5 Questions (Almost) That Might Keep a Vacation Rental Property Owner “Newbie” Up at Night


I have a new client who has made the decision to offer his mountain cabin on the vacation rental market. The cabin has been part of his family for years and they have spent many family vacations and holidays there making precious memories within its beautiful log walls.  Making the decision to share their family cabin with strangers was not an easy one, but after about a year of discussing it with a friend who has experience in the vacation rental industry, the decision was made.

This can be an overwhelming task for a person who has never offered a property for rent on a short-term rental market.  Where does one begin?  How should the property be prepared for guests?  What kinds of amenities should it offer?  What should the property owner provide and what are the guests expected to bring? How should I accept payments?  Where should I advertise the property…and on, and on, and on.

One of the first things this client decided to do was to hire VRAssist to handle the communications from guests, payments & reservations.  It was a relief for him to know that this part of the process would be handled by a professional service.  He was free to turn his attention to the property itself.

Today he called me with some questions that he confessed had robbed him of some sleep last night.  I realized that some of the questions this client has asked are probably the same questions other “newbies” in the vacation rental industry have, so the idea for this blog article was born. 

Here are a few Q&As that might help if you are considering offering your second home on the short-term vacation rental market.

Q: There is so much to do! Where do I begin?

A: Don’t worry about making sure everything is absolutely perfect before offering the home on the market.  Focus your time & budget on the basic necessities and you can improve & add to that over time, as you are able.  This is true for equipping the property as well as for creating your advertisements.

Q: My property is already furnished & equipped.  What kinds of things should I make sure the property has? Do I need to buy all new/matching furnishings?

 A: Ok, that is two questions!  But I’ll count it as one.  :)

Chances are you have furnished your property with furniture and amenities that have been comfortable for your family. The best thing to do is to try to experience your property as a guest.  You might love the super-comfortable and well-worn LazyBoy chair, but would a guest not appreciate its “patina”?  It might be time to replace it with a new one. 

The key is to determine your property's personality.   If your property is not a luxury high-end villa, it might be fine to use mis-matched furniture instead of having brand new suites of furniture.

A fruitful (and fun) experiment might be to invite some friends to stay in your property as your guests in exchange for their frank feedback about what they liked about the property, what they would suggest changing, and what they felt was missing in order for them to have a comfortable & memorable experience.  Try not to feel defensive when hearing their feedback but act upon those suggestions that you can and make note of the ones you can’t act upon now for future reference.

This helpful article “Amenities Checklist for Vacation Rentals” is offered by the Community by Homeaway, a great resource for vacation rental property owners.  What I like about this checklist is that it includes the “Must Haves” as well as the “Extras” you might want to consider.  Another helpful article on the Community is 13 Essentials Every Vacation Rental Should Have 

Q: What about all of our personal items?  Should we remove everything “personal” from property?

 A:  A common piece of advice given to homeowners when trying to sell their homes is to remove all personal items and photos from the property.  The idea is to allow the potential buyers more of an opportunity to imagine themselves in the property, which might be difficult to do when “Aunt Martha” is grinning at them from the hallway portrait gallery.

However, one of the best ways to make your guests feel at home in your short-term rental is to build a relationship with them.  They are not going to be buying this property but are just “borrowing” it from your family for a short time.  Allowing some of your family’s personality to stay in the home will help your guests feel connected to you.  (It is also a subconscious reminder that they are guests in your home which will help them treat the property with respect.) 

Use discretion about what personal items to remove and what is allowed to stay.  You want your guests to feel at home without feeling like they are trespassers.  A good rule of thumb is to remove anything that you would be grieved if it was lost, stolen or broken.  (This is also good rule to follow when purchasing items for the property as well.  Try to find a good balance between buying items that are luxury/upscale but that you would not be too upset if it should suddenly go “missing” or become broken.)

Q: Not only do I have to get my property ready to rent, but also I have to get the information together for my online advertisements!  It is a LOT to consider! Rates, amenities, eye-catching headlines, compelling description, not to mention the photos!  It could take years to gather all of the information for the “perfect” listing.  Help!

 A:  Ok, that really wasn’t a “Q” (question) but you may be losing sleep over it!  Don’t worry! Your listing does not need to be 100% perfect as soon as it is published.  Just like I advised in the first “Q”, focus your energy & time initially on creating a personal, informative ad with the best photos you have of your property.  You can continue to tweak and improve your listing as time goes by. 

An important rule is to make sure that throughout the listing correct grammar and punctuation are used.  Nothing makes a listing seem as “unprofessional” as improper grammar and punctuation. A good tip is to use a word processing tool (such as Microsoft Office Word) to create your listing because it will highlight any miss-spellings and improper use of grammar.  Even so, be sure to proofread your text and even ask a friend to proofread it before using it on your listing.

The most important things your listing should have when it is published are suggested below. 

  • Attention-grabbing headline:  The headline is the most valuable piece of “real estate” on your listing.  It is the first (and sometimes the only) opportunity you have to hook the traveler and make him want to click to view your listing.  Don’t waste it!  

Try to avoid “generic” or subjective words like “Luxury” or “Best Location”.  Words like “Luxury” are relative…what might be considered “luxury” to me might not be considered “luxury” to someone like Robin Leach (host of the television show "Lifestyles of the Rich & Famous".)  Additionally while words like “Best Location” are okay, more descriptive words like “Right on the Beach, No Streets to Cross, Walking Distance to Blue Ribbon Café” are better. Use all of the available headline space if possible.

