MidwestWeekends.com — Your Travel Guide to the Upper Midwest

Adventures in renting

Thanks to VRBO, a no-frills group lives beyond its means on a trip up north.

A rental cottage in Beaver Bay.

© Beth Gauper

A rented cottage overlooks Cove Point resort and Lake Superior.

If you’ve always wanted a second home – or a third, or a fourth – now is the time to acquire one, at least for a weekend.

People who snapped up beach houses and country retreats during the real-estate boom now are renting them out, trying to pay the mortgage.

But renting a vacation house straight from the owner was popular even before the bust: Why not see how the other half lives?

Browsing the pages of HomeAway and Vacation Rentals by Owner – VRBO, the biggest and best-known listing service – is like going on the Parade of Homes, except you get to stay in the house you like best.

Each place looks more appealing than the last – the Lake Geneva cottage with the white picket fence, the 1920s log lodge in Hayward built by a gangster, the condo in the Chicago skyscraper.

True, you won’t know exactly what you’re getting, and it’s not like a hotel, where you can ask for another room if you don’t like the one you get. But the surprise is part of the fun, and you're almost certain to get a good deal.

When I planned a February ski and snowshoe trip to Beaver Bay on Minnesota’s North Shore, I found five properties available on VRBO, and they all looked good.

So I picked a three-bedroom Cove Point Ridge house overlooking Lake Superior, with a big gas fireplace and two king beds that would be big enough to sleep four unrelated members of my group.

When more people from my outdoors club wanted to go on the trip, I rented a neighboring place, a two-bedroom WIndSong duplex cottage that was on the shore of Lake Superior and had a whirlpool tub, wood-burning fireplace, satellite TV and access to a sauna.

The per-person lodgings cost for our group came out to only $70 for the weekend, not much more than we pay for the more rustic accommodations to which we're accustomed.

“Are you sure we don’t need to bring bedding and towels?’’ one person asked before we left.

We didn't even know how to operate the Sleep Number king beds in the first house, which had a master bedroom with lake views and bay window, a wrap-around screened porch and a handsome great room with sofas and a floor-to-ceiling fieldstone-style fireplace with faux moose head.

A Windsong cottage in Beaver Bay.

© Beth Gauper

A Windsong cottage overlooks Lake Superior in Beaver Bay.

The owner lives in Arizona and bought the house during the real-estate boom, thinking prices would continue to rise. Now, he’s trying to sell the house for $399,000, down from $629,000.

“He didn’t get out soon enough, and he got caught in the lurch,’’ says retired resort owner Harold Piepho, who manages the man’s two properties. “That’s what’s happening all over.’’

But he didn’t stint on furnishings, even for a house occupied mostly by renters. All the décor was classic north woods -- sturdy log bed frames, rustic twig chairs, a pine-plank ceiling, a giant mirror framed by slabs of cobblestone.

Every bedroom had a DVD player, and love seats and sofas were leather.

“He spent $35,000 furnishing that house,’’ says Piepho, whose wife, Rae, is the owner's real-estate agent. “He wanted it to have the very best; he’s that kind of guy.’’

The other cottage, which we rented directly from the Twin Cities owners, was more compact but also attractive, with a few kitschy touches that included an aqua-tinted plastic toilet seat with embedded fishing lures.

It was more homey, with a thick binder full of sightseeing tips from the owners, a bowl of Hershey’s kisses and cupboards full of jam, maple syrup, soup mix, mayonnaise and condiments.

Its kitchen was much better stocked, but its gathering area was small. So we  borrowed soup bowls, a large sauté pan and a griddle to take to the other kitchen, which had a whole shelf of martini glasses but not much cookware.

Big vacation rentals generally are ideal for groups, which can split costs. But it depends on the group.

In my group, we did save a lot of money by cooking all our meals. But my efforts to provide a little unaccustomed luxury at bargain prices pretty much backfired.

We liked the fireplaces and dishwashers, but we didn’t use the DVD players, satellite TV, Jacuzzi or sauna. And of our group of nine in the bigger house, only three people got to sleep on the fancy beds.

Of the two men I assigned to the king bed upstairs, one slept on the floor. Of the two women on the living-room sofa bed, one slept on top of the sofa and one on an air bed dragged down from a small loft, reached by trap door and ladder from a small room with a double air bed.

My husband and I slept downstairs on a sofa bed that was typical of its kind: saggy in the middle.

“I feel like we’re getting a workout while we sleep,’’ Torsten said. “You roll down and then you have to work yourself back up.’’ We were cold in the downstairs room, too; because of people sleeping all over the place, blankets were in short supply.

