WILDWOOD CREST, N.J. — There it was in plain view. A montage of skull-and-crossbones pictures and plaques covered much the living room's walls. It kept me from focusing on the super-sized deck with the sweeping water views.
It was the first time I was looking to rent a vacation home, but that experience taught me some important lessons about how to size up where I could be spending my time off. Topping that list: Less stuff is more happiness in a rental home.
Renting a house or a condo has become a popular alternative to hotels for many vacationers. But whether you're renting a houseboat in the Lake Mead area outside of Las Vegas or a ski home in Colorado's Rocky Mountains, you have to be comfortable with what you are getting. When rental homes are dirty, cramped or dark, the vacation time there might not what you envisioned it to be.
That's why my visit to the house in the New Jersey beach town of Harvey Cedars on Long Beach Island a few years back was such a crucial learning experience. At the time, the rental agent's Web site was very limited, and she only could provide us with a picture of the outside of the home and a brief description of its amenities.
But my friends and I were sold - at least we thought we were. The idea of being right on the bay, with a wraparound deck, four bedrooms and ocean views made this property seem like the perfect choice for a week away.
When we went to check it out in the offseason - a luxury that most vacation renters don't have since their destinations often are far away from home - it was nothing like we expected it to be. The skull and crossbones were certainly the deal-breaker, but there were other problems as well: The house was right off a main road, the bedrooms were tiny and the decor was dingy at best.
I've smartened up since that initial home-renting foray. And thanks to the growing use of the Internet in the home rental business, so can most vacationers. The power of the Web is increasing the pressure on homeowners and retail agents to detail what they offer through pictures, and that, in turn, gives potential renters a good look at what they could be getting.
In fact, rental agents say if not enough photos are provided - they say at least eight to 10 shots should give a good view of the house inside and out - the renters shouldn't even consider going to that property.
In Lake Tahoe, Nev., Boyd Golden of Goldfish Properties added a virtual tour to his site a year ago, which now lets renters really see a 360-degree view of his roster of rental homes. Potential renters can see what view from the deck looks like or if the kitchen is laid out to their liking.
"We know that you can't hide things. We want people to know exactly what they are getting, and let them choose if they like it or not," Golden said.
Still, most renters could use some guidance in what to look for. Here are some tips:
- As mentioned above, less really is more in a rental property. Most people don't like to live in someone else's clutter. Things to watch out for include portraits of the owner's family covering the walls, knickknacks blanketing tabletops or life-size animals or fish on display.
Furniture with simple lines, blank walls and clean design allows the renter to show up and make the space their own for the week. And it also makes the departure easier because the renter doesn't have to clean around the clutter or fear they are putting things back in the wrong spot.
This is also a very important point for parents, especially those with young children, to consider. Those little ones are sure to gravitate to any stuff that doesn't belong to them.
- Don't assume anything. Make sure you get a checklist of what is included in the house, and then bring that with you when you begin your stay. If you want a grill, make sure that is included. Same goes for deck furniture, beach chairs, linens or silverware. Agents say that too many renters forget to ask and then must scramble when they show up.
- Ask for more pictures if you don't see enough or want a closer look at any room. Case in point: The often-touted "ocean view." I've gotten burned on this one before. Just last summer, the description of my rental condo in Wildwood Crest, N.J., said it had an ocean view, which was true - if I craned my neck to the right while standing on the edge of the patio. Now I know to ask for a photo that shows the exact view.
- Costs vary greatly. Rental properties in the ritzy Hamptons on the eastern end of New York's Long Island or in the nicest towns of Cape Cod, Mass., can easily set you back more than $5,000 to $10,000 a week at the height of the summer season, and that's at the low-end of the price scale without even a view of the water.
Prices are less expensive in other popular vacation spots. There are homes, cottages and condos for rent in places like Pensacola, Fla., and Mackinac Island, Mich., that start for as little as $500 a week during the high season.
- Seek out the local Web sites of the vacation areas you want to go, and then see if you can post questions in the chat rooms. That's especially helpful to learn about a faraway place and determine whether it is a good fit for your vacation time. Is the house you want to rent near decent restaurants, shopping or activities? Is it a busy area of town or too far from the scene? Is it in a safe area?
Last summer, our trip to Wildwood Crest was largely perfect - well, except for the neck-craning beach view. Thanks to the due diligence my husband and I put in before we rented, we knew the home would be modern and uncluttered because of all the pictures online that we got before we rented. We knew it was on the beach, but that there would be no restaurants or supermarkets within walking distance. We knew that the complex only rented to families, which meant kids galore - good news to our 2-year-old - and no loud all-night parties.
That success came with lots of practice in renting, and plenty of missteps along the way.
© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.