When do snowbirds start making plans to take flight?

It obviously depends upon the season they are trying to avoid and the environment they are seeking to enjoy. And, because the Internet has made most corners of the world more searchable and easier to visit, more and more guests from the southern hemisphere are bringing their backward seasonal calendar to the states.

Retirees, aging baby boomers and professionals who can work from a home just about anywhere often yearn for more sun about the time two consecutive fall football weekends are deluged with rain. According to older folks in my neighborhood, the getaway feeling began with a wet week in August.

For those who do not own a second home yet prefer to make an annual sojourn to a different climate, it’s always best to plan months in advance to grab a spot near your favorite golf course, beach or desert pool.

Alfred and Emily Glossbrenner, authors and consultants who self-published “How to Make Your Vacation Property Work for You,” suggest potential long-term renters approach owners during their down time to inquire about the best possible rates.

“Everything depends upon the season,” Emily said. “There’s really no incentive for an owner to offer a reduction in his or her weekly rate if they know they can get the maximum for an entire month. But if the place has not been booked, owners will begin looking for that reliable monthly income without the headaches of cleaning for a different customer every week. Depending upon the situation, you could expect to get four weeks for the price of three.”

Some snowbirds return to the same single-family home, condominium or hotel room every year. There’s no searching online or asking for referrals from friends who have stayed in the area. The owners are happy to block time for certain repeat customers because they have learned by experience folks they can trust. Remember, the owner’s goal is to recruit and retain good renters. When they find those renters, the owner is willing to go the extra mile to keep them.

If you are not a repeat customer, or merely want to check different rates and fees, the “Big Four” vacation rental sites are VRBO, Great Rentals, A1Vacations and CyberRentals. Each has its own major plusses. For example, CyberRentals will be happy to share all comments about a specific home.

Christine Karpinski, author, teacher and vacation homeowner,has been a consultant to owners of vacation rental properties for the past five years. Her helpful Web site, www.HowtoRentbyOwner.com, offers tips for renters as well.

“I love my snowbirds because many of them are so willing to help when little things go wrong,” Karpinski said. “If they see something that needs attention, like a leaky faucet, they just do it. And, unlike a family that’s renting for a week at prime time, snowbirds are more flexible on their days on arriving and departing.”

Karpinski said a few of her clients are on set incomes and simply pay a little each month toward their next rental. That way, they can earmark an exact amount each month and don’t have to come out of pocket, or tap retirement savings, for one lump sum every year. Typically, the owner would require a reservation deposit, then the balance to be paid in one or two payments. (Most owners require full rent plus a deposit paid prior to the rental period. Payment methods will vary also, but most will take personal checks.)

Karpinski reports most property owners are somewhat flexible on their pricing during certain times of the year. Some even advertise discounts.

“However, don’t expect the owners to give their places away just because it’s not booked,” Karpinski said. “Many owners don’t rely on off-season revenue and would choose not to rent it than risk (damages) a renter that’s asking for a price less than your cheapest deep discount motel.

“For example, some of my off-season monthly rates are lower than one week during the high season. I don’t really rely on the income but will take a renter that I know or will be open to having some work done while they’re there.”

What about cyber crime – renting a unit that doesn’t even exist?

“Truthfully, there is no guarantee,” Karpinski said. “The best way to avoid this is to do your homework. We suggest asking homeowners for references, or a list of past renters. One good indication of the relative trustworthiness of any given owner/rental is how long they’ve advertised with sites.”

Tom Kelly’s new book “How a Second Home Can Be Your Best Investment” (McGraw-Hill, $16.95) was co-written with John Tuccillo, former chief economist for the National Association of Realtors and is now available in local bookstores and on Amazon.com. He can be reached at news@tomkelly.com.

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