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Glossbrenners' VR Owner Secrets

9 Posts tagged with the new_to_renting tag
2

The advance of technology, particularly entertainment technology, is relentless. So if you offer your second home as a vacation rental, you absolutely must provide up-to-date entertainment amenities.

When we first got into the vacation-rental business in 1994, we provided tube TVs with VCR players and a library of videotapes. When DVDs appeared, we replaced the VCR players with combo units that could handle both VHS tapes and DVDs. At this writing, those units and the tube TVs they were hooked up to have all been taken out of service and donated to the Salvation Army.

That’s because today, you’ve got to have flat-screen TVs. This is simply the way of the world. And not just any flat-screen TV will do. It’s got to be at least 32 inches measured diagonally, and it has to be HD (high-definition) capable. Our cable supplier is Comcast, so that means a new box for each of the two TVs in our vacation rental property, and an extra “technology fee” for each box.

Listening to Our Guests

We weren’t thrilled about this extra fee, but we figured it was just a cost of doing business. Fortunately, the price of flat-screen TVs has fallen greatly in recent years. But (and this is important), we didn’t decide to upgrade our entertainment equipment on our own. What pushed us to the tipping point were requests from two sets of guests.

The first was a relocated business executive who informed us shortly after he arrived for a multi-week stay that he planned to buy a 32-inch TV to use in place of the smaller one in our vacation rental’s living room. The second was a couple who said that having a large HDTV was so important to them that they planned to bring their own from Florida and hook it up to our cable box.

Clearly, it was time to do something. We must listen to our customers/guests if we want to survive and thrive in an increasingly competitive market.

Upgrading our TVs and Video Library

So here is what we did. We bought and installed two HDTVs. We had Comcast come out and install two HD-capable cable boxes. We got rid of our library of VHS tapes but left in place our limited selection of DVDs.

Then, in what we consider the masterstroke, we replaced the VHS/DVD combo units with Panasonic Blu-ray Disc players that are Internet-enabled. This means that both units can play the DVDs in our small library (or any discs our guests may bring with them). But they can also play content streamed in from the Internet via our vacation rental’s wireless network.

Sounds great, but what are they going to play via the Internet? The answer: Netflix! (And other streaming options, of course.)

We opened a Netflix account for our cottage and linked the Blu-ray players to it. The cost is $7.99 a month for Netflix streaming, which gives our guests access to over 12,000 movies and TV shows. No need for the video libraries of old.

We have preloaded the Netflix streaming queue with some of our favorite titles. But guests can easily search for and add their own selections by following the onscreen prompts. Netflix even offers a special “Just for Kids” tab with hundreds of movies and TV shows to keep the little ones entertained while mom and dad relax or fix dinner.

A few further notes on the necessary hardware: We chose to offer our guests Netflix streaming capability by installing Blu-ray Disc players, but there are other options. You can buy a “Smart TV,” for example. Or you can install a Roku or NeoTV wireless streaming device. You may find that such devices are cheaper than buying new Smart TVs or Blu-ray players. It all depends on the age and capabilities of the equipment that’s already installed.

Two Additional Recommendations

Whatever option you choose, once you’ve upgraded the entertainment equipment for your vacation rental, be sure to do the following:

  • Write up simple instructions explaining how to use the equipment. Our instructions fit on a single sheet of paper with headings that read “To Watch TV,” “To Watch Netflix” and “To Play a DVD.” We’ve slipped it into the front cover of a 3-ring “view binder” that holds the owner manuals for the equipment. Many of our guests, especially the younger ones, are thoroughly familiar with the current technology and know exactly what to do. But others really appreciate having a step-by-step guide that tells them which remote to use and what buttons to press.
  • Update your vacation rental listings. For heaven’s sake, be sure to publicize your new entertainment amenities! Tell your prospective guests that not only do you have HDTV, but you also offer “thousands of streaming movies and TV shows via Netflix.” You can present this information in the description of your property on sites like VRBO, HomeAway, and FlipKey. But these and many other vacation rental advertising sites also include an “Entertainment” section with checkboxes and text fields that you can fill out with details on what you offer in the way of TVs, DVD players and video library.

 

Right now, HDTV and WiFi streaming are fairly new amenities. Vacation rental owners who install the equipment and vigorously promote its features have a golden—though probably temporary—opportunity to gain a competitive edge.

 

Happy Renting,
Alfred and Emily Glossbrenner

 

 

Alfred and Emily Glossbrenner own and operate a very successful vacation-rental property in Bucks County, Pennsylvania (www.buckscountycottage.com). They are also the founders of FullyBookedRentals (www.fullybookedrentals.com), a website focused on helping new and experienced VR owners advertise, market, manage, and make money from their second homes.

0

January. It’s the time to put away holiday decorations, make resolutions, and, if you’re a vacation-rental owner, prepare for a high volume of inquiries from travelers who likewise have turned their attention from the holidays to vacation planning. For most VR owners, the first few weeks of the New Year are indeed the “busy season.”

 

So, what can you do to make sure that you’re ready to handle those vacation-rental inquiries and potential bookings with a minimum of stress and maximum efficiency and effectiveness?

