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Be a Vacation Early Bird

Why, Where, and How to Stake Your Claim for the Perfect 2005 Getaway

Forget impersonal hotels: millions of great vacation homes are just a mouse-click away. Rent-by-owner expert Christine Hrib Karpinski explains how to find and book the perfect vacation spot . . . but don't wait too long.

The year is drawing to a close. Time to unpack the holiday decorations, finish up your shopping, start thinking about your New Year's resolutions-and plan your 2005 vacation. What? you exclaim. My vacation won't happen until next summer, half a year away. Why should I start planning now? According to Christine Hrib Karpinski, if you want to reserve the perfect vacation home, the first few months of the year are actually the busy season. The best homes go fast-so you'd better act now.

"You look forward to your vacation all year and you want it to be perfect," says Karpinski, a vacation property specialist who acts as an advocate for both owners and renters. "If you automatically think 'hotel,' you're missing out on a whole separate world. Just ask the millions of people who reserve cabins, beachfront homes, and lakeside cottages each year. There is just something special about staying in a vacation property. It's more private, more personal. After all, you're staying in someone's second home. There is no way to replicate that feeling in a hotel."

Karpinski says the rise of the Internet has made it easier and more convenient to seek out and reserve a vacation rental home. As demand has risen, so has supply. In fact, she has written a book-How to Rent Vacation Properties by Owner: The Complete Guide to Buy, Manage, Furnish, Rent, Maintain and Advertise Your Vacation Rental Investment (Kinney Pollack Press, 2004, ISBN: 0-9748249-0-9, $26.00)-that demystifies this burgeoning industry.

"Even though it's written for owners, it is also a valuable resource for renters," she explains. "It includes an exhaustive list of websites that list vacation properties. That's how most vacationers find the perfect place to stay. And these websites are humming with activity during January, February, and March. So if you think you might be interested in booking a vacation property for 2005, you need to be an 'early bird'-it's the only way to ensure you'll get the perfect 'worm' for you and your family."

If you're nervous about dealing one-on-one with a vacation property owner, don't be. Karpinski says that by being cautions and following some simple guidelines, you can minimize your risk and maximize your vacation enjoyment. She offers the following tips:

  • Understand how vacation rental websites work. Most of these sites consist of thousands of privately-owned vacation properties available for rent directly from the homeowners or, sometimes, their agents.
  • Choose a reputable booking website. Karpinski recommends Not only do they have more than 20,000 properties listed, they are known for their good old-fashioned customer service. "They do due diligence on their property owners to ensure that they are legitimate and conduct themselves professionally and ethically. For example, they have a three-strikes-and-you're-out policy: if there are three major complaints, you are banned from their site and can never list there again. If you're a vacationer, this policy is a reassuring one," says Karpinski.
  • Book early to get your #1 choice. Again, Karpinski emphasizes that the "busy season" for rentals is early in the year. (At, 2004's busiest day was January 19, when the site received 3.5 million hits with 180,000 unique visitors.) If you want the best vacation home, don't wait. By the way, if this isn't your "first time," don't assume the owners of the place you stayed in last year are holding the same week for you. If you loved where you stayed, book it now before someone else does.
  • Get an official agreement from the property owner. It's better to be safe than sorry. If you talk to someone you want to rent from, but he or she doesn't have an agreement, both of you can download a free "sample" document from Karpinski's website, Make sure that issues like the cancellation policy, return of security deposits, and so forth are clearly spelled out and understood by both parties.
  • Insist on a phone conversation before you book. If you encounter an owner or owner rep who is unwilling to talk to you on the phone, beware. You simply cannot send $2,000 to someone you've never spoken to. Fortunately, most "rent-by-owner" owners are happy to talk to their guests. After all, you are staying in their second home and they want to feel good about you, too. If there is something "shady" about the situation, you will probably notice it during your conversation. Trust your gut.
  • Consider getting referrals. If something in the transaction seems suspicious, ask for referrals from past renters. Even if everything seems on the up-and-up, this may still be a good idea. Often, websites that list vacation properties have online guest books with e-mail address. You might also e-mail the webmaster and ask for more references.
  • Do your homework before you send the check. Ask lots of questions to make sure you're really getting what you pay for. If you aren't satisfied with the quality of photos on the website, ask to see more. If the property is listed as "oceanfront," ask to see a picture of the view from the balcony. Or ask very specific questions such as, "Are there any roads between the balcony and the view?" It might also be a good idea to get confirmation from the owner about the "recentness" of all photos-if the picture you're looking at was taken ten years ago, you may be unpleasantly surprised if you arrive to find a deteriorated home.
  • Be aware that you can ask for flexible payment. One of the benefits of renting from a vacation property owner is that they tend to be flexible. If you are counting on a holiday bonus or tax refund to fund your vacation, this is great news. Some owners will take your reservation and a small deposit (usually around $200-$500) and you pay the rest later. Others may let you make a monthly payment, so that by the time your long-awaited vacation is here, the bill is paid in full. "I offer payment plans to anyone who reserves before December 31st," explains Karpinski. "Other owners might do the same-it never hurts to ask!"

    "If I had to sum up my advice to vacation property renters in two words, I would say educate yourself," says Karpinski. "The more you know, the less likely you are to make a mistake. And while it's true that things can go wrong in a transaction, it's much less likely to happen if you're a savvy shopper. Remember, the vast majority of owners want you to have a great time on vacation so you'll come back in the future. In short, talk to your employer about vacation dates for 2005, figure out where you want to go, and book your trip today-your vacation will be here before you know it!"

    About the Author:

    Christine Hrib Karpinski's first and most important job is as a stay-at-home mom. She fell into teaching about vacation properties only by chance. Realizing that there was no way she could afford to buy a vacation home using a management company, she started "renting by owner." Not only was she successful, but others wanted to know how to do it too. She started writing a column in Gulf Coast Condo Owner magazine. From there, the rest, as they say, is history. Today she is the most respected voice in vacation real estate investing and renting. She's been featured on CNNfn, CBS Marketwatch Radio, Good Day Sacramento, MSNBC-TV, Kiplinger's Personal Finance, New York Post ("27 Real Estate Experts you MUST Meet"), Chicago Tribune, and many others. She's taught sold-out seminars throughout the country, including The Real Estate Expo in NYC with Donald Trump, Suze Orman, and Robert Kiyosaki. Currently her book is on the bestseller list for buying and selling real estate.

    About the Books:

    How to Rent Vacation Properties by Owner: The Complete Guide to Buy, Manage, Furnish, Rent, Maintain and Advertise Your Vacation Rental Investment (Kinney Pollack Press, 2004, ISBN: 0-9748249-0-9, $26.00) and The Vacation Rental Organizer (Kinney Pollack Press, 2004, ISBN: 0-9748249-1-7, $19.00) are available at bookstores nationwide and all major online booksellers.

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