Renting a lake house isn’t a new way to take a summer vacation. But given the tanking economy, it feels like a newly terrific one. Vacation-rental supply and demand are up along Lake Michigan, according to HomeAway.com, a Web site where individual owners advertise rental properties. The economy, of course, is driving it all: After taking hits in the stock, jobs, and real-estate markets, more travelers are looking for budget-friendlier places to stay, while more owners are opening their beloved lake homes and country cottages to boost income. “Owners are feeling the pinch,” says Justin Halloran, vice president of HomeAway.com. “They’ve become more serious about renting, to cover the costs of their second home.”
At the end of February, inquiries for houses in southwest Michigan—which includes the necklace of beach towns from Union Pier to South Haven—were up 31 percent, and 23 percent more homes were listed for rent than at the same time last year, according to HomeAway.com’s statistics. The numbers in Wisconsin lakeside destinations, such as Door County, also shot up in both categories. But renter, beware—as Heather Feeney, a St. Charles resident, discovered in 2006, after booking a house near South Haven. Described in its listing as a “dream home,” the house, from the many photos, appeared to be just what she was looking for. But when she arrived with her four children, she found that the “backyard fire pit” was a circle of concrete cinder blocks, the pool was covered with algae, and the neighbors took tin-can shooting practice at 6 a.m. “It was the biggest nightmare,” says Feeney, who fled after a night and lost about $800 that she had prepaid.
How to avoid a similar house of horrors—and find a true summer dream home? Here, a primer.
First, make sure you’re up for the adventure of vacationing in someone else’s house, with all its quirks and imperfections. This is not a regulated industry, so no one is forced to replace that circa 1972 mattress in the master bedroom. Each owner or rental-management agency maintains a different standard of cleanliness, maintenance, service, and décor. “There are a lot of places decorated with ducks and country kitchens,” says Diane Nelson, an Oak Park resident and veteran renter. Consider the extra labor required, too. Sheets get sandy, dishes get dirty—and guess who’s going to be washing both? “If you’re more wait-on-me than do-it-yourself,” says Nelson, “this might not be for you.”
Once on board, think about these three criteria:
PROXIMITY TO THE BEACH Do you want to be directly on the beach? You’ll pay less per week—in some very popular areas up to $1,000 to $2,000 less—if you don’t mind staying a block or two inland. Families with loads of beach and baby gear often prefer to drive and park at the beach, so renting even farther inland makes sense. Also, do you want to catch rays on a private beach, one shared only by the members of a homeowners’ association, or a public beach? Seclusion can be romantic and peaceful—but it’s not for everyone. “Our kids actually prefer the public beach [in South Haven],” says Feeney. “They have more kids to play with, and they like the snack bar.”
SLEEP SETUP Figure out the number of bedrooms, beds, and bathrooms you need. And don’t forget to factor in what size the beds should be. If you have two couples, a two-bedroom cottage with a king and two twin beds is not going to cut it.
PRICE AND DATES “If you can rent in the first three weeks of June, you can get the same home for about 30 percent less,” says John Natsis, the co-owner of Bluefish Vacation Rentals and Sales in Union Pier, Michigan. Its 54 properties, which are on the beach or within walking distance, range from $850 to $4,500 a week during high season (late June through late August). Last-minute rentals are increasingly available, too, and sometimes offer breaks on the price.
UNDERSTAND THE PROS AND CONS OF RENTING FROM AN OWNER VERSUS THROUGH AN AGENCY
Renting directly from an owner, sans middleman, can be cheaper. An owner also might be more inclined to negotiate on price, length of stay, or pets—and provide extra TLC. Linda Strohl, who rents out her family estate near New Buffalo, Michigan, leaves a bottle of wine, cheese, and crackers for arriving guests. “Most agencies tend not to do the personal touches,” she says.
Yet an owner can be less reliable than a reputable agency if something goes wrong, especially if he lives far away. Charles Kerr, a Chicago interior designer who rents out his second home in Michigan City, Indiana, leaves a list of emergency contacts as well as his own numbers. But who’s to say Joe the Plumber will answer his phone at 3 a.m. when a pipe bursts? Worriers might prefer the security of an agency, which is staffed and nearby. Some, such as Shores of South Haven Inc., have a 24-hour live answering service. “So you’re not going to be waiting until Monday if there’s an emergency on Saturday night,” says Tonda Johnson, the leasing agent.