 

We have five suggestions:

 

1. Revisit and refresh your online listings. This is something you should get into the habit of doing at least once a year, and January is the perfect time for it. Think of it as a “listings audit.” Start by reviewing the photos in all your online ads. Do they accurately reflect the current state of your property? Is the thumbnail image you’re using the best it can be? Click here for a great example of how fellow VR owner Amy Greener changed the thumbnail image for her Tennessee cabin to make it stand out from the competition. For more tips on optimizing your online listings, take a look at this HomeAway slide show.

 

2. Review the amenities you offer. During our annual listing audit a couple of years ago, we discovered that our VR property was one of the few in our area that had a double bed in the master bedroom. That put us at a distinct disadvantage with travelers who are accustomed to sleeping in a queen- or king-size bed at home. So last year we upgraded to queen size: new bed, mattress, box springs, sheets, blankets, and bedspreads. It was a major expense, but one that was absolutely essential to keep our place competitive.

 

This year, we plan to add a larger flat-screen TV with a built-in DVD player, and a new CD player with an iPod dock and charger. The market is ever changing, and right now, that’s what the market demands. The lesson is that, today, you cannot fall behind when it comes to your prospective guests’ devices and technology needs. To do so in a highly competitive market is to give up your edge.

 

3. Keep your online calendars up-to-date. This will cut down dramatically on the time you have to spend sending out “sorry we’re already booked” messages. And you’ll improve your ranking in the search results on sites like HomeAway and VRBO that reward VR owners for updating their calendars on a regular basis. To make the job easier, you can use a “calendar synchronization” tool like the ones offered by VRConnection and MyVRZone to update multiple calendars (HomeAway, VRBO, FlipKey, and many others) in one fell swoop.   

 

4. Respond quickly to every inquiry. As a general rule, your goal should be to get back to prospective guests within two to three hours. Do that on a regular basis and you’ll run circles around your competitors who think that responding in 24 to 48 hours is “good enough.” Most of your inquiries will come in via email, so be prepared with “boilerplate” text that you can copy and paste into a customized message. Over the years, we’ve created boilerplate language for more than two dozen of the most frequently asked questions about our VR property, which greatly simplifies and speeds up the reply process. Remember, the early bird gets the booking! 

 

5. Make “turnaround day” less stressful. When you have back-to-back rentals—with one set of guests checking out in the morning and new arrivals checking in later the same day—one of the biggest challenges is doing the laundry. That’s why we recommend that you stock your VR with two sets of everything that needs to be laundered between guests: sheets, bedspreads, pillow shams, towels, bath mats, and so forth. On busy turnaround days, when there isn’t time to wash and dry multiple loads of laundry, your cleaning person can make up the beds and bathrooms with the second set and take the things that need to be laundered off-site for washing, drying, and folding on a more relaxed schedule.

Conclusion

Our main message is that, come “busy season,” you can’t afford to be complacent. You’ve got to step up and really manage your vacation-rental business to get the bookings you need to maximize your investment. If you follow our advice, we’re virtually certain that you’ll get more bookings, and you’ll find that managing your VR property just got a little easier.

 

Happy Renting,
Alfred and Emily Glossbrenner

 

Alfred and Emily Glossbrenner own and operate a very successful vacation-rental property in Bucks County, Pennsylvania (www.buckscountycottage.com). They are also the founders of FullyBookedRentals (www.fullybookedrentals.com), a website focused on helping new and experienced VR owners advertise, market, manage, and make money from their second homes.

0

To set the record straight, the storm that hit the Northeast in late October 2012 was a hurricane! In fact, it was the largest Atlantic hurricane on record. And it was second only to Katrina in costliness. So as owners of a home and vacation rental on the Delaware River in Pennsylvania, just a stone’s throw from the Pennsylvania/New Jersey border, we have no truck with this “Superstorm Sandy” stuff. (People in general and the press in particular have a special weakness for alliterations.)

 

The Mid-Atlantic got clobbered by Hurricane Sandy. Many residents, especially those with property close to the ocean, lost everything: homes, vacation properties, cars, boats, and, of course, tens of thousands of beautiful, stately old trees. Sandy’s effects on us and our vacation-rental property were relatively minor in comparison. Still the storm taught us some things—or revealed some things—that we didn’t know.

 

Just to set the scene: We lost power for six days. That means no heat, no light, and most important of all, no running water. (Like many in our area, we pump our water from a well in the back yard.) It also means refunding the money from a $2,000 booking because our vacation-rental cottage sits next to our main house and, thus, was also without heat, light, and water.

 

We also lost our century-old barn when Sandy sent a silver maple with a four-foot wide trunk slicing through it, crushing our Toyota Highlander and most of our porch furniture, which we had just moved there—and carefully covered with plastic sheets—for the winter.

 

But in the grand scheme of things, that really doesn’t matter all that much since we have an excellent insurance policy from Chubb. As the saying goes, “It’s just stuff.” No one was injured (or, in the case of a friend of a friend in a nearby town, killed in his own driveway by a falling tree).

 

Four Things the Sandy Disaster Taught Us

For the benefit of our fellow vacation-rental owners, here are some of the things we learned from our experience with Hurricane Sandy, and what we’re doing to be better prepared when the next storm hits:

 

Lesson #1. If you live or own a vacation rental in a place prone to power outages, you might want to think long and hard before “cutting the cord” on your phone service. We have a good friend who went completely Verizon FiOS about a year ago. The backup battery in his home system died shortly after the first day of the power outage. He couldn’t use his wall phone, couldn’t charge up his cell phone, and couldn’t drive to a Starbucks with an Internet hotspot because the police had closed the roads due to downed trees.

