Keith Johnson’s family vacation ended up as a wonderful memory, but it began as a business transaction — and he didn’t close the deal until he’d done his due diligence.
Johnson, who is from Weston, Conn., was planning a family reunion near Cedar Point Amusement Park last summer. After considering several options, looking at photos and asking questions, he rented a large house with its own Lake Erie beach. The newly remodeled home was jampacked with extra touches, such as luxurious linens, televisions in every room, a gourmet kitchen and plenty of lawn games for entertainment. The water-loving family also had a canoe and kayak at its disposal.
“We had a great experience,” says Johnson. “It was a beautiful setting, and the kids had a lot to do.”
Tina Erwin’s vacation, on the other hand, wasn’t as successful. She and her extended family rented a cottage on South Bass Island in Ohio and found it less than clean. “I finished giving my daughter a bath, and she was running all over the house,” says Erwin, who is from Avon, Ohio. “Her feet were black. The carpet was completely filthy. It was absolutely disgusting.”
Erwin says she’s open to the idea of renting a vacation home again, but she’d do a lot more research.
And that is exactly the point. Finding a great vacation rental isn’t a matter of luck. It’s the result of doing your homework and knowing what to ask (see “The Questions to Ask,” page 36). It’s also a question of expectations. What are you willing to pay for? And what should you get for the money you spend?
When Kathleen Osborne was planning her vacation, she knew she wanted a quick getaway for her family of five, but she didn’t want to pay a fortune. What she did want was a beach — very close by. She ended up in a two-bedroom cabin a short walk from Gem Beach on Catawba near Port Clinton, Ohio, that cost $450 for the week. Her three children (then ages 5, 7 and 9) spent all day on the beach, then learned Texas hold’em from their dad at night in the cabin’s screened-in porch. “It was nothing fancy,” Osborne says. “But a nice place to go.”
The cabin didn’t have a washer and dryer, necessitating a few trips to the laundromat down the road to wash beach towels but, because she knew that before she arrived, Osborne was prepared for it. It ended up being an inexpensive but memorable vacation.
Johnson, because he was hosting a family reunion, was looking for much more than that. He found the home through the popular Web site VRBO.com, which is owned by HomeAway.com. Each listing usually includes a description of the property, several photos, the number of bedrooms and bathrooms, the owner’s rental policies and other unique selling points.
“I look for a really accurate description of the property,” says Johnson. “And I like to see pictures and a map; I want to know how far my family will have to walk to get somewhere and what the views will be.”
Once he narrows down his options to two or three, Johnson speaks directly with the owner, something that isn’t always possible when working with a rental agency. “You can tell if they have a passion for it,” he says.
In Johnson’s case, the owner inundated him with extra photos and other materials. “She told me all the good things and the things they were still working on,” he says. “We were pretty well-prepared going in.”
“It all goes back to the basic principles that your mom told you: Don’t assume anything,” says Christine Karpinski, the director of owner community for HomeAway.com. “If there’s something that is important to you, ask before you solidify that reservation. If a picture shows a rocking chair, double-check that the rocking chair is there.”
As for Erwin, she might be back on the lake this summer, but there’s one thing she knows for sure: “I don’t think I’d rent a place with carpet ever again.”
10 Great Houses Still Available
The best places are booked years in advance, right? Not always. We scoured the lake on your behalf and found 10 amazing properties that, at press time, were still available. Even better, several of the homeowners offered to reserve a week or two for the first Lake Erie Living reader interested in renting their property at its regular price. The homes will be held until April 15.
How to Find Your Vacation Home