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Glossbrenners' VR Owner Secrets

7 Posts tagged with the rental_advice tag
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.

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).

3

One very important decision you’ll have to make when you begin offering your second home as a vacation rental is whether you’ll allow guests to bring their beloved pets along with them. It’s so important, in fact, that virtually every VR-advertising site you sign up with will prompt you to answer the question: Pet Friendly, Yes or No?

 

But it’s actually a bit more complicated than that. And whatever you decide, your stated “pet policy” will definitely cost you bookings. It has happened to us on numerous occasions.

Saying No to Fido and Fifi

The pattern is always the same. We clearly state in all of our online listings that we do not accept pets—which is undoubtedly why pet owners wait until everything else has been agreed upon before saying, “Oh, by the way, we have a small, well-behaved [fill in the dog breed] that never barks or causes any trouble.” It’s always the last thing they mention, usually after two or three email exchanges or phone conversations, as though it just occurred to them to tell us about their four-legged traveling companion.

 

A recent refusal to accept a guest’s “precious little housebroken toy Maltese” cost us a four-week booking. On the other hand, it may have also spared us from having to deal with “accidents” on our Oriental rugs, claw marks on the upholstery, gnawing of chair legs, and heaven knows what regarding our pillows and bedding.

 

There’s also the fact that establishing such a policy (and sticking to it) undoubtedly makes our property more attractive to prospective guests with animal allergies. Pet dander—especially from cats—can cause eyes to water and throats to itch, even when the animal is no longer present. (Alfred, who also gets hay fever, can attest to this.) That’s why the vast majority of VR owners who advertise their properties as being “Pet Friendly” really mean “Dog Friendly.” They welcome dogs but refuse to accept cats (and most other types of pets, for that matter).

Surviving and Thriving with Pet-Friendly Vacation Rentals

For our rather elegant Colonial Williamsburg-style VR property, we’ve decided that a strict “No Pets Policy” works best for us. But we have some friends who’ve taken a completely different approach and been enormously successful with it.

 

Rick and Debbie Scali are dog lovers. They have two Miniature Schnauzers and wouldn’t dream of going on vacation without them. “We’ve traveled with our pets for years,” says Rick, “and some of the places we stayed were less than clean. It was obvious by the smell that they allowed pets. We vowed when we started our vacation-rental business that all of our homes would be both pet priendly and squeaky clean.”

 

In 2003, the Scalis launched their VR business, Easy Street Vacation Rentals (www.easystreetvacationrentals.com) in Destin, Florida. Today, with four properties of their own and another 20 they manage for other owners, Rick and Debbie promote their site as offering the “largest selection of quality pet-friendly vacation homes on the Emerald Coast.” They get lots of repeat business and great reviews.

What’s the secret to their success? As Rick and Debbie explain at their website, “It helps to have great housekeeping personnel who do a thorough cleaning after each visitor. In the seven plus years we’ve been managing our pet-friendly accommodations, we can count on one hand the number of “pet issues” we have had. And our non-pet-owner guests cannot tell we’re pet friendly by the look, the smell, and the condition of our homes.”

A Range of “Pet Friendly” Possibilities

We’ve presented the two ends of the spectrum on pet policies: We accept no pets of any sort at our vacation-rental property. Rick and Debbie Scali not only allow pets but actively market the properties they own and manage to dog lovers.

 

Is there anything in between? Sure! You own the property, so you can set the policy. For example, you might want to accept dogs, but only those that weigh less than 25 pounds. You’ll also want to consider whether to place a limit on the number of pets you will allow your guests to bring. It isn’t uncommon for pet owners to have not one but two dogs, because they like to play together.

 

Whatever the details, it’s very important to create and present a clearly worded pet policy for your vacation-rental property. (Click here to read the one the Scalis have crafted for their Destin properties, and here for an excellent article on what to cover in your pet policy.)

Spreading the Word to Pet Lovers

One final point: If you decide to welcome pets to your VR property, be sure to update your listings on VRBO.com, HomeAway.com, or whatever sites you’re currently using to promote your property. You might also want to consider seeking out and creating listings on sites that cater to pet owners, like PetsWelcome (www.petswelcome.com), PetFriendlyTravel (www.petfriendlytravel.com), and DogFriendly (www.dogfriendly.com).

 

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.