 

Most people aren’t aware of this any more, but the old-fashioned, “twisted pair” copper-wire phone network is “line powered.” That means that when you lose power, you can still take and receive phone calls. (At a reduced power level, your phone will probably ring “less enthusiastically.” But it will ring.)

 

Having a working phone line was crucial to keeping in touch and up-to-date with the guest who was scheduled to check in at our vacation rental the day Sandy hit. She had to move from one hotel to another in New Jersey during the crisis. Some of which had power, some of which did not.

 

Lesson #2. What about Internet access? About a year before Sandy, we had a 12-hour power outage. It was not a huge problem. We built a fire in one of our fireplaces for warmth, lit a bunch of candles, and invited our vacation-rental guest—who returns every year—to join us and wait out the power outage together. He brought a bottle of wonderful single malt Scotch, and we had a very pleasant evening.

 

But that incident prompted us to order a second battery for our Dell laptop and to make sure that it remained fully charged. That would give us about four hours of laptop usage. We combined this with a service called Budget Dialup (www.budgetdialup.com), a pre-paid dial-up Internet plan that you access via your phone line. 

 

Your laptop will need a built-in modem and phone jack, and Budget Dialup only operates at 56K, but for those occasions when your power and cable service are out, it’s a godsend. If you have a smartphone and a hand-crank radio/charger, that would be another option, though we have no idea how much cranking it takes to fully charge a phone. 

 

Lesson #3. In an extended power outage, lanterns are far preferable to flashlights. That’s because lanterns—whether they are battery- or oil-powered—shed light in a 360-degree circle. Flashlights send a shaft of light in only one direction. We have always provided flashlights and candles for our vacation-rental guests, but we’re definitely going to upgrade to lanterns in the near future.

 

Lesson #4. Finally, as a result of Hurricane Sandy, we’ve learned a thing or two about “business interruption” insurance. As noted above, because of the extended power failure, we had to refund over $2,000 to the guest who was scheduled to check in the day of the hurricane. That hurt, to say the least. But we felt that it was the right thing to do. 

 

We thought that our business policy, which includes a provision for “loss of business income,” would cover this situation. But, not so fast, pardner.

 

Apparently, if we had lost rental income because of storm damage to the structure itself that made the property uninhabitable, we would definitely have been covered. But because the income loss was caused by the extended power outage, we may be out of luck.

 

We’re still pursuing this with our insurance company. In a later post, we’ll let you know how this issue is resolved.

 

What About a Backup Generator?

In the meantime, we’re seriously thinking about installing a backup generator. We both grew up in the Midwest (Louisville and Northeastern Ohio). We never had power outages. Ever. Here in the Mid-Atlantic region, power outages are a regular occurrence every year. The only variable is how many hours or days the power will be out.

 

It may or may not be the same in the region where your vacation rental is located. But if outages are frequent enough to cost you income from lost bookings, you probably should look into installing a backup generator. Preferably one powered by natural gas piped to your property, or by a big tank of propane. You want one that will turn on within seconds of the power failure.

 

The other alternative is a less expensive gasoline-powered generator. We had the great good fortune to have a friend who had such a unit and volunteered to let us use it. (He even wired it into our home’s electrical panel.) It worked beautifully, powering the entire house.

 

But it was noisy. And it was thirsty. During the crisis, gasoline was not always available. One morning, we got the last gas from our favorite station before it put the barriers up and closed for the day.

 

As members of the HomeAway Community, we will look forward to updating you on our “business interruption” insurance situation, as well as on our investigations of what’s involved (and what it costs) to install a backup generator for our main house and for our vacation-rental cottage. Stay tuned, as the saying goes!

 

Happy Renting,
Alfred and Emily Glossbrenner

 

Alfred and Emily Glossbrenner own and operate a very successful vacation-rental property in Bucks County, Pennsylvania (www.buckscountycottage.com). They are also the founders of FullyBookedRentals (www.fullybookedrentals.com), a website focused on helping new and experienced VR owners advertise, market, manage, and make money from their second homes.

1

Here’s a scenario that every vacation-rental owner faces sooner or later: The day before your guests are due to check in, they call with bad news. One of them is too sick to travel. Or there’s been a death in the family. Or a major ice storm has brought down power lines and closed the airport. They’re going to have to cancel their travel plans. 

 

You know what comes next: They ask for their money back. The need to cancel wasn’t their fault, after all.

The VR Owners Dilemma

So the question is: Do you issue a refund and take the hit? Or do you refuse to do a refund, but feel guilty as heck about keeping their money? The answer to both questions is no, in our opinion, assuming you’ve handled things right from the beginning.

 

Yes, refusing a refund creates an uncomfortable interpersonal situation. We know because we’ve been there. Just recently, a woman who had booked our property called to say she and her husband were going to have to postpone their trip. Could they possibly shift their reservation to another week later in the summer?

 

We were sympathetic, but explained that because we were so close to their planned arrival date—just 10 days away—we could only grant a refund or reschedule for another week if we were able to rebook the dates they had reserved. We did, however, offer to do our very best to rebook the cancelled week. Here are the steps we took:

 

  • We immediately updated our online calendars to show that the week was now available.
  • We posted a special offer at our website and in the headlines for our online ads.
  • We contacted other prospective guests who had previously expressed an interest in booking our cottage for that week.

