Book early for best summer rental selection
By Marnie Hunter
(CNN) -- Cold, dreary winter days have many Americans dreaming of a sunny haven near the water this summer.
If you're one of those people, it's best to start early.
"It's a great time to start looking right now," said Kevin Strege, president of Catalina Island Vacation Rentals in Avalon, California.
Strege estimates 50 to 60 percent of his properties already have been booked for July and August by renters who secured them after their stays last summer. Bookings for the remainder tend to get heavy in March and April.
Tom Ridgway, owner of Hilton Head Rentals and Golf in Hilton Head, South Carolina, also sees availability tighten up in late March, particularly for renters who have scheduling constraints and those who are looking for larger homes.
"If you have that one week and you need a four-bedroom and you want it to be in [a particular] price range, then that should be booked now," he said.
Michael Sarka, executive director of the Vacation Rental Managers Association, agrees that earlier is better, particularly for houses.
"The higher end of the market, the better located houses, the bigger houses, the more unique houses -- they tend to go first," he said.
Sarka urges travelers to identify priorities.
"You have to really decide what are the most important considerations and priorities for you and your travel group," he said.
Ridgway finds that most renters don't have a lot of flexibility -- they're often coordinating with other families around work schedules and children's summer activities.
For those who have it, more flexibility buys more time to decide. Booking about three months before arrival in the summer is more likely to work out well if dates can be shuffled.
Houses tend to be booked significantly earlier than one- and two-bedroom villas and condominiums, Ridgway said.
The rise of Internet booking in the past few years has brought shorter lead times overall, Ridgway observed. He believes that being able to pull up a Web site to see whether or not a property is booked gives renters a sense -- sometimes false -- that they have more time.
Carole Sharoff, president of Atlantic Vacation Homes in Gloucester, Massachusetts, has noticed a different effect from her Internet listings for properties in the Cape Ann area north of Boston. She has found that people have started to book their summer vacations earlier.
"Years ago, I would never book houses before President's Day," she said.
Many rental home hunters are using a range of Web sites to find the most desirable accommodations.
Popular sites like Vacation Rentals by Owner (vrbo.com) and Great Rentals (greatrentals.com) serve as interactive classified ads to connect renters with owners or property managers.
These sites list -- with multiple pictures -- thousands of properties worldwide, but do not confirm the information posted on properties. In this case, it is particularly important to read listings carefully and ask a lot of questions.
"You kind of have to interview the owner or the property manager ... so that you feel comfortable with the situation," said Marvin Floyd, general manager of Vacation Rentals by Owner.
"It is, admittedly, not exactly like going to a hotel chain" in terms of knowing exactly what to expect, Floyd said.
Great Rentals and Vacation Rentals by Owner urge vacationers and owners to protect themselves through agreements that specify terms and conditions. Spelling out cleaning requirements and how the deposit will be handled and returned is a good idea, Floyd said.
No matter how the rental property search is conducted, getting specifics about a property's location and amenities is advisable. Does a "short walk to the beach" mean 15 minutes or 150 yards? Does the property have a dishwasher, washer-dryer and linens? What are the furnishings like?
John and Eileen Leasure, a retired couple living in Washington, North Carolina, have had a range of experiences with rentals in locations including San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, and Maine.
While there have been some bumps in their rental road, they enjoy the value and spacious homelike atmosphere they get with rental homes.
"I think the secret is being flexible. Don't expect it to be exactly like you have it at home," said Eileen Leasure.