If you do decide to rent directly from an owner, it’s best if the house is listed on a reputable Web site that offers vetting and protection against scams. CyberRentals.com, for instance, will reimburse up to $5,000 if a house rented through its site proves to not exist, or if you’re not allowed onto the property on arrival. Similarly, HomeAway.com removes homes that have garnered three major complaints. And you’re always better protected if you pay by credit card; depending on your card company, you may be able to dispute the charge if there is a serious problem with the rental.
USE YOUR WORDS
Once you’ve narrowed your properties to just a few, you can e-mail initial inquiries. But at some point, force yourself to pick up the phone. “You’re going to send this person a significant amount of money, and they’re going to open their home to you,” says Christine Karpinski, a director for HomeAway.com. “A conversation gives you the ability to build trust, by having more in-depth questions and answers, and reading the other person’s tone and responsiveness.”
When you do talk, ask about those particular needs you have, such as high-thread-count sheets (a surprisingly common request) or a fine-sand beach (Wisconsin’s are often pebbly). “Really be proactive with your questions,” says Susan Connelly, whose family rents out its waterfront house in Pentwater, Michigan, “so you’re not disappointed when you get there.”
Strohl, the estate owner near New Buffalo, seconds that. Her house sits at the edge of 11 wooded acres, overlooking Lake Michigan and a private 500-foot sandy beach. Still, she says, “I had one guy get furious after he arrived because we didn’t have a gas-powered grill.”
DON’T TRUST THE PHOTOS
As any Internet-dating veteran knows, photos can lie. If possible, it’s wise to take a drive out to view the house, or send a friend in the area to tour it for you. Otherwise, ask if the photos on the Web site are a good representation of what the cottage currently looks like. “They may be ten years old,” says Natsis. Be wary of houses with too few photos, and make sure to see one of every bedroom. “Sleeping is a big deal,” Karpinski says. “I have a one-bedroom condo listed, and I have 16 photos up.”
Another essential if you can’t go to see it: Ask to be “walked through” the house over the phone. It’s pro forma among good agencies. “We tell people over the phone, ‘You come through the front door and there’s a living room to the right and a closet to the left. . . ,’” says Andrea Lundquist, of Lundquist Realty and Vacation Rentals, in Door County, Wisconsin. This way, you won’t be surprised to find that two of the three bedrooms are in the basement.
If there are any problems once you arrive, they can often be worked out with a cordial phone call. “People are afraid to bother the homeowner,” says Karpinski. “I had one guy call me and ask how to work the coffee machine. I was happy to tell him, rather than him be mad because he couldn’t have his coffee. But if you don’t communicate, all bets are off.”
Ultimately, a lake rental is about making memories and spending time together. “It’s magical,” says Renee Hickerson, a Campton Hills, Illinois, mother of two, who rents a house just steps off the sand in Montague, Michigan. “We take our own pillows, and it feels just like it’s our own home.” Do remember, though, that it isn’t. Laura Baumann, of Wheaton, Illinois, shared a $5,000-a-week Michigan beach house with 20 members of her extended family. While the adults rode bikes one day, the college-age kids cued up their amplifiers and electric guitars. By the time the cyclists returned home, the owner was calling, furious. Says Baumann: “‘Smoke on the Water’ didn’t go over well with the neighbors.”
CLICK TO RENT
Use the Web to browse vacation rentals in the quiet comfort of your office
1. Google.com. Use keywords that describe the location and type of house you want, such as “Lake Michigan luxury rental” or “Door County vintage cottage.” The search engine reliably returns links to Web sites of local rental agencies. You may also stumble upon sites set up by individual owners.
2. “By-owner” Web sites with searchable databases. HomeAway.com and Vacation Rentals by Owner (vrbo.com) are two popular services. Bringing together thousands of available rentals nationwide, these sites are the most efficient way to comparison shop by ZIP code, price range, or desired features.
3. Craigslist. Search under “vacation rentals” in the Craigslist channel for Chicago.
Illustration: Clare Mallison; Photograph: Courtesy Charles Kerr