Don’t use the headline to provide information that the traveler is already aware of:

“2 BR/2 BA Condo located in the heart of Orlando!”

The traveler is already browsing the index listings in “Orlando” and he can see from the listing preview that your listing advertises “2 Bedrooms * 2 Bathrooms”.  The only piece of information provided in the headline above that was not already evident was the property type:  Condo (unless the traveler has filtered the results by property type, that is.)

  • Description: Your listing’s description should be the place where the traveler can quickly get a “picture” of your property and what his experience would be if he was lucky enough to reserve a stay.  Rather than a bullet point list of amenities the description is where you can personalize your listing and is the first opportunity for the traveler to connect with you as the owner.

Tell a personal story about the property in the listing description.  Perhaps the property was a family cabin where you grew up spending weeks in the summer with your cousins.  Or it might have been where you spent your last Christmas holiday with your Grandmother.  Maybe you spent childhood summer nights in the loft with a blanket over your head and a flashlight reading long past bedtime.  Sharing personal stories helps the traveler connect with you as the property owner.

 The listing description is also where you can highlight for the traveler what sets your property apart from the others in your area.  Tell the traveler what it was about your property that drew you to it and made you want to buy it.  While the property’s location (“Right on the Lake!”) might be the main reason why you bought it, don’t use the description to only describe the location.  Be sure to describe the interior of your property and what amenities you’ve provided that are important to guests. 

“On cold winter evenings, cozy up with a soft throw, a good book and a glass of wine in the comfortable LazyBoy chair and enjoy a cheerful fire in the gas fireplace with the convenient flick of a switch!”

Finally, be sure to create an impression of urgency by adding a "call to action" such as: "Book now to ensure your stay during the popular "Fall Colors" season! Our calendar is filling up quickly!"
  •  Rates:  Deciding upon the rates for your property is probably the most intimidating piece of creating your listing.  What is the right balance between a real bargain and too expensive? Finding the right rates for your listing may involve a process over time, but eventually you’ll discover the balance you are looking for.

 To get started, browse your competition.  Use a site like VRBO.com or Homeaway.com and look at similar properties to yours in the same location….in other words, you want to “compare apples to apples”.  If your property is a 3 BR condo then look at only 3 BR condos in your area.  View at least 20 properties (if there are that many) to get a good sampling. 

Knowing what your competition is charging is the first step in being able to determine if your rates should be higher, lower or an average (depending on how your property stacks up to others in the same area.)

After you’ve been advertising for a while, you’ll get a better idea if your rates are priced too low, too high, or maybe are just right.  My personal experience when putting my vacation rental property online for the first time was that even though we priced our rates on the higher end for properties similar to ours (because of the total renovation we had just done on the condo) the rates were too low.  Our high-season calendar quickly booked up.  As our guests began to leave their 5-star reviews of their experiences in our condo even the shoulder seasons started booking up.  We have raised our rates twice since beginning to rent our property.  We have also made other changes such as extending our “high” seasons and not offering our “Rent 6 nights & get the 7th night free” special during high seasons.  (This might seem to be common sense for more experienced vacation rental property owners, but as “newbies” we learned just like everyone else what our local market could bear.)

A general “rule of thumb” is that if your calendar is quickly booking up your rates might be too low, and if you aren’t getting very many inquiries they may be too high.  Realize, however, that there are other factors that affect numbers of inquiries such as the time of year it is (winter/holidays is typically a slow time for inquiries in most areas), economy and popularity of your location as a vacation rental destination.

  • Photos:   If I had to choose one thing as the most important part of the listing (besides the headline) I would say hands-down that the photos are what sell your property.  The adage “A picture paints a thousand words” is absolutely true when it comes to advertising your property online.  If your budget does not allow for a professional photographer to take photos of your vacation rental property, I encourage you to put this expense on your “To Do” list as soon as possible.  It is one expense that will pay for itself over and over again during the life of your listing.

 Until then, the following guidelines will help give your listing the most impact from the photos on your listing:

  • Include a view of the exterior of your property
  • Include a photo of the “view” from your property if it is one of your selling points
  • Include photos of each interior room, including the bathrooms.  If you can, include multiple photos of the kitchen as this is one of the most important considerations for travelers. Include photos of each bedroom. Include photos of amenities that you feel are selling points (“Infinity edge pool”, “Hot Tub”, etc.)
  • Make sure your photos are colorful, well lit and free from clutter.  “Stage” your photos just like you would stage a home that is for sale.  Help the travelers envision themselves in the photo.  Use creative angles on some of the photos.
  • Don’t forget to include informative, inviting and fun captions for your photos!

The important thing is to get your property listing online with as much information as possible and with as beautiful photos as possible, but to also remember that you can continue to improve, add to & tweak your listing as time goes by.  In fact, it is a good practice to regularly review the information on your listing to make sure it is still accurate and relevant!  If your property is located in an area that experiences different seasons it is a good idea to change the photos to reflect the next season that you are trying to book.

Since the last “Q” resulted in such a long and detailed answer, I’ll count it as two questions in order to live up to the title of this article.  :)   If you are a vacation rental property “newbie” and feel overwhelmed by the task that you’ve taken on, take heart! By focusing your attention on the next most important thing you will work your way through it all until one day you realize that your vacation rental business is up and running!

And should you be like the client I’ve mentioned in this article and want a professional service to help by handling your property’s listings, inquiries and reservations, consider VRAssist!  We are here to help maximize your investment in your vacation rental business while giving you more time to enjoy your life!