Vacation home rentals have become more popular in recent years as large families and groups of friends seek to cut lodging costs, and the trend has accelerated as families seek to limit their exposure to the coronavirus.
Both hotels and vacation home rentals are taking extraordinary precautions to control the spread of the virus, but at a hotel or resort, you inevitably will be mixing with other guests. The ability to control your own environment and limit contacts adds to the appeal of a vacation home rental.
You still may be “staying home,” but the change of scenery would certainly have a positive impact on your mental state. Ease the pain by booking a house on a beach, or a cottage with its own pool!
Editor’s Note: Sample rates included in this article may be outdated and vary widely. Our intent is to show examples of what you might pay. Always check the latest listings.
Vacation home rentals: Pros and Cons
- Rates can be substantially less per person with multi-day and weekly rates.
- Multiple bedrooms allow family members to have their own space
- Home, condo and cabin rentals usually feature fully equipped kitchens, so you save money eating out.
- Both owners and guests are screened and evaluated, and the relationship is more personal.
- Hosts often provide local information to highlight favorite beaches and things to do, saving you time.
- Unexpected fees. Always expect a cleaning fee, but other fees may pile on. “Property management” fees are likely if the property is managed by a realtor. There may also be a “listing fee” or other fees on top of taxes.
- Unexpected taxes. Many Florida destinations have a sales tax and a local tourism tax (bed tax), which could add as much as 17% to your base rate. (Hotels charge the same fees, so there’s no advantage to either.)
Pay Attention! A two-bedroom house I found in Marathon listed for $93 a night, or $652 for the week. The fees added $114 in state and local taxes, a $40 “tourism” fee, a $78 “property service charge” and a $168 cleaning tab for a total of $1,052 — 60% higher than the listed rate.
I’ve been both a host and a guest
My experience with vacation home rentals has been extraordinary. Never an unpleasant moment.
For about three years, I hosted vacationers in our family home in New Smyrna Beach. Our guests were from all over the world, including a group of Russians. (They were very well behaved.) I had regulars who came back year after year because they loved the location (a block from the beach) and the price. I covered expenses and even made a small profit, and the guests saved money.
Our house was fairly typical of what you’ll find online: three bedrooms, two baths, a full kitchen, family room, sunroom and patio with a barbecue, a driveway to park a car rental, and bicycles, coolers and beach gear in the garage. We didn’t have a private pool, but many rentals do. We charged between $2,000 per week, including taxes and fees, and we blocked out two days on each side of a rental for cleaning.
We welcomed our guests with a bottle of wine, flowers, fresh coffee, a personalized guide to the community with restaurant recommendations, and all the toys they would need for the beach.
My experience as a guest in vacation rentals has been much the same.
Hosts go out of their way to make you comfortable so you will enjoy your stay enough to come back. For both guests and hosts, the relationship becomes personal. You become part of a family who share your experience online and in a guest book.
What to expect when booking a vacation rental online
- At first, you may be overwhelmed by the listings at your intended destination. Take your time. Review offerings on multiple web sites, such as VRBO, airBnB, Booking.com and vacasa.com. Be sure to read the owner’s notes on amenities and what’s nearby.
- Compare not only base rental rates, but add-ons likes cleaning fees, management fees and taxes, Most online booking sites break down charges, but you often have to look hard to find them.
- Rental rates vary with the calendar and special events, such as Fantasy Fest in Key West, the Daytona 500, Bike Week or the Strawberry Festival in Plant City, when minimum stays and higher rates prevail.
- You may be encouraged to purchase insurance to cover breakage and loss. You will be held responsible for breakage. Most of the time, a refundable deposit should suffice.
- A rental deposit is required with a reservation. The balance will be due by a specified date before your arrival, usually a month. Cancellations may not be as liberal as booking a hotel room, but hosts try to be accommodating. The listing will explain the cancellation terms.
- Your deposit and payments are held in escrow until you check out. Only then will the owner receive the money. Damage deposits, if any, will be refunded after the property has been inspected, usually by the housekeeper.
- Expect your stay to be monitored, not only by neighbors but also by the cleaning crew and others with a stake in the rental. My housekeeper was a neighbor who we had known for many years, so she knew what was going on. She wasn’t nosy, just alert.