 

We were under no obligation to spend time doing any of these things. But if we could rebook some or all of the dates, we would have happily issued a refund. That’s how we ourselves would like to be treated had the situation been reversed.

 

In the end, we didn’t get a replacement booking and kept the money without feeling the least bit guilty about it. We’re not a hotel, after all. We have only one property to offer. If a guest cancels and we issue a refund, that’s one week’s rental income lost forever. That’s one week’s income that won’t be available to help pay the mortgage, property taxes, maintenance, and insurance bills.

Setting a Clear Cancellation/Refund Policy

We all know stuff happens. If you operate your vacation rental for any length of time, you will face this situation. So start by establishing a clear cancellation/refund policy. Like many long-time vacation-rental owners, we’ve chosen “30 days prior to arrival” as our “no refund” period. Experience has shown that if a guest cancels before that deadline, we’ll still have a reasonable chance of booking the cancelled time period and replacing the income.

 

Here is the language we use:

 

CANCELLATION/REFUND POLICY: The rental charges are fully refundable if you cancel your reservation

on or before [xx/xx/xx]. If you cancel after that date, we will refund the damage deposit, but the rental

charges are nonrefundable unless we are able to rebook the cottage for the dates you have reserved. To

recoup the cost of nonrefundable travel expenses, we encourage you to consider purchasing
trip-cancellation insurance. For more information and price quotes on specific policies, visit InsureMyTrip
(www.insuremytrip.com).

 

When we take a reservation for close-in dates, we delete the first two sentences and use this one instead:

 

Because we are within 30 days of your planned arrival date, the rental charges (except for the damage deposit)
are nonrefundable unless we are able to rebook the cottage for the dates you have reserved.

Communicating Your Policy on Refunds

Our cancellation/refund policy—including the recommendation that our guests consider buying trip-cancellation insurance—is clearly stated at our website and in all of our online ads. It’s part of the “boilerplate wording” we use in responses to email inquiries and in our rental agreement. We also make a point of explaining it when we have our initial phone conversation with prospective guests, especially if we get a sense that the person might be relatively new to booking a vacation rental as opposed to a hotel. 

 

There are several good companies that provide Web-based tools to simplify the process of finding the right trip-cancellation policy and comparing costs. InsureMyTrip, the one we like and recommend to our guests, offers a toll-free number they can call to talk with a real-live human being.

Back to Our Example

Going back to the case we cited at the beginning of this post, let’s assume these guests had taken our advice. They visited InsureMyTrip and searched for a policy that would reimburse them for the $1,200 they would lose if they had to cancel their travel plans within our 30-day no-refund period. They would have found that for $50 to $100, they could have bought a basic policy from one of several companies that would cover cancellations due to things like illness or injury or a death in the family. For a bit more, they could have bought a “cancel for any reason” policy.

 

Our guests chose not to do that. They took a risk and lost. We’re certainly sorry about that. But having done everything right, in our view, we didn’t feel at all guilty about how we handled this last-minute cancellation.  

 

Happy Renting,

Alfred and Emily Glossbrenner

 

Alfred and Emily Glossbrenner own and operate a very successful vacation-rental property in Bucks County, Pennsylvania (www.buckscountycottage.com). They are also the founders of FullyBookedRentals (www.fullybookedrentals.com), a website focused on helping new and experienced VR owners advertise, market, manage, and make money from their second homes.

3

What’s your vacation-rental property’s “sleep number.” We’re not talking about a degree of mattress firmness, but about the number of vacationers you can comfortably accommodate—emphasis on comfortably. All too often, we’ve seen owners adopt a “pack ’em in” approach, presumably to maximize their rental income, without giving enough consideration to the quality of the vacation-rental experience they’ll be able to deliver to their guests.

 

For example, we recently came across a listing with this headline: “Luxurious and Private Mountaintop Retreat. 3 Bedrooms. 2 Bathrooms. Sleeps 14.”

 

How do they accommodate so many people? Well, let’s see:

  • Bedroom #1: Master Bedroom Suite with King Bed and Attached Bathroom (2 guests)
  • Bedroom #2: Queen Bed + Double Futon (4 guests)
  • Bedroom #3: Two Sets of Bunk Beds (4 guests)
  • Living Room: Two Queen Sleep Sofas (4 guests)

 

You’ve really got to wonder how much “luxury” and “privacy” these 14 guests will experience with so many people crammed into three bedrooms and sharing two bathrooms, one of which can only be accessed by going through the master bedroom.

 

And, by the way, what happens when the four guests who’ll be sleeping in the living room want to go to bed, and the rest of the group would like to stay up late talking or watching a movie? And where do those four “sleep-sofa” guests store their clothes and other belongings?

 

Our recommendation: Reduce the “sleep number” to 8 (2 guests in Bedroom #1, 2 guests in Bedroom #2, and 4 guests in Bedroom #3). Leave the futon and sleep sofas in place, but don’t advertise them as being sleeping spaces.

Pros and Cons of Setting a High Sleep Number

The owner of this property, as well as other owners who take the “pack ’em in” approach, might argue that it makes the property more attractive and affordable because the rental fee is divided among more individuals. They might further argue that this results in more bookings over the course of the year.

