Beach House Bingo

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Our Expert

Laura Powell

Nationally recognized travel expert Laura Powell has written about travel for more than 15 years and created the TravelGuide television show for CNN.

Vital Statistics

Steven N. Geise

Position: Partner at Jones Day in Cleveland.

Age: 34.

Goal: Finding the perfect beach house rental for his upcoming family vacation.

The winds off Lake Erie already have started chilling the city of Cleveland, but Steven N. Geise doesn’t notice. He’s too busy thinking about lolling on the beach. Or, more precisely, the sunny, sandy beach he and his family will travel to next summer.

Geise is planning a trip with extended family members to a beach destination within a day’s drive of Cleveland sometime in late July or August 2006. Because Geise’s group of 11 includes five young children, he wants to rent a large house instead of going to a hotel or a beach resort. He’d like the house to have a pool and be on or close to a beach. “A house makes it easier on everyone to be in the same place,” Geise says. “With so many kids on so many different schedules, it will just be easier.”

Although renting a beach house seems ideal for the group, Geise also is wary of doing so, having been snake­bitten once before with a house rental in Florida.

Classified Catch Not So Classy

Geise and his wife had found the Florida Gulf Coast house through a classified ad in a newspaper. The description seemed ideal, but the reality was far from it. The rental did not contain many of the necessities they expected to be provided, such as basic cooking utensils, appliances, and adequate sheets and towels for a family.

“The one thing we’ve noticed from looking at advertisements for some places is that they make it look better than it is,” he says. “Pictures can be deceiving.”

Life Audit travel expert Laura Powell says the only way to get the kind of house you really want is to inspect it personally before booking it. In most cases, however, that plan is not only impractical it may also be impossible.

Short of taking a scouting trip to find a beach rental, Powell says, Geise can take a few precautionary steps to make sure that any house he rents lives up to his expectations. The first step is to start planning early. Powell’s advice for Geise is to start as soon as snow starts to pelt the Mid­west. “Procrastinators may get lucky, but their choice of properties won’t be as prime,” she says.

Because Geise needs to find a house large enough to accommodate his group, Powell says they need to hone in on a destination and start searching for a beach house early. While beach resorts in Delaware and Maryland both within a day’s drive of his geographic range have a large supply of rental properties, those with five or more bedrooms and a pool are more limited and tend to rent early.

Being flexible with vacation dates and avoiding major summertime holidays also will help them secure the beach house of their dreams.

Since Geise had a bad experience with renting a vacation house sight unseen, Powell wants him to play it safe and deal with a property management company instead of an individual. Ideally, the company should be able to of­fer a large selection of rental properties.

Finding a reputable property management company is the crucial second step in getting a rental house that meets their needs and expectations, Powell says. To find a reputable agency, she suggests Geise turn to the local chamber of commerce or Better Business Bureau office.

She warns that an Internet search may not be enough, given the number of fly-by-night vacation house rental agencies that have popped up and the ease of obtaining a professional-looking Web site these days. “Make sure it’s not just an online presence,” she says. “It should be real. It should exist.”

While Geise may be able to find better deals online or by negotiating directly with a homeowner, Powell says those approaches are risky because he does not know whom he is dealing with. Using a reputable property management company also helps alleviate any problems with putting down deposits and making payments. Also, if there is a problem in the house, a management company will solve it for you.

“Some people think working with the owner gets you a better deal because you can avoid the com­missions. But is it worth saving a few hun­dred dollars and not having a third party to negotiate disputes?” Powell asks. Powell wants Geise to be very specific with the property management com­pany about what he wants the house to include. If you want to have three full bathrooms or a kitchen with a microwave and a double oven, then say it.

Also make sure to put the rental agreement into writing. Powell states that the contract should cover all the costs including the rental fee, security deposits and cleaning fees. There should be no surprises, particularly with the security deposit.

To avoid any disputes over damage and subsequent deductions from the security deposit, Powell wants Geise to arrange an inspection of the house at the beginning of the rental term to establish the condition of the property. That way, there will be no surprises when the post-vacation inspection of the rental occurs.

This means he’ll be better able to sit back, relax and enjoy that summer vacation he’s been dreaming about through a long, cold winter.

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The ABCs of Renting a Vacation Home

A. Always rent through a reputable property management company. It’s caveat emptor on the Internet.

B. Be specific about what you want the house to have, from the number of bedrooms and bathrooms to what’s in the kitchen.

C. Contracts should include rent, an accounting of agreed-upon amenities and supplies, plus a process for the return of your security deposit.

Life Audit Hot Tip: House Swap

If the cost of renting a vacation home is too much, consider a swap, says Life Audit travel expert Laura Powell. A slew of home-swapping organizations exist around the world, and all operate on the same basic premise: exchanging homes with another family in a city you want to visit. Before joining an organization, check to make sure it is legitimate. And find out as much as possible about the house where you’ll be staying and who’ll be staying in your house. Also set ground rules about what can be used in your house and what cannot (like the car or the china) and whether your visitors will pay for any expenses related to their stay. The oldest home-swapping organization is Intervac. For more information, log on to www.intervacus.com.

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