So we’ve been on the road just under a year now and as I’ve mentioned, we’ve stayed in most type of accommodation: swank resort, hotels ranging from upscale to budget, delightful bed and breakfasts, family (thanks Lisa & Dave), car camping and hiking. But we’ve spent the most time in Vacation Rental By Owner (VRBO) properties, with one AirBNB thrown in for good measure.
A couple of years ago, we would not have considered using one of these services. I only knew of AirBNB as a place where you could rent the spare bedroom in someone’s house, definitely not our cup of tea (in my case, coffee). But Walt’s daughter and son-in-law have used it and similar services to rent a catamaran in the Keys and a BMW convertible in California. It was from them we learned that there were many, many rental properties that would allow us to have our own space: bedroom plus bathroom plus kitchen plus living space, separate from the owners.
As we’ve traveled and I’ve spoken to people about our trip, I’ve heard horror stories or less-than-enthused stories from fellow travelers who found their accommodations not quite what they expected when they booked.
Since I’m happy to say that we’ve had nothing but excellent experiences with our rentals, I thought I’d share some of our secrets to ensuring that our vacation rental is everything we thought we were paying for.
First we pick our area, such as the mountains of New Hampshire. Last spring when we couldn’t find any place available in rural Conway, we widened our search and were very glad we did. We wound up in a new little house/cabin situated on a small lake within walking distance to the quaint town of Wolfeboro. Our landlord, Kim, had a cabin two doors down and was in the process of renovating the middle cabin for rental. Everything was new and clean. We had a table for four and a nice little sitting area with windows all around. We had a nice kitchen and good counter space. A spacious bathroom. Our bedroom was small by “master” standards but perfectly acceptable for people who were busy hiking and exploring and just wanted a comfy bed (it was) to crash in at night. We were especially fond of the extra bedroom so we could spread out our gear and the outdoor picnic table and lounge chairs. Walt loved the barbeque grill. Kim told us we could swim and fish off his dock as well as borrow his kayaks. He and his wife were around when we arrived over the Fourth of July weekend, left mid-week and returned for the weekend with fresh sheets and towels. They were friendly and unobtrusive, helpful if we needed it, as have been all the other owners we’ve rented from.
Walt’s secret to choosing a rental is not just to look at the pictures, which is important, but also to look at the date stamped on the photos, if there are any. He will disregard 10-year-old pictures more than likely. He also looks the reviews: having just a few 5-star reviews doesn’t stack up against have hundreds reviews averaging a 4.5 rating, which worked out well for our Asheville sojourn. He found “superhosts” as designated by the rental website because they have so many great reviews. Despite our trepidation at booking and pre-paying for a 3-month rental (New Hampshire had only been 10 days), the rental was fabulous.
The owners share a parking area and their house is just across the driveway so they were accessible. While friendly, waving and asking if we were OK or needed anything when they saw us, they, too, were unobtrusive. Our 3-bedroom house was so clean we thought it must have been recently remodeled. We couldn’t find scuff marks on the paint or scratches on the wood floors. The carpets were fresh. The towels were sparkling white. We enjoyed a fully stocked laundry room, all the appliances (blender, hand mixer, stand mixer, etc.) that we could want. Our host, Jim, loaned us a car cover for our car. As we neared Christmas, Teri handed over the keys to the locked closets where she stored seasonal decorations as well as heavier comforters. She brought over a wreath for our front door, with a matching door hook. We found it all so comfortable and enjoyable that we didn’t hesitate to re-book with them when we knew we were coming back to Asheville in the spring.
The “superhost” strategy didn’t work when we tried to book in Sedona for the winter. We were late nailing down our dates and, by the time we did, most of the rentals left were either studios – too small for us at our age for two full months – or multi-bedroom (4 or 5 or 6) and very expensive. So we booked a three-bedroom townhouse with an owner who’d only had the property available for a couple of months. We reasoned that at least we knew the photos (very nice) were recent, the area was where we wanted to be and, since it was a townhouse, there was less chance that someone had renovated it oddly over the years, as can happen with a free-standing house.
We took a chance and were delighted: the house, while lacking an iron and some serving dishes, had a lovely attached garage, was quiet, had a fabulous Tempur-Pedic bed and suited our needs very well.
Have there been issues?
Of course. Our refrigerator went on the fritz in Sedona and we visited Charleston, SC, during an unusual weeklong cold spell that followed an even more unusual snow and ice storm. Heating systems in Charleston, even in a modern city house, are not designed to warm a house to 70 degrees when the temperature refuses to rise above freezing for days on end. In both cases, we judged our rentals by the quality of the response we got from our landlords, not the problem itself. In Sedona, a text to our landlord quickly brought a repairman who made repairs as quickly as he could. Our landlord, located in Kansas, not only stayed in close contact, he offered to pay us for any food we lost and begged us to let him know if he just needed to give in and buy a new refrigerator. In Charleston, again offering help via text, our landlord refunded us money for the trouble we suffered even though we just retreated to a warm upstairs and watched TV from bed instead of from the couch.
As I’ve aged, I’ve realized more and more that stuff happens to the best of us, despite whatever good efforts and planning we’ve done. You can’t prevent nature from happening or machines from failing: it’s how you respond and communicate that are important. So we never mentioned these issues in our on-line reviews, it wouldn’t be fair to judge landlords on situations that were out of their control to a large extent, especially since they both worked so hard to right the situation.
Now we’re back with our former landlords in Asheville, having moved back and forth between their 1-bedroom new rental (they were building it while we were here last fall), their 3-bedroom and back again to the 1-bedroom. We rented the 1-bedroom pretty much sight-unseen. We trusted that they would provide a nice living space and they did. It’s smaller than we would prefer only because we have backpacks and golf clubs that we like to store out of sight but the bed is super-comfy, the bathroom is large, the washer and dryer are full-size and they even provided us with a grill for our porch.
We absolutely have enjoyed rentals like this for any place we’ve stayed more than a few days. It’s so nice to have a real kitchen, a separate living area and in-house laundry.
Are any of these places perfect? No. Are any of them what we expect to live in when we finally build our home? Not really. But they are clean and comfortable, often well-appointed to the point of having the option between a Keurig or a drip coffee maker, blankets for couch-snuggling, outside sitting areas and grills, all of which have made us feel safe and content.
The lesson is: do your research, take your time, look at the number and quality of reviews, look at the pictures and their age and enjoy the differences. I really think that living in all of these different places has helped us to define what we want in our own home.