TRAVEL
12/16/2014 07:00 am ET Updated Dec 16, 2014

The Nitty Gritty Details You Need To Know Before You Rent A Vacation Home

It's vacation time in our minds -- thank you holidays! -- and we're planning (or more likely dreaming) about that vacation we'll be taking soon. But the big questions remain: Where do you want to go and where do you want to stay? You can stay in a hotel, or you could stay in someone else's home.

Now we're not talking about an Airbnb stay. No, no, no. We're talking about a full-on rental property. And if you want to stay in a rental, you're not alone. According to TripAdvisor's 2014 Vacation Rentals survey, some 52 percent of U.S. respondents say they plan on staying in a rental property this year, up 8 percent from 2013. Why? Because people want the space and (generally) lower rates. Free Wifi and a washer and dryer don't hurt, either. As Eric Horndahl, VP of Marketing at FlipKey, told us: "Renting a vacation home offers more flexibility than staying in a hotel, whether you’re traveling with a large group or want to save money by dining in.” But sometimes it's just not worth it to rent, for instance, if there are one or two travelers; if you're only going for a short time; or you want a concierge service, says Brian Corbett, co-founder and Chief Experience Officer at Inspirato.

We wanted to dig a little deeper and ask all the pertinent questions so you don't have to (you're welcome!). Inspirato's Corbett thankfully told us what to look for -- and what to avoid -- when searching for rental properties.

What should people be looking for?

Location, location, location.Key considerations are views, privacy, noise, proximity to attractions, etc. Use maps and particularly satellite views to truly understand the location.

Cleanliness. Unlike hotels, there are no consistent rating system or standards with vacation rentals.

Safety. Many jurisdictions mandate fire and life safety standards for vacation rentals, but consumers need to make sure that any home they rent has functioning fire/smoke alarms, carbon monoxide monitors, etc., as well as secure locking mechanisms and that codes and keys are managed closely, among other things.

Functionality. Make sure the home will work for you. A kitchen is a primary benefit of vacationing in a home, but you need to make sure that the kitchen is outfitted with the right appliances, cooking tools and serving pieces to be valuable. Also, make sure there is sufficient in-residence entertainment and technology, cooling and heating and bed and bath linens among other things. I always advise consumers to ask questions about the preventative maintenance and general upkeep of vacation rental homes to make sure they meet minimum standards.

Service. Service before, during and after a rental home vacation is critical. Basic questions to ask are: “How will I get into the home? Will someone stage the home and be there to greet me, or will the house be cold and dark and I’ll have to fumble for a hidden key in the dark or let myself in with the garage code? Who do I call if I have questions or need something during my stay and what are their available hours?"

What should people watch out for?

Beware of scams. Read all contracts carefully and never send a deposit without a signed contract or before fully vetting the house or rental source; know where your deposits are going and how the money is being held.

Don’t be surprised by hidden or undisclosed fees. Keep an eye out for utilities, extra guest fees, parking or resort fees, cleaning fees and cancellation or modification penalties.

Avoid the "ick factor." Ask about cleaning and sanitation standards and avoid homes that require you to clean before you leave, since you never know what standard the previous guest might consider clean.

Don’t get caught in bait and switch. There are horror stories about consumers who agree to rent a property that looks great and checks all of the boxes, but then they’re told that it is no longer available and they’ll be moved to another comparable or better property, but the renter fails to share photos or details of the new home.

Do not break the law, even inadvertently. Some regulating bodies prohibit vacation rentals, and many owners and agencies try to fly under the radar or get away with breaking the law. A clear red flag is if the owner or agent does not collect taxes on your stay, since most permitted and registered vacation rentals are required to collect and remit occupancy taxes.

Avoid getting charged for damage you didn’t do. Complete a thorough walkthrough of the home upon arrival and clearly document any damage you observe.

What's a telltale sign that the place is a dump?

Photography, or lack thereof. Lack of photos, or too few photos, can be a sign, especially if there are no bathroom or kitchen images or if the only ones provided are of the outside of the home. Little things like toilet seats up, disheveled spaces, and low lighting in photos suggest that the owner does not care about the home. Inconsistent photographs or photos that clearly have been altered could spell trouble.

Prices are very low. After all, it's costly to properly maintain and clean a home.

Negative reviews or no positive reviews. Good vacation rentals seek input from their guests and proudly share real guest feedback. There likely are going to be one or two out of several that are not great, but if there’s more than one super negative from someone who truly seems to be trying to either affect change or help others, then that most likely is not a good sign.

Now that you're armed with what to look for, there are always going to be times when renting a house is far cheaper than staying in a hotel. We asked TripAdvisor to look into popular vacation destinations where you save big -- or not so big -- if you rent.

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