Winter is a traditionally slow season for vacation home rentals. But if you're a would-be renter, you can score terrific bargains on offseason rentals and enjoy a different type of getaway, sipping hot chocolate in front of a cozy fireplace instead of running around to see the sights.
And if you're a property owner, there are a few small steps you can take to make your vacation home more attractive this time of year.
Christine Karpinski, director of the owner community at HomeAway.com and author of “How To Rent Vacation Properties By Owner,” says owners should “winterize” online descriptions of their properties, emphasizing features like hot tubs and fireplaces and adding photos of the house framed by fall foliage or dusted with snow.
Owners should also consider offering offseason deals — for example, rent three nights and get a fourth free. If you get early inquiries for spring or summer, invite the person to check out the property with a short wintertime stay, like half-off the regular price for a weekend. Or e-mail an invitation to repeat summer renters for a discounted winter stay.
By the same token, if you're a renter who has enjoyed a summer stay in a particular home, consider e-mailing the owner and asking for a discount on a winter stay there.
For travelers, these types of deals can slash vacation costs.
“Unless you're going to a ski destination, winter rentals are significantly less expensive — an eighth to a quarter of high season rates,” said Karpinski, who owns a number of rental properties in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee. “It can be fun to have a quiet weekend away from everything and everyone. You're constantly working, running the kids around to school and soccer. Sitting around playing Scrabble or curling up with a good book or even watching TV is something I rarely get to do.”
But owners and renters should both be prepared for the possibility that bad weather could keep guests indoors for much of their stay. A few good books, board games, DVDs, and chili and soup fixings can make the difference between a boring weekend and one that's fun and relaxing.
Karpinski says she leaves a welcome gift that she calls the “S'mores basket” for her winter guests: “We take a large wicker basket and fill it with marshmallows, graham crackers, chocolate bars, hot cocoa mix and large wooden branches. We tie each item with raffia for decoration, and leave a personalized note to welcome the family.”
Owners should make sure bedding includes warm, thick comforters, and that a few fleece throws are lying around. You might even leave an extra coat or two in the closet, gloves, scarves and maybe a sled or snow tube if there's a hill nearby. Stocking the house with a shovel, a bag of ice-melting crystals for the steps or driveway, and an ice scraper for windshields is a must.
If you're renting, be sure to ask about road and driveway accessibility in case of a storm. Do you need snow tires or chains to navigate a hilly or icy road?
Karpinski said that for owners, a “hot tub is the best investment you can make” to attract winter renters. Allowing pets and baby-proofing to attract folks with young kids who are not tied to school vacation schedules can also increase rentals.
Karpinski also recommends that owners go easy on their payment schedules because of the weak economy. She allowed many renters to pay in four or five installments this past year, with one guest paying monthly in advance of a Christmas visit.
In addition to earning money in the slow season, Karpinski said there are other benefits to keeping a rental property occupied: You're more likely to catch maintenance problems early, and it lets the neighborhood know you're keeping an eye on the place.
“A vacant house is asking for problems,” she said.