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Dreams for Rent

Why stay in a hotel when you can vacation in opulent private homes and estates that come complete with everything from Ferraris and personal chefs to priva

The advantage of renting a private vacation property rather than a hotel room or suite are obvious: a luxury home can offer all of the comforts you could want, plus more privacy than hotels and resorts provide. 

Whatever your dream vacation-home experience, you can probably find it among currently available rentals. How about a gorgeous 17th century apartment in Paris? A 30-bedroom estate, with horse stables, a polo field, and a private beach? The home of a world-famous designer or movie director? If you’ve got the money, luxury rental companies have the listing.

Many of these companies provide à la carte amenities that go beyond what hotels offer. A 24-hour emergency hotline and concierge service are usually standard; a Michelin-starred chef, art tours within the private mansions of aristocratic Venetian families, or a Ferrari to explore the countryside might all be a phone call away.

Convenient payment systems mean that booking your dream digs can take mere minutes. But when you’re putting down anything from a few grand to $150,000 to secure a property, how do you know that it will deliver on promises made in the listing? How do you know your money will be secure? Ultimately, whom can you trust?

Here are some tips.

Regardless of whether you book directly with a homeowner or with a property management company, travel agent, or marketplace, it’s important to ascertain how involved—or not—that individual or business is in assessing and managing its listings. 

While companies such as Airbnb let users set up an account and list a property in about half an hour, marketplaces at higher price points tend to apply a more rigorous vetting process. Some represent a small selection of listings that they have personally inspected. Many rely on partners to check properties before adding them to the portfolio. You should find out how any property you’re considering has been vetted.

HomeAway’s Luxury Rentals, which offers about 8,500 estates, homes, and apartments starting at $5,000 per week, does not visit them but does apply a multipoint checklist; it then keeps tabs on the properties and rental experience through reviews. While chief revenue officer Jon Gray won’t divulge details regarding the criteria applied—companies tend to be tight-lipped on this subject for competitive reasons—he says that an algorithm screens all HomeAway properties for “luxury” attributes such as outdoor features, entertainment options, and local attractions; then a staffer examines the listings flagged. Of the million properties HomeAway offers, only 1 percent make the Luxury Rentals grade.

Luxury Retreats, meanwhile, handpicked and inspected its portfolio of 3,000  properties in 95 destinations to ensure they’re up to par. “Photos can undersell or oversell a property,” says CEO Joe Poulin. “Having a personal vetting process helps ensure that the overall picture is accurate.”

Luxury Retreats’ 100-point checklist for inspectors covers things you won’t see on photos, such as checking the approach to a home and the state of neighbors’ properties, as well as that the air conditioning and hot tub work well. 

Villa Europe managing principal Jeff Cap­pellieri has visited almost all of the 125 villas the company represents and knows each of the property owners. “When people are spending $6,000 to $35,000 a week, there are certain expectations,” he says. “Recently I had to let [a property representative] know that the first property he showed me did not meet my standards. It lacked a sense of arrival, and the linens and kitchen were not of a certain standard.”

Once you’re comfortable that the property won’t disappoint, find out what special services might be available. Often, they’re significant. “What has surprised me is the level of involvement of owner and property managers,” Cappellieri says. “Generally the owner is on the estate or minutes from the property. If you want some really nice olive oil or to tour a winery, they’ll send an email or make a phone call.”

Guest Apartment Services, which represents high-end Paris properties, also promises personalized service. “We can welcome [guests] at the airport with a driver, offer concierge services, make restaurant reservations, and get tickets for events,” says marketing manager Margaux Gerbert 

After you’ve checked that the rental agreement is thorough, deciding whether to go ahead with a booking becomes more about your level of comfort than anything else. While local laws may require that property owners have certain licenses and insurance, tour operators, travel agents, and listings companies aren’t obliged to ensure that those owners adhere to the laws, and can’t—or won’t—verify compliance.

But the nature of this industry and the fact that it’s easy to research companies online mean that vacation rental marketplaces won’t operate for long if they don’t have  clients’ best interests at heart. Guest satisfaction generally is high—Jon Gray says that 84 percent of people booking through Luxury Retreats say that they want their next trip to be in a vacation rental—and previous renters’ comments and reviews are an invaluable resource for checking that a property is as listed and is well maintained. (Luxury Rentals permits reviews only by people who have stayed at a property; Villa Europe will connect you with previous guests so that they can personally tell you about their experiences.) 

Besides paying attention to reviews, it’s wise to look for endorsements by companies and media such as Forbes, Conde Nast, and Deloitte, which regularly rank the best travel companies under various categories.

“We’re recognized by Virtuoso [a luxury travel network]. It’s hard to be a Virtuoso preferred partner for 15 years if you’re not reputable,” says Steve Lassman, a vice president at Villas of Distinction, which lists over 2,000 properties in more than 50 locations. 

At a minimum, every company should offer protection for your money, guaranteeing security of your financial details and guarding against fraud. Many marketplace websites have an online transaction portal that allows you to securely pay deposits and balances, which can be reversed, if necessary. Credit card companies offer additional protections.

“If you hear the words Western Union, run,” advises Joe Poulin. “If you see a big price discrepancy [on two websites] for the same property, [one is] either outdated or it’s fraud.”

While rental agreements usually won’t spell out the company’s policy if things take a turn for the unexpected, you can mitigate any nasty surprises by talking through any concerns before you book your stay. Find out, for example, what the company would do if the property owner cancelled your booking at the last minute, leaving you stuck with airplane tickets and nowhere to stay.

Problems sometimes arise because renters have needs that the listing information doesn’t cover and that weren’t addressed before they took the keys. If you require a fenced pool or if being within walking distance of a beach is a priority, you can direct an inquiry to the company rather than booking blind through its website. Most can answer your questions about a property and, if necessary, propose places that might be a better fit.

Marketplaces, property companies, and homeowners are usually open about their fee structures. Generally, you can expect to put 30 percent down at the time of booking and then pay the balance 10 weeks before arrival. Some marketplaces charge property owners a subscription fee and/or a commission of 10 to 30 percent of the rental price. Homeowners usually stipulate security-deposits requirements, which can vary enormously, anywhere from nothing to $20,000.

You should have good travel insurance, perhaps beyond what your credit card covers or what you’d have for a resort or package vacation. You need protection in case you or the property owner cancels the booking or a homeowner alleges that you’ve damaged something and withholds some or all of your security deposit. If you feel a property is not “as described,” insurance could be the only way to recoup any financial outlay.

But don’t let these cautions stop you from renting a luxury home. As noted earlier, serious problems rarely arise, and the properties and amenities can be spectacular. Chances are, your vacation will be, too.

Gemma Z. Price is a freelance writer based in San Francisco and Vietnam.

Want to rent out your own luxury vacation or primary home? See Money Matters.