Thanks to the superabundance of online home rental services and a big uptick in the number of individuals renting homes in top-notch getaway towns, it’s easier than ever to book a checks-every-box vacation home for your family. Even nabbing a last-minute beach house or lakeside cabin in a prime area is entirely possible.
That’s the good news. The bad? Not everything that glitters is gold in the world of online rentals. You may think you’ve secured a great house only to realize too late that it’s not at all close to the area you wanted or the amenities aren’t remotely as advertised.
While rental apps certainly make things easier, they can also make the process almost too easy. After all, a few taps and swipes of an app and you’ve got a house. So it’s important to take a beat, do your research, and avoid a few common mistakes. For advice, we reached out to Josh Viner, director of operations at vacation rental booking service Vacasa and Bob Dittrich, president of The Vacation Rental Experts, who’s been helping connect renters and families looking for vacation homes since 1994. Here, then, are seven mistakes to avoid when booking a vacation home.
1. Booking Something That’s Outside Your Preferred Area
So, you’ve found a great vacation rental in a hot area at a killer price. There may be a good reason that price seems too good to be true. The property may be far from where you really want to be and if you’re not careful, you’ll spend more time and money ferrying the family around than being where you want to be.
“My first three tips are always location, location, location,” says Viner. “Be sure to check the description of your vacation rental’s location and how close it is to the attractions you want to experience.”
While Viner notes that you won’t have access to the exact address before booking, a good listing description should always include an approximate location and what’s in the area. Also, he adds, “if it’s a priority for your rental to be beachfront, or have ski-in-ski-out access in the winter, use the amenity filters on the booking site to efficiently narrow down your search.”
2. Downgrading the Rental to Save a Few Bucks
It’s easy to worry too much when it comes to price. After all, you’ve set a budget and want to stick to it. But a common mistake is trying to save a small amount and downgrading the entire experience in the process.
“I’ve seen people set a strict budget at say $7,000, and the best option is $7,200. They end up taking something far worse at $6,950, or they are so concerned with going a few dollars over their budget, they don't go on vacation at all,” says Dittrich. “If they can afford $6,950, I am pretty sure they can afford $7,200 and get the best vacation.”
3. Not Investigating the Amenities
Lots of vacation home rentals come with everything you need, from basics like dish soap and towels to fun stuff like inner tubes, canoes, and mountain bikes. But it’s good to know what will be there and what you will have to bring.
“Find out what your vacation rental includes before you arrive, either through the listing description or contact the host and/or manager,” says Viner. How a vacation rental is stocked is typically more consistent with professional property managers, per Viner, but individual hosts may or may not provide items like beach towels or laundry detergent.
It’s also smart to know what they do have so that you don’t have to pack all that much. “If you’re traveling with little ones, it can save a lot of energy and space if the home already has a pack n’ play and/or high chair,” says Viner.
4. Ignoring the Reviews
While this may sound obvious, it bears repeating: Read the reviews. It pays to see what others have to say about the place you think looks perfect, especially the most recent. There’s a reason so many hosts want you to give them a good review after you stay at their property — and try to respond constructively to negative feedback. This stuff counts.
“Guest reviews are a great source of information about a property and can provide insights about how a home is stocked or the amenities that guests enjoyed most,” says Viner. “They can also be equally helpful to see how the host or property manager responds to reviews and upgrades that may have been made to address any past guest issues.”
Take time to investigate what people have said and how the hosts have responded.
5. Only Looking at Older Listings
This goes a bit against the above tip, but do yourself a favor a look at newer, more recent listings as well as those that have been on the site a long time. Yes, you’ll be flying blind but Viner says looking at such rentals — which are often tagged as ‘new’ for easy visibility — can often be more affordable with hosts that are more eager to please. This is especially true in prime locations.
“Though they don’t often have many reviews, the vacation rentals that are just starting to book up their calendars — and to amass guest reviews — can have better availability and pricing than the vacation rentals that book up every season,” he says.
6. Trying to Please Everyone
During his long career, Dittrich has worked with scores of families searching for vacation homes. One of the most common mistakes he sees parents make is asking for input from the entire family and trying to please everyone. This is an impossible task and often leads to a lot of frustration during the planning process.
“There is always someone in the family who puts all kinds of restrictions on what they want, and so they pass up great options, and many times don't go at all, or get something much worse than the agent who has been there,” he says.
This is especially true, he adds, when it comes to young kids who insist on a pool or a waterslide when better options don’t have those amenities.
7. Not Using a Trusted Site
Of course, both Viner and Dittrich have strong feelings about their sites. But whatever you choose, make sure it’s a trusted resource. “Unfortunately, vacation rental fraud and scams are not uncommon on sites like Craigslist and other community-driven forums,” says Viner. To avoid this, be sure to use credible booking site that includes high-quality photography, or even 3D tours. This way, you get a true sense of the property and can make sure the home’s layout suits your needs.