Spring break? Rent a luxury vacation house

More vacationers are renting vacation homes for their holidays. It's easy, but there are pitfalls to avoid.Rent this three-bedroom, three-bath home in Guanacasta, Costa Rica, for $1,600-$2,100 per week. Click here for more luxury rentals. By Les Christie, staff writer

NEW YORK (CNNMoney) -- It's your vacation. Where would you prefer to return to after a busy day, a cramped hotel room or a real home with a cushy sofa, a patio and a refrigerator to raid?

Increasing numbers of holiday goers are choosing the later. The leading site for renting vacation homes, HomeAway.com, has 10 times the number of rentals than five years ago. That's more than 500,000, -- with 55,000 in France alone.

"It's all about value, and with the economy the way it is, that has accelerated," said Alexis de Belloy, the company's vice president.

Experts recommend renting a house if you'll be somewhere for more than three nights. "In most places, it's less expensive to rent a vacation home than a hotel, especially for families who need more than one room," said Christine Karpinski, author of "How to Rent Vacation Properties by Owner."

But there are other reasons, too, to take the risk and rent a home.

  • Space: Generally, the more bedrooms you need, the bigger the savings. Vacation houses for three, four even 12 bedrooms are available. Plus, houses have sitting areas, kitchens and, usually, outdoor spaces, which means vacationers can relax in comfort when the day's activities are done.
  • Cooking: Most listings come with full kitchens. Vacationers often say they don't want to cook on their holidays but even the most diehard restaurant goers may tire of dining out every meal. "They don't want to get up and get dressed in the morning just to get a cup of coffee," said Karpinski.
  • Location: These rentals are everywhere, she said, often where there are no hotels.

There are pitfalls as well. Unlike many hotels where the ideal is a consistent level of service and amenities, vacation rentals vary -- a lot.

"Even rentals in the same condominium complex are all individually decorated and equipped," said Karpinski. "That can be good or bad."

To improve the odds getting what they really want, renters should ask lots of questions, especially about what is most important to them.

Karpinski once rented out one of her own vacation homes in the Smokies of Tennessee. Two sisters were interested in the property and kept asking how private it is.

"I told them, 'very private; it's in the woods' and cautioned them that, as two women, they may not want to stay there," Karpinski said.

The more she tried to discourage them, the more they wanted to stay. But when they arrived, they found it was more than they bargained for.

"They called the first night saying, 'We're so scared,'" said Karpinski. "I don't blame them. There are raccoons and bears. At night, flying squirrels do somersaults on the roof and make a lot of noise."

She refunded their money, but renters shouldn't count on all owners being so generous. It also taught Karpinski a lesson that other owners might want to heed: "Don't do a hard sell. The place has to be a good fit."

Renters should ask specifically about heat and air conditioning, the cooking equipment, laundry facilities, whether there are nearby restaurants or markets, and how noisy the location is, for example.

Sometimes the answers to these questions are not highlighted on property websites -- especially if it is negative, like noisy streets. Even if the information is there, travelers may not interpret it correctly.

Most foreign sites, for example, give the size of the rental in metrics. How many Americans know a 20 square meter apartment -- not uncommon in the center of Paris or Rome -- is a very cozy 215 square feet?

Photos may make the place look bigger than that and, once the sofa bed is rolled out, navigating around can be difficult.

That dirt road up to a mountain-top retreat in Colorado mentioned in the listing may be hard to get up in anything less than a four-wheel drive. Find out before you book.

It's also important to get things in writing, according to Karpinski. "It's a business transaction," she said. "I can't believe that people see something on the Internet and have 100% trust."

Anyone thinking about home rental should start early, said HomeAway's de Belloy, because rentals are usually booked at least 90 days in advance.

There can be, however, great last-minute deals that owners offer to fill unused spaces. To top of page

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