Renting a villa is a terrific value proposition right now. A large family can stay in a beautifully restored Tuscan farmhouse for less than the cost of an equivalent number of hotel rooms. According to homeaway.com, which rents more than 700,000 accommodations online, sales of vacation homes in 2011 reached a four-year high due to low sales prices and low mortgage rates, and nearly all vacation home buyers say they plan to rent their property to long-term or short-term renters.
With plenty of inventory on the market, owners are likely to give discounts and perks to attract renters, including free nights and relaxed minimum-stay requirements. Start by getting a sense of the market with a preliminary search on some of the “big box” rental agencies’ websites, such as homeaway.com, vrbo (Vacation Rental By Owner, which has more US-based rentals), and vacationrentals.com (deals on beach houses, ski chalets, and other leisure properties).
Here’s how to narrow down the options from there:
Consider the Destination
Do you want to stay in a US-based property, or travel? Vrbo.com has comprehensive US rentals, but consider going to a boutique agency that specializes in farther-flung destinations if you’re planning on traveling. Check out options such as Abercrombie & Kent Villas, a villa rental agency by the famed tour operator; Carpe Diem Luxury Travel, a highly private portfolio of European properties; Dream & Charme, a variety of pricy and less-pricy options in France, Greece, Italy, Spain and Switzerland.
Get on the Phone
Pictures on websites certainly help, but it’s always best to speak to an agent by telephone. (Some companies won’t even work with clients they haven’t vetted.) A good agency will be able to advise you just as a travel agent would: How far away is the grocery store? Is emergency help nearby? Does the local host (if there is one) speak English? How new are the appliances? Many agents also have access to more rentals—either in a private portfolio or through other contacts—but you won’t find them by checking the website.
Know What You Want
Determine what kind of experience you’re after—particularly if you’re vacationing with a group. Do you require housekeeping every day, or are you willing to do your own dishes (even if there’s no dishwasher)? Would you prefer being more isolated or within steps of town? If you’re considering extras—guided trips, an evening at the opera—confirm in advance your willingness to pay additional fees.
Take Advantage of Extras
The best agencies leverage their industry contacts and relationships with property owners to organize things you couldn’t arrange yourself, like a tasting in a noble family’s wine cellar or a hot-air balloon ride over the countryside. (Confirm all related fees up front.) And with more and more property owners willing to throw in conveniences like flexible dates, it’s certainly permissible to ask about perks up front.
Read the Fine Print
Signing a contract is standard when renting a villa. Like any agreement, this protects you, the owner and the agent. Make sure it specifies which expenses are not included in the base price, such as taxes, air-conditioning or the cost of heating the pool. A basic contract will also clearly outline policies regarding property damage, as well as what would constitute an unsatisfactory stay.
Consider Buying Insurance
Renting a villa is a large investment. Insurance can cover you in the event of a medical evacuation or an unforeseen conflict. It can also protect you from bad weather delays or errors made by the rental agency.
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