 

That very well may be. But taking this approach is also more likely to attract college kids on spring break or young singles getting together to party. They don’t have much money, and their expectations for accommodations are very low. Most just want a place to crash and play beer pong after a day at the beach or on the slopes. It’s possible that any increased rental income from setting a high maximum occupancy could be eaten up by increased maintenance and repair costs.

 

The vacation-rental business provides a tent big enough to include every approach. Our own preference is to focus on providing a wonderful vacation-rental experience for our guests. Our property is ideal for a couple and quite nice for a family of four. But we turn down requests from other larger groups, even though, with the addition of a sleep sofa or an air mattress or two, we could theoretically “sleep” more. That is simply not the vacation-rental experience we want to offer.

Factors to Consider When Setting Your Sleep Number

On the other hand, we’re fairly certain that those who take a “high sleep-number” approach would not continue to do so if it didn’t work for them. Should you be tempted to follow suit, please do ask yourself the following questions:

 

  • Where will your guests store their clothes and other stuff?
  • Are bathrooms equipped with a sufficient number of hooks and towel bars so that guests can hang up their damp towels after taking a shower?
  • Is your water heater capable of providing enough hot water when all your guests want to shower/bathe in succession?
  • How many people can comfortably sit around the dining table?
  • How many cars can you accommodate in your driveway?
  • Large groups (we consider 12 to 14 quite large) often like to party and dance into the night. How’s that going to go over with your neighbors, not to mention the local authorities and zoning board?
  • How much time (and how big a crew) will it take to clean the place, do the laundry, and remake all the beds when you have back-to-back rentals?

 

We believe in the “Sly and the Family Stone” philosophy of vacation rentals: “Different strokes for different folks” (from Everyday People, 1968, an ideal “soul” addition to your music collection!). Just make sure, if you decide to adopt a high-sleep-number approach for your vacation-rental property, that you have thought through (and come up with good answers to) common-sense questions like these.

 

Happy Renting,
Alfred and Emily Glossbrenner

 

Alfred and Emily Glossbrenner are the founders of FullyBookedRentals (www.fullybookedrentals.com), a website focused on helping new and experienced VR owners advertise, market, manage, and make money from their second homes. They also own and operate a very successful vacation-rental property in Bucks County, Pennsylvania (www.buckscountycottage.com).

0

The expression “a picture is worth a thousand words” and other phrases conveying the same idea come up frequently in modern civilization. One source traces it at least as far back as 1862 in Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons (no, we haven’t read it, we Googled it!), in which a character says, “The drawing shows me at one glance what might be spread over ten pages in a book.”

 

Not to put too fine a point on it, this is just common sense. There isn’t a vacation-rental owner on the planet who wouldn’t agree. So why do so many VR owners, especially new ones, fail to heed its obvious accuracy and wisdom? Our guess is that they’ve simply got their hands full with so many other issues and concerns that they just don’t pay attention to what is arguably the most potent sales tool in their online ads. Two mistakes loom particularly large.

Mistake #1

First, a surprising number of VR owners at every level of experience fail to take full advantage of the number of photos they may upload as part of the fee they pay to online advertising sites. You can now post 16 photos on VRBO.com, even if you sign up for the least expensive listing option. HomeAway lets you post 24 photos, and FlipKey offers unlimited photos. 

 

Now, we know what you’re thinking: How can I come up with 16 to 24 pictures and keep each one interesting and informative? The answer is to broaden your scope a bit and think of your property as the setting for a truly memorable vacation. You absolutely must include pictures of the rooms and amenities your place offers: the main living area, the master bedroom, other bedrooms, the kitchen, outdoor decks and terraces, the pool or hot tub if you have one, and so on.

 

But then consider branching out to pictures that convey those one thousand words about what your location offers. Perhaps a picture of a particularly fun local bar or restaurant, with a caption indicating why you included it and how close it is to your property. If a nearby resort is a major attraction, consider getting permission to use one of their photos, which will almost certainly have been taken by a professional photographer. Think about using your collection of photos to present a highly specific travel brochure.

Mistake #2

The second major mistake that many VR owners make is in taking the actual photos. The technology and techniques of photography have changed dramatically since the introduction of digital cameras. For one thing, there are no film costs or developing and printing costs—which means you can take as many shots as you want without worrying about the expense.

For another, today’s digital cameras do most of the work for you. When we bought a Pentax Spotmatic 35mm SLR camera many years ago, we had to think about shutter speed, lens aperture, focus, light, depth-of-field, and so on. Today, the camera’s built-in computer chip handles everything—unless you want to assume control. All of which means that it’s nearly impossible to take a bad picture. 

 

“Bad,” technically, that is. Perfect lighting, focus, and color, etc. But this misses an important point: subject matter. In our many years in this industry, we’ve seen some absolutely appalling pictures: beach homes photographed under gray skies, bathroom shots with the toilet seat up, kitchens with the trash can front and center, outdoor seating areas with a lonely umbrella table and the chairs stacked up nearby. The list goes on. Our consistent reaction is “What in the world were these owners thinking? If only there were a good book or guide of some sort that we could recommend.”

New Guides to Help You Rent More Weeks

Fortunately, we recently discovered one: A new series of beautifully illustrated ebooks on how to photograph vacation rentals by professional photographer Alan Egan. He calls them his “Rent More Weeks Guides,” and you can preview them and buy copies for download at www.rentmoreweeks.com (Alan’s a Brit, married to a Dane, and they live and work on a yacht that cruises the world, so packaging his guides as ebooks makes perfect sense).    

