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So I Just Click and Show Up?

A primer for first-time vacation renters.

With the rise of sites like Airbnb, VRBO, HomeAway, FlipKey, and Roomorama, renting a vacation pad—where you often get more space, with much more personality, at a cheaper price than a hotel—has become a default option for many travelers. But how to pick out the best spots and avoid the lemons? A few tips.

Pick apart listings.
Property descriptions that are too vague or flowery are often trying to hide something. A listing should detail guest capacity, proximity to sites and transportation (no generic “within minutes”), and how much it’ll cost.

Scrutinize pictures.
If there aren’t enough photos to give you a sense of place, request more. Then ask, do the pictures match the description? Is there just one small window instead of “an entire wall of windows overlooking Trafalgar Square”? Obvious red flag.

Game the reviews.
Take perfect raves and all-out pans with a grain of salt, putting more weight in balanced assessments. Also, look for themes: If multiple write-ups mention, say, a temperamental stove, you’ll know what to expect. Airbnb eliminates the risk of decoys (reviews written by, or at the behest of, the property’s owner) by allowing only people who’ve actually stayed there to post; HomeAway.com doesn’t let owners delete bad appraisals. For other sites, paste a few review sentences into Google to see if they appear on comments for other properties—a sign that it could be a decoy.

Take a virtual stroll.
Location is key, so look up the address on Google Maps and confirm that the street view matches the description. Is there an unmentioned nightclub next door? Is it really only three blocks to the subway?

Pay on your terms.
If a landlord asks for money via Western Union or another untraceable method, move on. Ideally, you should pay with a credit card so you have recourse if something goes wrong. Though vacation-rental sites sometimes ask for full advance payment, it’s worth trying to negotiate. Make sure both you and the landlord sign a contract that details house rules and payment, including the return of any deposits.

Arrive prepared.
Bring a copy of the rental agreement and the landlord’s contact info with you. Once you’re inside, examine the place thoroughly, checking faucets, stoves, and switches. Snap photos to document the current state of the property, and report any problems immediately.

Follow the rules.
If the landlord said you can’t run the washer-dryer after 5 p.m., don’t. You want to be remembered as the perfect tenant, possibly meriting a discount or dibs on the best weeks next time.

Make a graceful exit.
Even if a cleaning crew is on deck, it’s polite to take out the garbage and strip the beds. Take pictures of the place documenting how you left it, and scribble a thank-you message in the guest book if there is one. Otherwise, leave a note.


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