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Glossbrenners' VR Owner Secrets

4 Posts tagged with the rentals 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.

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.

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).

3

Tax season is behind us. It’s May, “the lusty month of May,” as Vanessa Redgrave sang in the movie Camelot. But even though you probably don’t want to hear it, now is the time to begin thinking about the next tax season, and about enlisting professional help for doing your 2012 returns. It’s important to do it now, while professionally-informed adjustments can still be made.

 

Here is what we all know: If you are a “wage slave” working nine to five, your taxes are pretty simple. According to the old joke, the first line on your tax return reads, “How much money did you make this year?” The next line commands, “Send it in.”

 

That has more than a bit of truth to it, but thankfully we’re not there yet. The fact is that many wage-slave taxpayers get refunds. (We’ll pass over the fact that they do not receive compensation for the government’s use of their money for the previous 12 months.)

 

No, when things begin to get complicated is when you acquire a second home and start offering it as a vacation rental. As you’ll soon realize if you download and read the 32-page IRS Publication 527, “Residential Rental Property (Including the Rental of Vacation Homes),” welcome to “tax preparation hell.”

 

We’re not going to excoriate the federal tax code (to say nothing of your state’s tax code). We would just note that as self-employed professional writers, we used to take pride in getting the time required to prepare our income tax forms down to three work days (from a maximum of five days) each year. But once we added a vacation-rental property to the mix, all bets were off. It quickly became very clear that we needed professional help.

 

Admittedly, our situation is complicated by the fact that we work from home, so our tax returns have always been more complex than most. But there’s no getting around the fact that the federal tax code is a massive, and moving, target. Provisions get changed at the whim of Congress. Each year.

 

CPAs to the Rescue!

No non-accounting professional can possibly keep up. But Certified Public Accountants (CPAs) make it their business to stay abreast of changes in the tax code. We love our CPA. We’ve used him for decades, and he has saved us tens of thousands of dollars. We have absolutely no idea how he stays current on the law and maintains his sanity. But he does, and that’s all that matters!

 

So the first thing you should do upon finishing this post is to set about finding your own CPA. Start by seeking recommendations from friends and family members. You can also check the searchable directory at www.cpadirectory.com

 

Owning and renting out a second home, from a tax perspective, is not nearly as problematic as owning some exotic tax-favored investment. Any CPA—as opposed to the storefront tax preparers who are open only a month or two before April 15 and closed for the rest of the year—is almost certainly qualified to do the job.

 

Recommended Reading

We can suggest two excellent books for you to consider to get yourself up to speed. The knowledge these books offer will be a great help in working with your chosen CPA, and in keeping the hourly costs down to a reasonable amount.

 

The first is Every Landlord’s Tax Deduction Guide by Stephen Fishman. As anyone who attended Emily’s HomeAway Summit presentation in April knows, we feel very strongly that as a VR owner “you’re a host, not a landlord.” Nonetheless, this book’s chapter about vacation homes and the tax issues involved is invaluable.

 

The second book is Buying a Second Home: Income, Getaway, or Retirement by Craig Venezia. This is among the very best books we have seen on every financial aspect of buying, owning, and offering a second home as a vacation rental.

 

Both books are published by Nolo (www.nolo.com ) and are regularly updated, so be sure to get the latest edition.

 

Conclusion

The taxman cometh. Always. The only wise approach is to arm yourself with knowledge and with professional assistance and expertise. Hiring a CPA will set you back a few bucks, but we suggest you simply view the fee as a cost of doing business. Or, in the words of the late Sue Rugge, an extraordinary entrepreneur in the online world and VR field, “Do what you do best…and hire the rest.”

 

Very few successful VR owners are skilled tax and accounting specialists. Get a CPA!

 

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 ).