- Speaking of neighbors, they may or may not be happy to see you. Be nice. Be friendly. Be neighborly.
- After your stay, the property owner will provide feedback to your account, and you will be asked to provide feedback on your experience. Honest feedback is what makes online bookings work.
As I said earlier, my personal experiences have been stellar, both as a host and as a guest. My most recent VRBO rental, a week in a Tuscan villa last fall with a farm family, was the highlight of my monthlong Italian vacation.
Where to book your vacation rental online
The major players in vacation home rental business are VRBO, airBnB, Booking.com, and TripAdvisor (FlipKey). Popular sites in Florida, particularly the Florida Keys, are Vacasa.com and FloridaRentals.com
Although Hotels.com is focused mostly on hotels, motels and resorts, their inventory of vacation home rentals has grown exponentially in recent years so they bear a look.
airBnb may be the most well-known of the group. I’ve worked with them as a host but not as a guest.
Booking.com often has the most listings, and they also have more options, including hotels. TripAdvisor is another good choice. It’s listings are enhanced by the popular and comprehensive TripAdvisor database of restaurant reviews and travel tips.
Hotels.com is my go-to reservations service for hotels when I’m on the road, but don’t ignore their vacation home rental listings. When you arrive at their home page, use the filters in the left column to narrow your choices to vacation homes, beach rentals, condos, cabins, cottages, etc.
A note about online listings: You’ll often find the same properties listed on multiple sites because owners are looking for broad exposure. They only pay commissions to site that gets them a booking, and they use a shared iCalendar scheduling system. If you book a rental on one, the dates are automatically seeded to the other booking sites. As an owner, I got the best results with VRBO, HomeAway (now part of VRBO), and FlipKey.
You can usually find property management companies, often realtors, who manage properties for absentee and part-time owners, and they handle everything from marketing to maintenance to scheduling cleaning staff. Some even stage the properties with furniture and other amenities. A Google search for a specific destinations will produce a plethora of such listings.
One such property management company is Vacasa.com, which has a high concentration of listings in the Florida Keys. You’ll likely pay a little more, but they provide local staffing with uniform standards for housekeeping, nearby managers to respond to requests, and they handle maintenance on demand. Some even stage rentals with furniture. It’s a little less personal, but generally managed efficiently.
My brother-in-law lists his spacious Keys house with Vacasa for $2,200 on a normal week. Waterfront with a dock, a waterfront tiki bar, hot tub, great views from decks on three levels and sleeps up to 8 comfortably. Rate change with the calendar, depending on the season and events.
While you’re looking to get away from it all, you’ll not get away from the pandemic, at least not this year. It sounds kinda crazy, and most hosts will do a great job of cleaning, but if I were you…
Bring your own sanitizer and cleaning rags. Disinfect all common surfaces when you arrive, whether you are in a vacation rental, condo or a hotel.
Wipe down beach toys, bikes, kayaks, beach chairs that are provided for guests.
Bring disposable masks and gloves for your entire family, and use them when going out in public. Many areas in Florida will penalize you if you don’t.
Your rental will have all the utensils, pots, pans and dishes you need, but you should thoroughly wash them as soon as you arrive.
Plan to cook your own meals. Restaurants may or may not be open when you arrive, so be prepared for anything.
If you are renting a car, wipe down surfaces you may touch, even if the car rental agency says they’ve done it for you, and keep a canister of disinfectant wipes in the car at all times.
Disclosure: Reservations made through some links on this page (not all) may result a modest commission to FloridaRambler.com. We do not receive any compensation for the mention of my brother-in-law’s rental, which is used as an example of what you might find. Readers are welcome to post their own vacation rentals with links in the comments below. You are also invited to tell us about your own experiences with vacation home rentals. All comments are reviewed before they are posted.
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The information in this article was accurate when published, but changes may occur.
Bob Rountree is a beach bum, angler and camper who has explored Florida for decades. No adventure is complete without a scenic paddle trail or unpaved road to nowhere. Bob co-founded FloridaRambler.com with fellow journalist Bonnie Gross 12 years ago.