For years my extended family would head to my sister Margot’s five-bedroom home near Albany, New York, to celebrate the holidays. But once marriage and children had expanded our group to 18, the house became too small to comfortably fit us all.
So two years ago, my real estate-savvy sister-in-law Claire went online to Airbnb and found a gorgeous country compound in New York’s Catskill Mountains region with room for everyone. Two guesthouses added privacy, a huge dining table could seat the whole crew and a renovated barn with a big play area kept the grandchildren happily occupied. The owners even had put up a Christmas tree, much to the kids’ delight.
It was such fun that when we discussed this year’s holiday plans, the vote was unanimous: Try to snag the Catskills property again. Luckily, it was available.
But while that experience was a huge success, I also have accumulated a few horror stories from my many home-rental adventures — like the time we rented an oceanfront cottage in Santa Barbara, California, that turned out to be near a freeway and overlooked a noisy, packed beach. The nonstop highway traffic, early-morning surf camps and rowdy late-night bonfires encouraged an early checkout.
Now we've learned how to spot and avoid potential problems — and always get our rental deposits back. Some tips from a veteran home renter:
1. If your destination is popular, book up to a year in advance.
It may make you nervous to commit to a place so many months out, but due to COVID-19, many rental-home owners have loosened their cancellation policies, allowing you to change plans without penalty close to your check-in date.
2. Get a good overview of your options.
Find out the general cost and availability of homes at different destinations you’re considering. Begin by browsing the big rental sites, such as Vrbo and Airbnb. Try widening your search to include nearby towns, where availability may be greater and prices lower. If you can be flexible, play with your date range.
3. Consider the per-person fee.
The prices can seem absurdly high when you’re looking at big homes with many bedrooms for a large family group. But it may not be so bad if you do the math. For my family, for instance, a $600-per-night home works out to about $30 a person nightly — cheaper than most hotels.
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4. See if you can save money by using local real estate agencies.
They often manage houses that also appear on rental websites, so by going through the agencies directly, you may be able to save a bundle by not paying the high “service” fees that the online sites charge. We learned that the hard way: After renting a house through Vrbo in Saranac Lake, in New York’s Adirondack Mountains, we realized that we could have shaved nearly $800 off a six-night rental by going through a local rental agency. Sometimes the big online sites are your only option for getting the home you want, but it’s worth investigating alternatives.
5. Before you book, do due diligence.
Are there houses or businesses next door? Is the property in a noisy location? Are linens provided and how well stocked is the kitchen? Is it accessible for those with disabilities? Ask questions and try to get the address before booking to check the location on an online map. I didn’t do that when booking an apartment in Schenectady, New York, that turned out to be in a sketchy part of town. When my friends and I arrived, the Airbnb host warned us to have house keys in hand and sprint to the door when exiting our rental car.
And always read the reviews of the property posted by past guests. Give more weight to well-written comments with lots of specifics.
5. Read the house rules carefully.
Are pets welcome? Are you expected to take out garbage, strip beds and start a load of laundry when leaving? The owners of our Saranac Lake rental forbade the burning of candles, for example. Not following the rules or doing damage could mean forfeiting some or all of your deposit. If you notice a problem or something broken when you check in, photograph it and tell the landlord or manager right away. When staying in a pricey house, consider short-term insurance to cover mishaps.
6. Divvy up responsibilities for bringing supplies, buying food, making meals and doing other chores.
Those who are driving from their homes can bring basics like paper towels, condiments and plastic wrap, in case the house doesn’t have them. They also may need to bring sheets and towels, depending on whether they're provided (be sure to check before your trip). Different family members might be assigned to make meals for the group or help clean up after dinner. If your crew is big and you can afford it, consider a catering service or take-out food to cut down on kitchen time.
7. Avoid skirmishes over sleeping quarters.
If someone has special needs or is paying more, they should get first choice. You also can draw numbered pieces of paper to determine who picks first, second, third and so on. Or let the oldest select first, and go down the line. It may seem petty, but insensitive bedroom assignments can spark resentment — and who needs another reason for family tension during the holidays?
Kitty Bean Yancey, a former USA Today deputy managing editor, is a travel writer and the winner of multiple Lowell Thomas Awards from the Society of American Travel Writers.