(Travel + Leisure) -- A stone cottage overlooking the Italian countryside ... an old farmhouse in the hills of Provence ... a beachfront estate in the Caribbean; Renting a vacation house with character has undeniable appeal. In the past year, the number of people renting villas around the world has increased by more than 20 percent, according to a handful of industry experts, with bookings in more affordable countries such as Spain and Portugal nearly doubling.
At the high end, renting a villa is not unlike staying in a luxury hotel -- complete with personal concierge and on-site nanny. But the range between the high and the low is vast, and with a growing sea of options, picking the right property is more complicated than ever. These seven steps will help ensure a smooth villa vacation, from start to finish.
1. Know what to expect
Villa renters tend to be people who enjoy living like locals, be it playing pétanque with the neighbors or cooking breakfast barefoot in a bathing suit. But there can be a flip side to making yourself entirely at home. Everyday chores, such as doing the dishes or changing lightbulbs, may be part of the equation, even for high-end properties. "In Italy, if the washing machine breaks on a Sunday morning, the plumber likely won't show up until the next day," warns Andrea Grisdale of IC Bellagio, a company specializing in Italian villa rentals.
2. Travel with like-minded friends
While vacationing with others certainly adds to the experience, unexpected issues can arise. It's best to handle bedroom selection/preferences in advance. Choose your strategy: Pull a number out of a hat; apply different price points to different bedrooms; agree to switch rooms halfway through; or yield to the person who books the villa.
Whatever you decide upon, first-come, first-served won't exactly set the right tone for the trip. Also, don't restrict yourself to a villa with the precise number of bedrooms needed to accommodate your party: Many agencies offer discounted rates depending on how many bedrooms you actually use. A property in St. Bart's listed on Villas of Distinction, for example, rents for $457 a night for one bedroom, $529 for two bedrooms and $600 for three.
3. Book early ... or last minute
Most villa-rental agencies recommend locking in your dates 10 to 14 months ahead of time, but waiting until the last minute can also turn up a better value. According to Jim Strong, T+L travel advisor and owner of Dallas-based Strong Travel Services, villa prices usually won't drop, but companies often throw in extras -- like a massage therapist or boat access. "Some will also remove restrictions such as minimum stays and security deposits," adds Strong.
4. Call upon the experts
You can find a villa rental advertised just about anywhere -- CraigsList.org, Vrbo.com or the local newspaper. But when you go through an established agency, you're far more likely to have a smoother stay -- and there's usually no extra fee involved; villa owners pay for the service, not renters. They depend on their reputation -- and word of mouth -- to survive, so the best ones vet each and every property personally and regularly.
They also have a strong support system on-site in case something goes wrong. Still, how can you best determine if a rental agency is of the highest quality? Margie Van Zee, president and CEO of Bella Palazzo, an international villa-rental company, suggests the following: Look at the size of the agency (in general, smaller is better, because it means more personalized care), the quality of properties listed and how long the company has been in business.
5. Ask the obvious questions
The biggest mistake renters make is not asking the right questions about a specific property. A few to keep in mind: Does the villa come with sheets and towels? Is the property childproofed? Is there construction going on nearby? Will the owners be gone? How far is it from town?
You might find yourself surprised by the answers. An owner, for example, may rent out only part of his villa (the guesthouse) and stay in the main house -- not much privacy there. And the nearest market could be more than an hour away. Never book a house without seeing pictures (or better yet, taking a virtual tour), and if possible, get floor plans with room measurements. Finally, don't be afraid to ask for references: if they can't offer any, switch to a different agency.
6. Get everything in writing
Contracts or user agreements are standard. This is where you find out about hidden costs -- such as additional heating and air-conditioning charges, departure fees and taxes -- which can add as much as 25 percent to the rental price. Contracts also cover policies regarding property damage (the rule of thumb: you break it, you pay for it) and unsatisfied renters. (Make sure there's a clause that explains what happens when things really go wrong.)
The best companies have staff and emergency contacts on hand who can respond to problems such as mechanical issues or burglaries. Before you leave, be sure to ask for the cell phone number of an agency representative.
7. Buy travel insurance
It's easy to skip this crucial step after you've found that perfect villa -- no one wants to imagine all of the things that could go wrong. But insurance isn't just for hurricanes. It also applies to certain medical emergencies and unforeseen conflicts that require you to cancel, as well as errors made by your tour operator, airline or rental agency. Insurance typically costs about 4 to 8 percent of the trip fee, depending on the age of the travelers and what's included in the package. Compare multiple policies on insuremytrip.com. E-mail to a friend
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