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Sunspots' President - How to hunt a Midwest vacation rental

(News Item #0206, Published: 04/18/10, ChicagoTribune.com)

The Rev. Roland Whitehurst laughed in disbelief when asked about his recent family vacation. "It was just spectacular," he chuckled. "I'm speechless."

The 59-year-old pastor from Tulsa, Okla., wasn't searching for words because of the location, although Branson, Mo., was nice. It was the vacation rental itself (The Deer Pass Lodge) that made his four-day trip so memorable.

The 5,400-square-foot home has seven bedrooms that can sleep 27, plus five bathrooms, two half-baths, wireless Internet, satellite, six plasma-screen TVs, table tennis, foosball, basketball, a pool table, a fully equipped kitchen, private patios and a gas grill, nestled on 2 acres overlooking a lake — all for $225 a night at the time (although this particular long weekend was a gift from the owners to Whitehurst, who won a contest they held late last year). The standard rate starts at $400 per weekend night.

Two days after returning to Tulsa from the vacation, Whitehurst was still giddy, talking about what a great time he had along with 12 family members whose ages spanned 6 months to 65 years.

"This was just perfect for us. It was exciting because we'd never done anything like this," Whitehurst said.

Travelers going overseas often look for homes to rent, whether for reasons of economy or for a richer, more textured experience among the locals. But many Midwesterners may not have thought of doing the same thing here.

Now that Whitehurst has discovered the perks of Web sites such as Homeaway.com, where The Deer Pass Lodge is listed as property No. 153584, he is unsure whether he will ever want to return to a hotel room.

He's not alone. While vacation rentals are no new thing — one of the industry's trade associations, Vacation Rental Managers Association, has been around since 1985 — the Internet has made renting properties increasingly accessible. The vacation rental market represented $24.3 billion in 2007, which is more than one-fifth of all hotel-room revenue ($107 billion) and 8 percent of the total U.S. travel market ($289 billion), according to market research group PhoCusWright.

"The draw for these homes has always been there, but people couldn't find them," said William May, director of the Vacation Rental Industry Association; and President of Sunspot Vacation Rentals a manager in the Northwest United States who manages hundreds of homes..

Thanks to the Internet, property owners and real estate-managing companies can post photos, maps, descriptions and amenities of their properties on more than 700 Web sites dedicated to vacation home rentals. Options range from two-bedroom cabins in Westby, Wis., to a one-bedroom condo in the Gold Coast neighborhood of Chicago to a 16-bedroom lodge in Traverse City, Mich., with prices stretching from $50 a night to $17,000 a week.

"Renting a vacation home is simply a better deal than staying in a recreational hotel," May said. "If you're going to go to New York on business and stay one or two nights, a hotel is an ideal solution for you. But if you're going to go someplace for a week or two, let down your hair, relax, renting a private vacation home is a better deal, and I don't just mean financially."

Rentals offer privacy, common areas, spaciousness and convenience. You can save money on dining and entertainment by taking advantage of amenities such as full kitchens, hot tubs, swimming pools, grills, board games, patios, large yards, DVD players and more.

Last year the popular travel planning Web site TripAdvisor.com added a vacation-rentals area to its offerings and partnered with FlipKey.com to offer more than 100,000 listings along with reviews of the rentals from verified guests. Tripadvisor.com even has a vacation-rentals calculator feature, which allows users to compare the average cost of a trip using a vacation rental versus a hotel.

Hank Hudepohl, director of vacation rentals at TripAdvisor.com, said vacation-rental guests run the gamut, from families to couples, even people traveling alone on business. Regardless of background, Hudepohl said, most first-time guests share similar concerns: cleanliness, cautiousness (who to call if something goes wrong) and cost.

"Once you stay in a rental, you see that, for instance, these places actually are clean, they're tidy and if you need help, there's somebody you can call in most instances," he said. "Part of it is just overcoming some of these misconceptions about what a vacation rental is. There's also a group that feels like it's a luxury or splurge type of travel and have never considered that it can save you money."

Hudepohl said the most common searches on TripAdvisor.com are for two-bedroom properties that sleep six to eight (six people in one rental property saves an average of 30 percent compared with hotel stays). Weeklong travel also is popular, because many rentals offer a reduced rate for longer stays. Geographically, the most sought-after areas are near lakes and beaches, and in the mountains.

"Hotel operators don't have the exclusive on the main attraction, and that main attraction is the geography itself, whether it's the mountain landscape or the beach landscape or a lake," Hudepohl said. "That's where the rentals really tend to thrive and do well."

But quiet beachfront properties certainly aren't the only option. Metropolitan areas also are seeing high demand. When Amanda Louie, a 26-year-old from Austin, Texas, recently traveled to Chicago for a business trip, renting a hotel room never crossed her mind. The director of marketing for RCR Wireless found a one-bedroom condo on the 20th floor of a high-rise on Lake Shore Drive through Homeaway.com. "I got a corner room that had a view of pretty much the entire skyline," she said.

The owner was asking $210 a night, but Louie was able to negotiate a price of $170 because she was renting multiple units for her colleagues.

She said she has been using vacation properties since she rented a beach house for prom night with friends at age 18.

"When I travel, l like to travel like a local. … People in Chicago, especially, are so friendly that I like to just travel and stay in condo units," she said.

Where to look

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VacationRentalCentral.com - The only website with professional inspected homes. From the Vacation Rental Industry association. Www.VRIA.org

TripAdvisor.com — Lists more than 100,000 verified rentals and has partnered with FlipKey.com to provide property reviews.

Homeaway.com — Lists more than 185,000 properties in 120 countries. This site also runs VRBO.com (vacation rentals by owner), which includes properties listed by more than 100,000 homeowners.

Discovervacationhomes.com — Powered by the Vacation Rental Managers Association, this site not only connects travelers with vacation rentals but also serves as a consumer resource and guide to the industry.

Vacationroost.com — Lists more than 100,000 professionally managed homes and condos and includes links to area services.

Clearstay.com — Rentals from professionally managed properties including past guest reviews. Features last-minute deals.

Do's and don't's

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When searching for a vacation rental, follow these tips:

1. For your protection, use a credit card to pay for the rental whenever you can. Never wire money.

2. Find a property that has reviews listed, when possible.

3. Try negotiating. The longer you stay, the better deal you usually can get.

4. Travel in the low season. Rates vary, and you will find better deals if you go against the crowds.

5. Ask about bedding. Listings will note "sleeps six" or "sleeps 10" but not specify in what combination or whether beds are roll-away or hide-a-beds.

6. Find out if someone will be accessible should an emergency or questions arise.

7. Look for third-party endorsements (such as AAA, Better Business Bureau and Vacation Rental Managers Association) of management companies.

8. Ask about cleaning fees. These can be as high as $200 and are not refundable.

9. Ask about security deposits: How much, and when will it be returned?

10. Find out what amenities are provided — linens, appliances, spices, propane (if there is a grill), etc. — to help you plan effectively.

Popular searches

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The following spots were the most searched vacation rental destinations in the Midwest in the last six months on TripAdvisor.com.

1. Wisconsin Dells, Wis.

2. Branson, Mo.

3. Harbor Springs, Mich.

4. Michigan City, Ind.

5. Traverse City, Mich.

6. New Buffalo, Mich.

7. Lead, S.D.

8. Logan, Ohio

9. Lake Geneva, Wis.

10. Deadwood, S.D.