Apr 13 2014, 3:32pm CDT | by Forbes
On two recent vacations my husband and I tried renting apartments instead of staying in a hotel — with mixed results. A charming flat, in the Saint-Germain-des-Prés neighborhood of Paris, was walking distance to the Louvre Museum, but we dragged our feet there, having been awakened each night during our one-week sojourn by drunken revelers. At another rental, in the Marina neighborhood of San Francisco, the sheets and towels and the kitchen equipment were of such poor quality that I wondered whether the owner was guarding against the possibility that guests would walk off with a vegetable peeler.
Neither place was inexpensive and in both instances I was happy to get home to my own bed and my own stuff.
But what if such comforts didn’t await me? I thought of that last month when I interviewed Lynne and Tim Martin about their self-styled life as “senior gypsies” (see my post, “How To Follow Your Dream And Spend Your Retirement Traveling The World.”) Her book, Home Sweet Anywhere: How We Sold Our House, Created a New Life, and Saw the World, chronicles their adventures and their learning curve during three years as retirement nomads. She also engages readers on the book’s Web site, Home Free Adventures, on her Facebook page and through Twitter.
A Retirement Nomad’s Guide To Vacation Rentals
By Lynne Martin
If the brutal winter has left you longing for a dream summer vacation but you can’t spring for a pricey hotel, renting a house or apartment could be an attractive alternative. For about half the cost of a room in Paris, Rome or London, for example, you can live like a native in an apartment with kitchen facilities and space to relax after a day of admiring Notre Dame, the Coliseum or Lord Elgin’s marbles. What a great use for your tax refund, if perchance Uncle Sam owes you (rather than the reverse) or your cookie jar saving for a bucket list trip.
My husband and I have been living internationally for three years in vacation rental apartments and houses, touching down for two or three months at a time in popular tourist cities such as Berlin, Buenos Aires, Florence, Istanbul, Lisbon, London, Marrakech New York and Paris; as well as more remote spots in Ireland, Mexico and California. Propelled by an advanced case of senior wanderlust, we sold our home in California in 2011, ditched most of our belongings and gave the proceeds to our financial adviser to add to our portfolio. We have been living a home-free life ever since.
In the process we’ve become not only seasoned travelers, but also savvy renters, learning some lessons the hard way. For example, we discovered too late that an apartment we rented for three months in Berlin lacked an oven, and that the charming 15th Century third-floor aerie with panoramic views of La Charite sur Loire, France was reachable only by a narrow stone circular staircase that left us pale and panting each time we came home. A shocking drawback of the apartment we rented for two summer months in Florence was that it lacked air-conditioning, a fact we had been told would “not be a problem.” Wrong! Our best defense against a heat wave was to close the big wooden shutters and roast like a turkey in the afternoons.
We don’t blame the owners for our discomfort. Such oversights were our responsibility because we didn’t ask the right questions or read the information provided in the listing closely enough. Locating and evaluating a vacation rental from thousands of miles away can be a challenge. The following steps can help you learn from our triumphs — and our mistakes.
Rent from a reputable source. We generally use an international vacation rental company to secure our apartments or houses abroad and at home in the United States too, because we think that the larger outfits offer some recourse and resources for redress or relocation in case we have any problems. We have used HomeAway.com and VRBO.com primarily, and have yet to have a really bad experience. Since we are so accustomed to using their sites, we feel comfortable with them. Once we tried Airbnb because we heard about them from fellow travelers, but we discovered that the unit was the owner’s home, and we didn’t care much for living with him — and his family’s personal possessions.
As we root around the internet for digs, we gravitate towards owner-managed places, rather than those run by agencies, because the owner has a more personal stake in making sure that we’re happy and will reward their extra effort with a good review after our stay.
Ponder location. We rely on Google maps for a photographic view of the street and the neighborhood. It can reveal all kinds of interesting details, right down to the kennel next door, the all-night tavern across the street, or the beautiful park nearby. Because we are living in cities for more than a month — not just for a few days — we are most concerned with proximity to everyday necessities. We love it when a listing mentions that there’s a farmer’s market a few blocks away, and we pay close attention to nearby bakeries and other local food shops that will allow us to experiment with our menus. We rarely live in areas near tourist attractions since they are usually much more crowded and expensive than neighborhoods where the natives live.
