We’ve been renting houses on vacation for several years now.  Once we had little G, it just started making more sense for us.  With a family of five, we now need to rent 2 hotel rooms (most hotels require it, actually), and dinner out ALL the time we’re away is downright pricey.

To be fair, though, we really like to be able to explore places we visit, so we rent houses even when it’s just Chris and me.  Houses allow you to find cute little neighborhoods with locally owned  restaurants, bakeries, shops, etc, nearby.  I have completely bought into the vacation commercials where they talk about “living” where you stay.

With three boys, I do love that it lets us stretch out a bit more, too.  They don’t have to feel so cooped up, and when they have a tendency to get loud (I know – what??), we aren’t disrupting every other person trying to enjoy their vacation, as well.

We have had a chance to visit Nashville, Fort Myers, Washington DC, New York City, Phoenix, Flagstaff and Kona, HI this way.  Over the course of those trips, we have definitely learned some things.  Searches that used to take me days are now down to hours, and we have done a much better job of really finding homes that suit us and make the vacation that much more fun.

What key things should we look for when renting a house, you ask?  So glad you brought it up! Here’s my handy list of tips and tricks:

1. Search multiple sites.

Some people get married to one particular vacation site or another.  I’m more fickle that way.  I have the Air BnB and HomeAway apps on my phone and ipad.  The all-encompassing sites like Kayak or Trivago have started to include cabin or guest house rentals, as well.  In full disclaimer, I’ve not tried renting through them yet, but I have seen options.

There are also usually some good local sites, depending on where you plan to visit.  For instance, Minnesota has things like rentminnesotacabins.com or lakeplace.com.  (They don’t call us the Land of 10,000 Lakes for no reason, and your next vacation should probably include exploring at least one. Just sayin’!)

The bigger sites have their perks.  More reviews, more options, more streamlined search criteria, so on.  VRBO/Homeaway has so many options it can actually be overwhelming.  But you are nearly guaranteed to find what you need in any location.

I happen to love that Air BnB requires reviews of the renters and rentees.  (Of course, I’m competitive and tend to be obsessive about having a good rating on my profile.)  But here’s where it’s actually been super useful for us:  It makes us look more attractive to renters even when we have kids in tow.  Look, I TOTALLY get that a fam with three boys is daunting.  “What the heck are these people going to do to my house in a week??” Right?  But now that we have a “history” of leaving homes in good condition, as testified by previous hosts, more folks are willing to accept our requests.

2. Seek some volume of reviews.

This is non-negotiable for me.  I won’t rent anywhere that has zero reviews.   Some folks are willing to make exceptions  if the posting is new.  That’s cool.  I will absolutely let you be the guinea pig.  (And thank you kindly for testing that out for me.  I do appreciate it.)  I just feel strongly that I am not willing to take a chance with, again, 3 boys in tow.   Because scrambling in that type of situation sounds terrible.

If this sounds like it comes from a bad experience, you would be correct.  Not specifically mine, but one for my parents.  As March “snowbirds”, they roadtripped  all the way from Northern Minnesota to Southwest Florida last year.  Only to discover that the townhouse they were renting was, in fact, not like the pictures posted and also happened to be completely under construction.  The house had no reviews on AirBnB.  Not one.  So there was really no way for my parents to tell what they would be walking into.

They were about to turn the car around and make the return trip – yuck.  When my mom called distraught, I jumped onto my favorite sites and managed to find some better options that happened to still be available.  Even I was nervous at that point, though, so definitely not ideal.

3. Read the reviews.  

I would never tell you to go look for reviews, and then suggest you just bypass them.  Read these. Sincerely.  They are a veritable gold mine of information about where you will be staying.  Key phrases I look for:

  • “House looks exactly like the pictures”
  • “Clean and comfortable”
  • “Host was responsive”

You can also learn things like “eat here”, or “here”.  (We’ve already established my love of food, people.)  Many visitors will leave great advice on what to see and do, as well.  You wouldn’t want to miss any glorious suggestions, now, would you?

Gaining insight for planning purposes is another perk of reading reviews.  For instance, the house we recently rented in Flagstaff, AZ continually had their check in time mentioned in reviews.  In my experience, it was late.  The average that we have come across is 3pm, and this house had a 5pm check in.  That said, I was able to map out our trip so that we spent the day in Sedona and planned to arrive after the 5pm designation.

4. Use Instant Booking with caution.

Don’t get me wrong, instant book sounds appealing.  If you are looking at rentals relatively close to the date you are traveling, it’s nice to feel like you can lock down a location right away and be done with it.  Handing out my info that readily, though, has always made me a bit nervous.

For our trip to Hawaii last year, we ran into the fraud tactics that can abound on really any site like this.  Thankfully, I am in the habit of sending a note to the renter explaining who we are and what we are looking for.  Again – kid disclaimer: “Hi There! Mind if I bring my own personal Man Cave to your abode for the week?”

Upon sending a few inquiries out, I actually received notification from HomeAway that one of our messaged locations was suspected to be fake.  Yikes!  On both HomeAway and AirBnB the same location had the “instant book” option.  Had I jumped on it, that person would have had payment for a house that only exists in my imaginary vacation.  And I would have been sorely disappointed in my Hawaiian getaway.

5. Look at the picture of your host.

In life, I believe that we should never judge a book by its cover.  In the world of online businesses, however,  how willing you are to show your face is important.

The listing in Hawaii that turned to be a fraud?  The “owner” had a picture taken from a distance, and that was so blurry you couldn’t make out if it was even a child or an adult.  That should have been my first clue, but as we are all apt to do at times, I second-guessed myself.  (Thanks to HomeAway and the universe for having my back.)

If your host is really in this for the right reasons, they will share a picture and descriptions that are far more welcoming.  Like other social media outlets, sharing a headshot and brief descriptions of what called them to host in the first place is telling.  Those factors can be much like reviews to share insight into where you should stay.

We have had the most luck when it feels like you could actually hang with these people.  Seriously. When we rented from Yosef in NYC, I truly thought he and my husband were going to pull a page from “Tommy Boy” and relive the ole’ “Brothers don’t shake hands, brothers gotta hug!”  It was entertaining.  And it was also one of my favorite trips.

6. Make sure the attributes of the space really fit your needs.

What’s the square footage of the rental?  Is it enough space?  Is it too much?  I like the boys to have some room, but I also want us to be together, so I don’t want to lose them in the depths of some house.

How many bathrooms do you need?  We always go for 1 1/2 to 2 when the boys are with us.  Sharing a bathroom with people who have “aim” issues is not my favorite.  Sorry.  I know.  Gross.

Do you want a washer/dryer for convenience?   Also a key for me – I only want to bring carry-on luggage. So wash, rinse, repeat is a necessity.

How many “beds” do you need, and how many of those need to be in a “room”?  In the same way that many of us creatively use space in our own homes, so do hosts, in order to maximize the audience they will appeal to.  My 14 year-old has absolutely no problem sleeping on a pullout couch (or not even bothering to pull it out and sleeping on the couch itself).  That may not be the best option, however, if you don’t have a 14 year old back.

This list isn’t full-proof, mind you.  But we have had success as we’ve learned and used these search habits.  We continually add to our strategy over time, so feel free to share your favorite tips here.  I’ll take all the help I can get!

Happy Vacationing!!