 

Alan said in a recent article that the first thing he (and most travelers) do when planning a vacation is dream—about “things we like to do and things we don’t have too much time for in our normal day-to-day lives, with lots of relaxation, fun, and some good weather thrown in.” If you want more bookings,” he goes on to say, “it’s very important that you show photos that depict dreams instead of photos that only show your property.”

 

Among other things, Alan will tell you how to capture a perfect blue sky by adjusting your camera’s settings. He also presents dozens of great suggestions for “dressing the set”—adding flowers, a colorful beach towel, glasses of wine and other simple props that add interest and help prospective renters more easily visualize their “dream.”

 

What’s really cool about Alan’s “Rent More Weeks Guides” are all the before-and-after pictures, each one of which is definitely worth a thousand words. Whether your vacation rental is a modest little cottage in the woods or a luxurious oceanfront beach house, you’re sure to find ideas that will help you take better photos and boost your bookings. 

 

Happy Renting!
Alfred and Emily Glossbrenner

 

Alfred and Emily Glossbrenner are the founders of FullyBookedRentals (www.fullybookedrentals.com), a website focused on helping new and experienced VR owners advertise, market, manage, and make money from their second homes. They also own and operate a very successful vacation-rental property in Bucks County, Pennsylvania (www.buckscountycottage.com).

10

Recently, a reader of one of our articles about getting started in the vacation-rental business wrote to ask:

 

“Can my local municipality prevent me from renting out my second home? It’s a house we use for friends and family, and they’re saying that if we rent it out it becomes a commercial pursuit. We do not have a sign out front and we don’t plan to rent it full time. But we do advertise on VRBO.com and hope to cover some of our annual expenses with weekly rentals. Can they stop me from doing that? Help!”

 

The very same week, HomeAway issued a press release announcing the appointment of Matt Curtis as Director of Government Relations, “with a focus on developing strategy and implementation for cities to fairly regulate and benefit from the vacation rental industry while protecting the interest of property owners and travelers.”

We took these two events as a sign that our next blog post should focus on that nasty bête noire, local vacation-rental bans. This is a topic that has been addressed with more than two dozen posts to the HomeAway Community. And if you do a Google search on “vacation rental bans” (be sure to use the quotation marks), you’ll get over 7,300 hits. Clearly, this is an issue of more than a little interest.

A Bit of Background

For those who are not familiar with the issue, here are the basics: As more and more people (many of them Baby Boomers) acquire second homes in vacation spots and quite sensibly decide to rent them out when they themselves aren’t using them, complaints from the “locals” have risen. Concerns about unruly college kids, loud parties long into the night, overflowing trash cans, and parking problems have motivated local, permanent residents to pass ordinances prohibiting owners from renting by the week and insisting that they rent for 30 days or longer. Some even forbid rentals entirely.

In our opinion, this is one more example of the social effects of the continued coarsening of American culture. (Which isn’t to say that it doesn’t happen worldwide.) But that’s a tirade for another time. The bottom line is that a vacation-rental ban that prevents you from offering your home on a weekly basis will wreak havoc with your business plan, under which rental income essentially pays for the mortgage and many of your expenses.

What Can You Do?

If you own or are planning to buy a vacation property in a distant community, you absolutely must stay alert. Eternal vigilance is essential. Here’s what we recommend:

  1. Check for rental bans and restrictions before you buy.
  2. Stay informed about local issues. (Subscribe to the local newspaper and have it sent to your home, for example.)
  3. Network with your neighbors—both permanent residents and fellow vacation-rental owners—and share your enthusiasm for your vacation home and the community where it’s located.  
  4. Become active in the area’s homeowners’ association (HOA) or neighborhood association if there is one.
  5. Be extra careful about screening prospective renters, and make sure they know (and are willing to abide by) the community’s rules about trash, parking, and loud, late-night parties.
  6. Collect and pay local sales and occupancy taxes.
  7. Make a sincere effort to help local officials and permanent residents understand the financial importance of weekly renters to the local community.


The fact is, even though many of us have been successfully offering our second homes as vacation rentals for years, the concept is still new to the vast majority of people. With that in mind, we need to actively seek out opportunities to spread the word about the benefits of vacation rentals, and the potential negative impact of overly restrictive rules and regulations.   

A Recent Example

One of the most famous cases of a vacation-rental ban centered on Venice, Florida. We’ll save a full discussion of the case for another time. But it’s worth noting that in March 2011, interim Venice City Manager Nancy Woodley suspended the enforcement of that town’s ban on short-term rentals. The reason? Cost!

The city spent $100,000 creating a legally indefensible ordinance and $300,000 in a settlement to one multi-property owner, Steve Milo. The town is spending still more money to appeal a second negative court decision. The Florida state legislature is reportedly moving forward with a law that would completely overturn everything the city has done and block any future regulations, according to Eric Ernst of the Sarasota Herald-Tribune.

Conclusion

So, the answer to the reader who e-mailed us about whether her municipality could prevent her from offering her second home as a vacation rental is, “Yes, it can.” But such an ordinance may not stand up in court; it may expose the municipality to paying damages; and it may cost too much to enforce.

