Gerri Willis Commentary:
Top Tips by Gerri Willis Column archive
Booking vacation rentals
The first tip: Start now. Plus: How to protect your investment.
By Gerri Willis, CNNMoney.com contributing columnist

NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) - We may still be bundled under our winter coats in some parts of the country, but now is the time to start locking in your summer vacation rental. Early birds have already started to book the hottest summer rentals across the country.

In today's 5 tips we're going to tell you what you'll want to know when jockeying for your summer dream house.

1. Start now

January and February are the busiest months and already, ideal vacation spots are getting snapped up. You will want to book early if you want a rental that's on the water, available on a holiday weekend and notorious as a hot-spot during the summer months. And this means if you are set on going to Cape Cod, Martha's Vineyard, Nantucket, Hilton Head or the Hamptons, you better start your planning now.

In fact many families book their summer rentals at places like Martha's Vineyard a year in advance. If you're a bit more flexible with your destination and you're counting on finding a deal, look to the mountains. Places like Vermont, Colorado or Washington have their peak seasons during the winter, so you'll likely get better summer pricing at a mountain get-away, according to Anne Banas of SmarterTravel.com.

2. Consider your timing

The most popular vacation months -- July and August -- are going to cost more. You can save a ton of dough if you skip the high season. You could save at least 30% to 50% if you book your rental in late May and early June.

And if you wait until after Labor day, you could cut your bill in half, according to Banas. If you're looking at beach front property, your best bet may be to go in September when the water is still on the warm side.

3. Go it alone

Avoid rental agents. There is plenty of exploring on the Internet you can do on your own. You'll be able to skip out on fees which can be up to 10%. Rental owners generally include a few pictures of the property, a description of the house and what's in the local area.

And since it's likely you'll be able to correspond with the vacation rental owner through e-mail, you won't even have to pay for the phone calls. This can be especially important if you are booking a rental property overseas.

If you want to start your journey, check out the follow Web sites for your next vacation rental: www.vamoose.com, vacation rental by owner at www.vrbo.com and www.cyberrentals.com.

4. Get down to the nitty-gritty

Many people think about their vacation rentals as a home away from home. So before you invest, make sure that all the amenities you're used to at home will be available.

Generally your kitchenware and your utensils are provided. But you may want to ask if there is Internet access or a highchair that's available. See if a washer and dryer or a dishwasher is available.

Find out if the rental is pet-friendly and if pool areas are gated if you have children.

5. Protect your investment

Just in case your vacation dream home turns out to resemble something more like out of the Addams Family mansion, you'll want to make sure you have recourse. Always pay by credit card. It will be harder to get your money back if you pay in cash or by check. Plus you may be protected by the fair credit billing act.

Keep in mind that unlike hotels, payment options and cancellation policies vary widely with vacation home owners. Some rentals may have generous policies in the off-season, but in the peak season they may be come quite limited. You should know the details before you sign on the dotted line. You may also try to work out a payment schedule so you don't have to pay all the money upfront. And of course, you should only pay the landlord who is named in the rental contract.

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Gerri Willis is a personal finance editor for CNN Business News and the host for Open House. E-mail comments to 5tips@cnn.comTop of page

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Most stock quote data provided by BATS. Market indices are shown in real time, except for the DJIA, which is delayed by two minutes. All times are ET. Disclaimer.

Morningstar: © 2014 Morningstar, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Factset: FactSet Research Systems Inc. 2014. All rights reserved.

Chicago Mercantile Association: Certain market data is the property of Chicago Mercantile Exchange Inc. and its licensors. All rights reserved.

Dow Jones: The Dow Jones branded indices are proprietary to and are calculated, distributed and marketed by DJI Opco, a subsidiary of S&P Dow Jones Indices LLC and have been licensed for use to S&P Opco, LLC and CNN. Standard & Poor's and S&P are registered trademarks of Standard & Poor’s Financial Services LLC and Dow Jones is a registered trademark of Dow Jones Trademark Holdings LLC. All content of the Dow Jones branded indices © S&P Dow Jones Indices LLC 2014 and/or its affiliates.