If you're looking to rent a vacation home but don't know where to start, you're not alone. Finding the perfect beach house or vacation villa isn't easy, but there are ways to set yourself apart from the herd and guarantee you get the vacation you want without breaking your budget. As with most endeavors, planning ahead and being organized are the keys. This article will break down the process into nine easy to follow steps that you should take to secure the home you want at a great price. (For related reading, check out Timeshares: Dream Vacation Or Money Pit?)

1. Start Your Search Early
Avoid some of the stress and excessive costs that can go with trying to secure a vacation home, particularly during peak season and on short notice, by thinking, researching and planning at least six months (but preferably a year) in advance. While this may seem excessive, keep in mind that vacation rentals - at least, the good ones - usually book up fast.

If you're not sure where to start, your first goal should be to nail down your destination and the approximate timing of your trip. Once you've made these decisions, a real estate agent who specializes in your destination can be helpful in finding a vacation home rental. Consider contacting popular brokerages that have a large presence or looking for individual agents that are known and respected in the area you are visiting.

Also, online local newspapers can be a great resource (some rentals don't go through a real estate agent), and so can websites that specialize in vacation rentals. For example, VacationRentals.com provides details on rentals in all 50 states and numerous countries throughout the world. VacationRealty.com is another site that can help you secure a vacation home near the amenities you desire. Craigslist also advertises vacation rentals. (To learn more, check out Do You Need A Real Estate Agent?)

2. Consult Multiple Sources
It's very important to consult a variety of sources when vacation-house hunting. By shopping around and talking to many different people, you'll not only learn more about the area you are visiting, you may also find yourself a better deal. Leave your options open by talking to several real estate agents and consulting multiple websites.

If you don't live too far from your vacation destination, you might consider driving around the neighborhoods where you are looking to rent to see to there are any homes advertising for the season. While these strategies can be a lot of work, finding rentals in this manner may be cheaper in the long run because no brokerage fee will be involved. Although the owner is responsible for paying the this fee, this cost will typically be factored into the home's rental price. (To get an owner's perspective on vacation homes, check out Investing In A Vacation Home.)

3. Read the Whole Contract
Unfortunately, people are often so happy that they landed the vacation home they wanted and so eager to start having fun that they overlook the importance of the contract. But, this document shouldn't be ignored, as it explains what you are on the hook for. It will outline not only your payment schedule, but also your liability in case of damages or if extra cleaning is needed.

Make sure you understand who pays for:

  • Utility bills
  • Internet
  • Phone service
  • Cable
  • Cleaning/housekeeping
  • Propane/gas - if outdoor grilling is available

Keep in mind that the costs involved in air conditioning or heating a vacation rental can be sizable, so be sure to factor those into your budget if the owner has not already included them in the rent. You should also be aware of the landlord's policies regarding pets and subleasing. Vacation rental resources website HomeAway has several sample contracts and invoices to peruse so you can get a feel for what to expect.

It's important to get checklist of what's included in the rental. For example, are beach chairs and a grill part of the deal? If they are, that could save you money. If not, factor that into your budget (or consider bargaining for them - more on that in a bit).

As a general rule, before signing a vacation rental contract, you should consider having it looked over by a competent and licensed attorney that you trust, preferably one that specializes in real estate. This should certainly be done if you are unclear about any aspect of the contract. While attorneys can be expensive, spending a couple of hundred dollars for a review of the contract makes sense if it's going to put your mind at ease and allow you to fully enjoy your vacation. (For tips on finding a good real estate attorney, read The Benefits Of Using A Real Estate Attorney.)

4. You Can Always Negotiate
Almost every cost of a vacation home rental is negotiable, from the amount of the deposit to the weekly or monthly rent. If the person renting the home out is unwilling to budge on either of these items, see if they'll throw in an extra day's or week's rental at a slightly lower price. If the property isn't booked and you know it, this can be a great leverage point when negotiating. (To learn how to come out on top of any negotiation, read Getting What You Want.)

5. Don't Forget the Deposit
Seasonal rentals may require a large upfront security deposit. Don't forget to factor this into your budget. Also, be aware of the process by which your deposit will be returned. Understand what conditions must be met (ex., the home must be clean and all rental payments made) in order for you to get your deposit back. This will help prevent arguments at the end of the rental agreement period.

6. Ask about the Housekeeping Situation
Some rentals have a cleaning service come in on the last day and the cost is billed to the person renting the home. Others may have cleaners come by periodically. Find out what the housekeeping schedule is and who is responsible for the bill. Also find out what condition the property must be returned in for your full deposit to be refunded.

7. Photograph On Day One
To ensure that any existing damage is documented and that you aren't blamed for something you haven't done, photograph and/or video tape the property on the day you arrive. Make sure you record any problem areas. Do the same thing on your last day. If there is an argument before a mediator or a judge later on, this documentation may come in handy. It may even convince the owner not to take you to court in the first place.

8. Get A Contact Number
It's great that you've gotten the keys to your vacation home and that you're ready to enjoy your time off, but make sure to get the owner or landlord's phone number just in case there is a problem like a burst pipe or a loss of electricity. You'll be glad you did!

9. Do A Walk Through Before Check Out
Before checking out, walk through the premises with the owner or landlord. Make sure that he or she sees no problem with the condition of the property. This can prevent nasty surprises or unexpected bills. It can also buy you time to fix a problem if one is uncovered.

Bottom Line
Renting a vacation home doesn't have to be stressful. Thorough and advanced planning can make your holiday more enjoyable and help ensure that you'll be able to book the home you desire at a price you can afford. With these nine steps you should be able to ensure that your summer shack doesn't turn your vacation into shambles.

To guarantee unexpected problems don't put a damper on your trip, read Travel Tips For Keeping You And Your Money Safe and Ensure Your Vacation is Insured.

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