that you start with three or four sites, but you may need several more if your property is in a highly competitive area, or if your objective is to book your property year-round.

Whatever you do, try to avoid the temptation of accepting all the “free listing” offers that come your way. Five or six listings are quite manageable. Venture much beyond that and you’ve got a major project on your hands each and every time you want to change rates, add an amenity, or make other modifications to the information you present about your property.

Tip #5: Offer an online availability calendar and keep it up-to-date.

Prospective renters like to see immediately whether the dates they want are available. You’ll increase bookings and minimize the time you spend sending out “Sorry we’re already booked” messages by using an online availability calendar.

FindVacationRentals offers its own availability calendar, but it also supports the Rentors.org “Universal Availability Calendar.” The neat thing about this calendar is that you can use it on a number of leading sites, in addition to FindVacationRentals. So whenever you take a reservation for your property, you can update one calendar and the changes will appear in your listings at all the sites that support Rentors.org. This is a real timesaver, and can also help you avoid the embarrassment of double-booking mistakes.

Tip #6: Get approved to accept credit cards.

Your renters will appreciate the convenience associated with paying by credit card. But you’ll also find that accepting credit cards makes your life much easier. Instead of waiting for rental deposit checks to arrive by mail (and then waiting even longer for them to clear the bank), you can process credit card transactions immediately and see the funds in your checking account within just a few days.

Getting approved to accept credit cards isn’t nearly as difficult as it once was. There are even programs specifically designed for vacation-rental owners. Visit www.rentors.org for information about one such program. All you need is a computer with Internet access—there’s no special terminal or software to buy—and the application and approval process can usually be completed in a matter of days.

Tip #7: Find reliable cleaning and service people—and treat them well!

The key word here is reliable. In a resort/vacation area, “cleaning and service people” are almost as numerous as restaurant waiters and waitresses. But what you need are permanent residents, not a group of kids whose main interest is skiing or pointing up their tans.

You have at least as many options for finding and hiring “help” at your vacation site as you do at your home location. Start by asking other property owners for recommendations. Look into buying services à la carte from local rental agents or property managers. Or consult the Yellow Pages on the theory that any company that can afford a Yellow Pages ad must have something going for it. When you find good people, treat them well so that your property will be among their top priorities whenever it needs attention.

You should also try to find a local resident willing to serve as your on-site manager. This is just the job for a retired person. Or someone who offers “Concierge and Errand” services for an hourly rate. Your local manager can keep an eye on your property, make sure the cleaning folks did a good job, and serve as a contact point whenever your guests need a plumber, electrician, or other craftsperson.

Tip #8: Respond promptly to all rental inquiries—by phone, if possible.

People making vacation plans often call or send e-mail inquiries to multiple property owners. So it’s critical that you check for new phone and e-mail messages several times a day and respond to rental inquiries promptly—by phone, whenever possible. The most successful vacation-rental owners are the ones who aren’t shy about picking up the phone and calling prospective renters—instead of relying exclusively on e-mail.

When you call, take the opportunity to project your personality and to convey the “specialness” of your place. The vacation-rental business is not about selling identical hotel rooms. It’s about persuading someone to choose your property over all the others they may be considering.

Tip # 9: Join your local Visitors Bureau or Chamber of Commerce.

The programs and services offered by local visitors bureaus, chambers of commerce, and similar organizations vary widely, of course. But member benefits often include supplies of attractive maps and area guidebooks that you can provide to your renters, as well as listings in printed and online directories that will help you spread the word about your property.

Once you’re plugged into your local hospitality industry, you may get all kinds of referrals from people who are holding weddings, family reunions, and other gatherings. You can even help things along by doing a color printout (on bright-white paper) of one of your online listings. With its photos, descriptive text, and rate information, this can become an instant color brochure for your property.

Tip #10: Remember: You’re a host, not a landlord.

It’s absolutely essential that you document reservation details, payment requirements, check-in and check-out procedures, pet and smoking policies, and so forth. Establish relationships with a good CPA and real estate lawyer who can help to ensure that you’re in compliance with all the various rules and regulations governing vacation rentals.

By all means, ask the experts to review your rental forms and procedures. But try to avoid overly complex legal jargon of the sort typically found in long-term lease agreements. Make all of your written communications and phone conversations with prospective renters friendly and upbeat.

Think of yourself as a host, not a landlord. Do that successfully, and by the time your renters check in, they’ll view themselves as “guests” in your wonderful vacation home. And they’ll treat the place accordingly.

About the Authors. Alfred and Emily Glossbrenner are the authors of over 60 books on home buying, personal finance, the Internet, and other topics. Their most recent book is How to Make Your Vacation Property Work for You!: The Quick & Easy Guide to Advertising, Renting, Managing, and Making Money from your Second Home. Designed as a complete “seminar-in-a-box,” this 300-page book/CD package shows you how to create listings that really sell on vacation-rental advertising sites. It also includes tips and techniques for managing your property, a CD with sample forms and checklists that you can customize as you see fit, and a variety of money-saving offers. For more information and to order a copy, visit www.fullybookedrentals.com.