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Snag your vacation rental early or pay the price

You’ll need to start looking now if you want to find a summer vacation rental that suits your needs and budget. In recent years, waiting until the last minute to book a property often yielded good results. Many rentals were still open, and realtors, desperate to fill their properties, didn’t raise rates and sometimes reduced prices. But the same is not true for 2004: Vacationers are booking earlier and are paying more.

The Vacation Rental Managers Association has seen most of its 500 member companies increase their bookings and raise their rates this year. For example, in Cape Cod, “the trend toward late bookings that resulted because of post-9/11 concerns is disappearing, and owners are finding that renters are prepared to do what it takes to get that ideal rental,” said Jean M. Ellis, Director of the Cape Cod-based Kinlin Grover GMAC Vacation Rentals.

However, this growth has varied by region. In the Hamptons, minimal rate increases reflect more cautious renters. “Home owners who raise prices are going to be disappointed,” said Diane Saatchi, a broker at the Corcoran Group in East Hampton. “People aren’t willing to pay more this year; they’re just booking earlier.”

Nevertheless, real estate agents across the country indicate that customers are more confident about their finances and are willing to put down money early to lock in an ideal affordable rental. Thus, realtors recommend booking as soon as possible if you’re set on specific dates or want a place with a great view.

But, if you’re somewhat flexible about dates and location, there is still time to shop around. And, there are numerous ways you can find a good rental for less, even at the last minute. Here are some suggestions:

  • Avoid peak summer weeks. If you can vacation in the early or late summer, you’ll have more rental options with lower prices than in mid-summer. Each destination experiences slightly different peak weeks, depending upon the region’s climate, local holidays or festivals, and local school break schedules.

    For example, Greg Flaherty, President of the San Diego-based Penny Realty, said that lower-priced rentals can be found in the San Diego area in May and early June, before the main summer crunch. Jeff Talmadge, co-owner of the Cape Cod-based WeNeedaVacation.com, sees Labor Day week as a good opportunity for savings because many children are already back in school: “In the past 10 years, some Massachusetts schools have been starting up earlier—before Labor Day—so you can get some great deals that week.”

  • Pass on waterfront properties. While a house on the water may seem ideal, prices are often double the cost of similar rentals without the view. Research by WeNeedaVacation.com, which specializes in rentals on Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard, and Nantucket, and the Gulf Coast of Florida, shows that waterfront homes cost on average 49 percent more than other properties, and homes within walking distance of the beach cost about 23 percent more than those farther away. “The moment you see a glimpse of water, the price goes up,” said Jeff Talmadge.

  • Book a house with only as many rooms and amenities as needed. The more complex the floor plan and the more amenities there are, like pools or air-conditioning, the higher the price.
  • Look outside the “hot spots.” Michael Sarka, Executive Director of the Vacation Rental Managers Association, suggests that desirable but lower-priced properties can be found in areas just outside popular resort destinations: “[For example], rather than staying on Hilton Head Island (off the coast of South Carolina), you could stay in nearby Bluffton, SC, for less; or, instead of staying in Myrtle Beach, stay in North Myrtle Beach.” Other benefits of staying outside the in-demand locales include less crowding and a more peaceful atmosphere.
  • Consider off-season destinations. According to Sarka, “rentals during the shoulder- and off-season offer the best value.” Many popular U.S. winter destinations experience a lull in visitation over the summer months, which translates to increased rental availability and rates reduced by as much as 50 percent. And, some regions that attract fewer visitors in the summer months still offer good weather and plenty to do.

    Sarka recommends summering in ski resort towns, such as those in Colorado or Vermont, or in hot-weather destinations, such as Arizona or southern Florida.

If you are unfamiliar with a region, representatives from local chambers of commerce can fill you in on the most affordable times to rent during the season. They can also help you pinpoint areas off the main tourist track that are both attractive and less expensive.

For this reason, renting through a vacation rental manager rather than an individual property owner may be preferable, despite the commission fees. “A rental company will look at their inventory and try to find a property that fits your needs and budget, whereas an individual owner will try to make you fit their property,” said Sarka. To find a reputable rental agency in a specific area, contact the local chamber of commerce, or browse the Vacation Rental Managers Association’s member directory.

However, don’t rule out vacation rental websites such WeNeedaVacation.com, which list rentals from individual property owners. These websites often feature special off-season rates and homeowner specials that highlight discounted weeks or last-minute cancellations.

As with any travel product, shopping around and comparing different options for your rental are key to getting the best deal.

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