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Should renters book vacation homes through owners or agencies?

SmarterTravel

Presumably, arranging a vacation rental directly with the owner would be less expensive than using an agency or broker. At least that’s what one reader had in mind, when he asked, “What are your thoughts on renting direct from an owner—is there a downside risk to offset the big cost savings versus booking through a resort?” That’s a good question, and one to which I can’t provide a definitive answer. However, I can review the vacation rental landscape a bit and provide some guidance to potential renters.

Vacation rental pluses

Compared with conventional hotels and resorts, vacation rentals offer some enticing advantages.
You usually get more space per dollar, which you can use either to cut the price per person or give each person lots more room. With the typical full kitchen, you can make some of your own meals, at far less than you’d pay in restaurants. Some vacation rentals also enjoy unusual and especially attractive locations and easy access to beaches, mountains, or whatever else is the location’s draw. Plus, vacation rentals are more likely to include parking than downtown or resort-area hotels.

Those are the main reasons many travelers—and I’m certainly among them—so strongly favor vacation rentals. Whether in a city (Avignon, London, and Paris), near a city (Florence), on a beach (Bandon, Lincoln City, and Newport) or in the countryside (Burgundy, Normandy, and Tuscany), I’ve found some great rentals in recent years, and I’ll probably opt for a rental the next time I plan to spend a week or more at a destination, as well.

Risks

This is not to say, however, that vacation rentals can’t pose some risks. Although my own experiences have been generally positive, a few readers have reported significant problems. The worst problems seem to be outright misrepresentation—of the space, numbers of people accommodated, location, facilities, and such. I’ve also heard some horror stories about apparent bait-and-switch substitutions—”We’re sorry that the unit you reserved is being repainted, but we’ve arranged for you to stay in a different place we’re sure you’ll like.”

Rental arrangements are usually much less flexible than hotel or resort deals—many are available only in one-week intervals, often only Saturday to Saturday—and peak-season dates often sell out almost a year in advance. You almost always have to pay for a vacation rental in full, in advance, and payments are often completely nonrefundable, even if you should have to cancel or modify your trip.

On balance, however, benefits outweigh risks for many travelers. If you agree, your next question is how to find and arrange the rental you need for your trip.

Book directly with the owner for the lowest price

It’s easy to find and book vacation rentals directly from the owner, thanks to several large online vacation rental websites that post rentals directly from the owner of each property. Among the largest is Vacation Rentals by Owner, which has worldwide coverage. Others include seven sites operated by WVR Group, Independent Lodging Guide, and lots of sites that specialize in limited areas.

Although Vacation Rentals by Owner touts its “by owner” feature, most of the really large sites actually operate about the same way. The website simply acts as a bulletin board or clearinghouse: Property owners submit their listings, typically with a lot of detailed information, pictures, and often a map, plus phone, Internet, and snail mail contact information. You negotiate your deal directly with the property owner, and your financial deal is directly with the owner. The operators of these sites are careful to disclaim any responsibility for misrepresentations or inaccuracies in any of the postings. Several, however, encourage travelers to submit comments, and most of them will de-list any individual property that receives more than a few bad reviews.

Large condo-based and timeshare resorts also arrange rentals at their properties. Some websites and offices act simply as clearinghouses for rentals by owners, others act as agencies. You have to check each site to be sure.

Individual property owners often establish their own sites for the one or more rental properties they own. In this case, you’re obviously dealing directly and solely with that owner.

Book with an agency to cut down on risks

Quite a few smaller organizations operate as true agencies rather than just conduits. Your financial deal is with the agency, which must deal with any complaints or problems. These agencies typically inspect and screen all properties before they list them; posted descriptions are based on observations by agency staff rather than whatever the owner might submit. Among those I’ve used, with happy results, are At Home in France and Vacanza Bella.

Because I’ve never seen the same exact property listed by both an agency and by-owner site, I can’t say for sure just how much, if any, markup the rental agencies add. From the prices of what appear to be comparable properties, however, I’d guess that you pay anything from 10 to 30 percent more through an agency than by going direct.

Which way to go?

The tradeoff here—as in so many other travel cases—is between price and risk. Presumably, you’ll get the best price by going direct; the best assurance of quality and no unhappy surprises by going through an agency.

But don’t base your decision on probabilities or assumptions; as usual, there’s no substitute for comparison shopping. Check out multiple options and alternatives, then decide which is best for you.

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