The key, in our opinion, is to make these facts known to local residents and elected officials before an ordinance is passed restricting what you can do with your own property. That’s why Tip Number 7 may be the most important of all.


Happy Renting!
Alfred and Emily Glossbrenner

 

Alfred and Emily Glossbrenner are the authors of the book/CD package How to Make Your Vacation Property Work for You! and the founders of FullyBookedRentals (www.fullybookedrentals.com), a website focused on helping new and experienced VR owners advertise, market, manage, and make money from their second homes. They also own and operate a very successful vacation-rental property in Bucks County, Pennsylvania (www.buckscountycottage.com).

7

Of all the issues we vacation-rental owners must deal with, the one that gets the least attention is the problem of freeloaders. You know what we’re talking about: relatives, friends, and friends of friends who ask to use your VR property when you’re not in residence, and sometimes even joining you when you are. And, of course, it’s assumed that you won’t be charging them. They’re blood relations and friends, after all.

 

They are also self-centered, inconsiderate boors, in our opinion. We’re sorry, but there’s simply no pleasant way to say it. By asking you to allow them to use your property, they are instantly putting you into an awkward position. If you say “yes,” you will probably be giving up potential income. If you say “no,” no matter how gently, you may risk souring the relationship.

Problems in Paradise

If you doubt the severity of this problem, you need only turn to Englishman Peter Mayle’s classic 1989 book, A Year in Provence. No sooner had the author and former advertising man and his wife bought and renovated a farmhouse in Provence than friends and semi-distant acquaintances began calling to see about “popping in” for a day or two. In the audio-book version, narrated by Peter Mayle himself, the chapter centering on a particularly obnoxious and ungrateful British “guest” is priceless.

 

Much more recently, there was a story published in the Wall Street Journal on October 31, 2011: “When Your Vacation Home Becomes Everybody’s Vacation Home” It was written by freelance writer and frequent contributor, Kathleen A. Hughes, who lives in Rolling Hills, California.

 

Here’s how it begins:

 

“We love our friends dearly. But do we really want them sleeping in our bed? That’s the dilemma faced by many of those who buy second homes… in desirable locales. My husband and I recently learned this the hard way after buying a loft in Manhattan as a future retirement spot.

 

“‘Great! Now we'll have a place to stay in New York!’ was the enthusiastic response of friends, colleagues and even a few distant acquaintances....

 

“But we quickly learned that saying ‘no,’ or just failing to offer hospitality, can be very awkward, creating tensions in friendships that had never known a cross moment.

 

“‘Why can't you just give me the keys?’ asked one friend at a party after explaining that he and his wife were heading to Manhattan to see a play. When my husband politely declined, sputtering something about the strict co-op rules, our friend said, ‘I'm not talking to you anymore!’ and walked away. That left my husband standing next to the wife, weakly suggesting midtown hotels.”

Vacation Home? What Vacation Home?

Ms. Hughes points out that some people try to avoid such situations by simply not telling anyone that they own a second home. However, that doesn’t strike us as a workable solution. After all, what do you then say as you’re telling a friend about your weekend, and he or she asks, “You go there a lot. Where do you usually stay?”

 

It’s far better to be honest, should the subject come up. Just be sure that you have thought through what your response will be when someone asks to use your place.

 

People can be amazingly cheap and inconsiderate. Ms. Hughes cites the case of an Ocean City, Maryland, vacation-home owner who estimates his annual costs to be about $38,000. One of this fellow’s friends used the place and left a $10 bottle of wine in “payment.” Other guests would call up asking, “Have the sheets been changed?”

Pulling Up the Welcome Mat

So what to do? According to Kathleen Hughes, there are two broad categories of second-home owners: the happy ones and the “doormats,” and the doormats are in the majority by far.

 

Her analysis is by no means scientific, but on balance it does sound logical that most people would do anything to avoid unpleasantness and are thus inclined to hand over the keys when asked. Ms. Hughes also points out that a true friend wouldn’t ask. A true friend would be aware of the time, effort, and expense required to prepare your place for guests (not to mention the potential loss of income, we might add).

 

The happy second-home owners, says Ms. Hughes, are the ones who have no problem setting boundaries. The man who was paying $38,000 a year to carry his condo, for example, created a “club” offering memberships to his formerly freeloading guests: $2,000 a year for the right to stay in the condo for three weeks, plus $10 for each night actually spent there, plus cleaning costs. Some who had been using the condo for free turned him down, but 13 friends quickly signed up. The owner is now getting $30,000 a year in income instead of subsidizing everyone.

Our Advice for Handling Requests from Friends and Family

We think that’s a very clever solution to the freeloader problem. But we have an even simpler idea, which may be why we ourselves have never had a freeloader problem. We have made it clear from the moment we began offering our property to guests that it’s a business for us, and that we depend on it to generate part of our annual household income.

 

That shifts the entire perspective from the notion that the property is sitting idle and unoccupied, “So why can’t we stay there?” to “Oh, we didn’t realize it was an important moneymaker for you.” Friends and family members quickly grasp the opportunity cost involved.  Each day we let them use the place is a day we can’t rent to a paying guest. And as our accountant would surely remind us, it may also have tax implications because any days we give away for free will likely fall under the IRS’s definition of “personal use” of the property.

