For years my extended family would head to my sister Margot’s five-bedroom home near Albany, New York, to celebrate the holidays. But once marriage and children had expanded our group to 18, the house became too small to comfortably fit us all.
So two years ago, my real estate-savvy sister-in-law Claire went online to Airbnb and found a gorgeous country compound in New York’s Catskill Mountains region with room for everyone. Two guesthouses added privacy, a huge dining table could seat the whole crew and a renovated barn with a big play area kept the grandchildren happily occupied. The owners even had put up a Christmas tree, much to the kids’ delight.
It was such fun that when we discussed this year’s holiday plans, the vote was unanimous: Try to snag the Catskills property again. Luckily, it was available.
But while that experience was a huge success, I also have accumulated a few horror stories from my many home-rental adventures — like the time we rented an oceanfront cottage in Santa Barbara, California, that turned out to be near a freeway and overlooked a noisy, packed beach. The nonstop highway traffic, early-morning surf camps and rowdy late-night bonfires encouraged an early checkout.
Now we’ve learned how to spot and avoid potential problems — and always get our rental deposits back. Some tips from a veteran home renter:
1. If your destination is popular, book up to a year in advance.
It may make you nervous to commit to a place so many months out, but due to COVID-19, many rental-home owners have loosened their cancellation policies, allowing you to change plans without penalty close to your check-in date.
2. Get a good overview of your options.
Find out the general cost and availability of homes at different destinations you’re considering. Begin by browsing the big rental sites, such as Vrbo and Airbnb. Try widening your search to include nearby towns, where availability may be greater and prices lower. If you can be flexible, play with your date range.
3. Consider the per-person fee.
The prices can seem absurdly high when you’re looking at big homes with many bedrooms for a large family group. But it may not be so bad if you do the math. For my family, for instance, a $600-per-night home works out to about $30 a person nightly — cheaper than most hotels.