Also, it’s very important to consider the transportation situation. A gorgeous apartment may be a long uphill grind from the nearest bus, tram or subway stop and hiking it can spoil a glorious evening at the opera. We recommend that you use a map while shopping for a place and be sure you’re within comfortable walking distance of the transportation you’ll need. Your budget might not cover expensive cabs several times a day.
Scrutinize interiors. Study the photos provided in the listing with minute care. Like your own Linkedin photo, they were shot to impress, so looking for details can save you disappointment. Our absent oven in Berlin was missing in the photos in the listing, but we skipped over it because we were so enchanted with the wild red poppy wallpaper. Don’t let such window dressing seduce you.
Read the list of amenities carefully, too. Once we failed to notice that linens and other niceties were not included in the rent, and we ended up paying $5 per week extra for the use of the owners’ sheets and towels, another $5 per day to make the air-conditioner run, and even a $3 day surcharge for the TV. All of this was listed in an obscure drop-down chart buried in the listing for our apartment in Didim, Turkey. It makes a great cocktail party story now, but at the time we failed to see the humor in it./>/>
Get comparables. No, this isn’t as important as it is when you buy a house, but you certainly don’t want to get ripped off.
We start by verifying that the dates we want are open, and, if we are planning to stay for a month or more, we can usually negotiate a better price than that listed for a week or less. We have a general idea of our housing budget, but certainly some parts of the world are more expensive than others. Cities, like London or those in Scandanavian countries can cost as much as 25% more than locations in Mexico or Portugal, so we have to balance our itinerary accordingly. We look at all the properties in our price range and make our decision based on the one that gives us most of what we’re looking for.
For instance, right now we live on Staten Island, N.Y., which is a 25-minute ferry ride from the island of Manhattan but we were able to stay within our budget for a two and a half months. More importantly, we have more than twice the space that we could have afforded in the city. It’s always a trade-off, just as it is when one buys a home.
Read between the lines. When we’ve found the location and amenities at a price we can afford, we look to fellow travelers for hands-on advice. The review section of the listing is essential to your happiness because people who have had boots on the ground will guide you to the right decision. Remarks like “a bit of street noise,” or “very cozy living room” (read minuscule) make us move right on down the page. “Charm” can mean darling antiques to some, but extra-low doorways and uneven floorboards to others. But “light, bright and quiet,” or “The owner made us feel right at home with directions and suggestions,” will make us linger over a listing, and possibly commit. (After we do, we always add our own two cents to the online conversation, so other travelers will be wiser for it.)
Communicate with the owner. Once you’ve narrowed down your choices, it’s time to contact the owner. This is the best way to get a feel for the person you’ll be dealing with. Even a telephone relationship will help you feel less anxious as you’re standing in that customs line, soon to head for your temporary home in Dublin or Rome.
We use Skype to phone the owner, rather than relying on email because it gives us a much clearer impression of the person with whom we’re doing business. It’s easier to ask about details iike Wi-Fi signal strength; the effectiveness of heat or air-conditioning; how close the markets are; and other details that are important to us. We also inquire about: laundry facilities; the real-time distance to good public transportation; whether there is or will be major construction going on in the neighborhood (we lived for three months in Paris with jackhammers as our background music once); and confirmation that there is a working elevator if the building is more than two stories high.
Still, we don’t rely just on these long-distance impressions. We buy vacation rental protection insurance, offered for both of the companies we have dealt with, which guarantees we will get our money back if the vacation rental is not as advertised or we are unable to gain access. (So far, we haven’t had to file a claim.) For extra protection, we pay a deposit (it has ranged from a few hundred dollars to one month’s rent) in order to secure our rentals, with the balance due when we arrive if the property is acceptable. And paying by credit card, rather than in cash, gives us additional recourse, if necessary.
We like having the owner in the same city so if we encounter any equipment failure or other problems he or she is available to solve the problem. Our phone “interview” also helps us build rapport and get a sense of whether the owner is going to be helpful and correct any problems when we arrive.
Once you’ve done your due diligence, you can look forward to living like a local. Between what you saved on accommodations and the meals you will be able to eat in, rather than always dining out, you might be able to afford that exquisite bottle of Bordeaux you’ve been craving. Or maybe on your next European jaunt, you’ll spring for a trip to see Highclere Castle, the gorgeous estate where “Downton Abbey” was filmed. It will give you a glimpse of how the other half lives.
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