 

Of course, that’s not to say that you can’t give some special considerations to friends and family members who express an interest in visiting your vacation home:

 

  • Offer a small “friends and family” discount (5 or 10 percent). Set this up ahead of time, and then when you’re asked about your property, you can respond by saying, “We’d love for you to you consider booking our place. We even have a special ‘Friends and Family’ rate.”

 

  • Clue them in to the benefits of off-season rentals. Many people aren’t aware that vacation-rental rates often drop dramatically—sometimes 50 percent or more—outside of peak season, when kids are back in school and the demand isn’t as great.

 

  • Shorten your minimum stay. If you usually require a 7-night minimum but find yourself with a few nights open between guests and you’d prefer your place not sit empty, you might give friends or family members the chance to book those nights.

 

  • Waive the damage deposit. Many long-time VR owners reward their repeat guests by not charging a damage deposit, the notion being that they’ve established a relationship with each other and don’t need the damage deposit to ensure that the property will be left in good order. You could extend this same courtesy to friends and family members.
Conclusion

The bottom line is that if you own a second home, you need to be prepared for dealing with would-be freeloaders. You have to set boundaries. And you have to stand firm. Whatever you do, don’t be a doormat. Any “friends” who drop you because you wouldn’t let them stay in your place when you’re not using it were never true friends in the first place.

 

Happy Renting!
Alfred and Emily Glossbrenner

 

Alfred and Emily Glossbrenner are the authors of the book/CD package How to Make Your Vacation Property Work for You! and the founders of FullyBookedRentals (www.fullybookedrentals.com), a website focused on helping new and experienced VR owners advertise, market, manage, and make money from their second homes.

1

In the first article in this three-part series about the most effective way to advertise your vacation rental, we strongly urged owners to start by creating really great listings on VRBO.com and HomeAway.com. These are the two biggest and most popular vacation-rental advertising sites and the ones that will help you get the most exposure for your property in the shortest amount of time.

 

We are all in favor of VR owners creating Web sites for their properties. We just don’t think it should be the first step in a marketing program. It’s not even the second step. The second step is to create what we call the “cocktail party quick handle.”

 

Consider: You’re at a party and someone is interested in learning more about your property. In our case, we could say, “Well, go to HomeAway.com and search for listing number 212757.”

 

But that’s simply a non-starter. No one is going to remember that address. So what we say instead is “Go to Bucks County Cottage dot com.” This is something people are much more likely to remember.

Screen shot 2011-07-21 at 1.51.45 PM.png

And where do our cocktail-party acquaintances end up when they key in that Web address? They can end up at any Web page we want them to visit. It could be our vacation-rental listing on HomeAway.com, or our listing on VRBO.com, or our own dedicated Web site if we have one. (We do, so that's where www.buckscountycottage.com now takes you, as you'll see in the nearby screenshot.) This is the magic of “domain forwarding.”

Domain Forwarding

It sounds complicated, but it’s not. Here are the steps to follow to create your own “cocktail party quick handle”:

 

  • Come up with a catchy, descriptive, or otherwise memorable name. Something like StoweSkiChalet or MauiParadise or ProvenceFarmhouse would fill the bill. This, followed by “.com” or “.net” or some other extension, will be your domain name—your “cocktail party quick handle.” (It’s a good idea to think of several names in case the one you want has already been taken.)

 

  • Next, go to a domain-registrar site to search for and buy your domain name. We use GoDaddy.com because of its low prices and great customer service, but there are many others to choose from. The cost will typically be about $7 to $12 a year. Some domains may cost more. And some will definitely not be available. But in general, domain names can be very inexpensive. We suggest opting for a “.com” domain name—even if it costs a bit more—because it is what most people expect and may even assume when you’re at a party. Non-“.com” domain names (.net, .info, .org, etc.) may be less expensive, but it’s just one more detail you have to communicate.

 

  • After purchasing your domain name, the final step is to tell the registrar the Web address you want to use as your forwarding address. (On GoDaddy.com, be sure you’re logged in and then click on My Products and then Domain Manager.) If you want your domain name to take people to your listing on VRBO.com, for example, just copy and paste the URL for your VRBO.com listing into the domain-forwarding box.

 

You’ll need to allow a day or two for the new domain name and its forwarding address to propagate through the Domain Name Server (DNS) system that serves as the address book for the Internet. Then, all that remains is to test it using your browser.

Marketing Leverage

Once you’ve got a working “cocktail party quick handle” Web address, you’ll be amazed at how many opportunities exist to make use of it: business cards, postcards, email signature files…. The list goes on and on. (We’ve started a forum topic so that Community members can share examples of marketing materials they’ve created to leverage their online listings.)

 

So until you’re good and ready to invest the time and mental energy to create an effective Web site for your vacation-rental property, your “cocktail party quick handle” and domain forwarding will give you a quick and easy way to spread the word about your place and begin generating inquiries and bookings.

 

Happy Renting,

Alfred and Emily Glossbrenner

 

This is the second article in a three-part series. In the next post, we’ll explore the various options available to you for creating a Web site devoted to your vacation rental. And of course, once you do that, you can easily change your domain forwarding so that it points to your new site.

 

Alfred and Emily Glossbrenner are the authors of the book/CD package How to Make Your Vacation Property Work for You! and the founders of FullyBookedRentals (www.fullybookedrentals.com), a website focused on helping new and experienced VR owners advertise, market, manage, and make money from their second homes.