Next time, we’ll bring at least one sleeping bag and pad just in case (for more tips, see What to bring to a rented cabin).

It’s a learning experience, renting vacation houses. Two years ago, Sue Ann Schwanke of Sauk Prairie, Wis., rented a three-bedroom cabin in Black River Falls for five couples. Two of the couples had to sleep on upper bunks in small rooms with low ceilings, which they could handle. But there was a snorer, which they couldn’t.

So when the group rented the cabin again this year, one couple brought an air bed, and they slept upstairs in the common area. That worked well, because they’re early risers and could have coffee ready for everyone else.

The group considered renting another cabin down the road but stuck with one: “It’s so nice to be all in one place and to have all our meals together,’’ Schwanke said. And the price was right: $62 per couple for the weekend, plus $26 in food.

Relaxing on a cottage porch.

© Beth Gauper

With a blanket, a guest enjoys a sunny February day on the porch.

By sharing costs, even a middle-class group can stay in a million-dollar home. Take Mary's Beach House in Door County, which sits on a quiet Lake Michigan sand dune surrounded by pines. It has eight bedrooms and a rooftop porch and beach swing, and it comes with bikes and beach toys.

It rents for $3,600 a week in summer — but if you take 19 friends or relatives, that's only $180 apiece.

And there’s another benefit to renting vacation houses in the Upper Midwest: In general, people are darn nice.

Both the owners of the WindSong cottage and the manager of the Cove Point Ridge house sent us tips and recommendations with our rental instructions, and Piepho had us leave the balance of our fee in a check on the kitchen counter.

He laughed when asked if he thinks property owners in Florida or New York operate that way.

“No, they’d probably lose 75 percent of their income,’’ he said. “We trust people. When people pay a little more for a property, you just get a better clientele.’’

Neither asked for a damage deposit, though that may be the exception: I just reserved a house in Bayfield through VRBO, and it requires a $200 damage deposit and came with a long list of rules and conditions.

That's a little off-putting, but then again, it’s their home. As one contributor to an online forum about Orlando vacation rentals noted, "I could be an ax-murdering smoking partying total slob with 8 dirty and drugged out kids that will trash their home.’’

In general, renting someone else's vacation home works out for everybody.

“It’s definitely good for the people who rent,’’ Piepho says. “And for those who stay, you get a pretty darn good property.’’

Trip Tips: Renting a vacation house online

What to know: The Internet is a wonderful way to view houses, and it’s easy to fall in love with the pictures. But even if it's also possible to reserve online, it's still a good idea to talk to the owner or manager in person.

Describe what you're looking for, tell him/her what your group is like and ask questions. No owner wants you to be unhappy and then trash-talk the property to your friends or in online reviews.

Not everyone should rent a house. Remember, you'll have to tidy up after yourself and take out the trash, and there's no one at the front desk to instantly solve your problems.

Ask what you do and don't need to bring (see What to bring to a rented cabin). In general, houses rented by owners who vacation in their own houses are better-equipped than houses managed by a service.

There’s almost always a two-night minimum, three nights on holidays, and it’s often a week in summer. Sometimes, the seventh night is free. In winter, a third or fourth night may be free. Check for specials, especially in the off season.

For summer and for fall weekends, reserve as soon as possible.

Where to look: VRBO is part of the HomeAway family of web sites, which include VacationRentals.com, A1Vacations.com, GreatRentals.com, and CyberRentals.com.

VRBO is largest, with more than 125,000 properties around the world — in this region, it lists more than 200 in Door County alone.

However, the HomeAway site is easier and faster to navigate, especially if guests know where they want to go. And its advanced-search function is very handy for those looking for specific amenities, such as properties that allow pets.

Many properties are listed on more than one service and also on TripAdvisor. For  destinations on TripAdvisor, vacation rentals are listed and reviewed along with hotels and B&Bs; look under the  "Specialty Lodging'' tab.

Pets: Many properties allow pets, typically with a $100 damage deposit. Even if a property listing doesn't say pets are allowed, ask — the owner or manager may let you bring a pet if you sound like a responsible person.

How to choose a good property: The listing sites do allow guests to comment on or review a house, but the owners can edit or delete a review if they like.

Vacation Rentals Community is a forum for owners as well as vacationers. Vacation Rentals WatchDog includes "complaints by vacationers, for vacationers.''

(But remember, if 10 people stay in a place and just one doesn't like it, that's the one who will complain online. For more about online reviews, see Word of mouse.)

TripAdvisor occasionally includes threads on vacation rentals. An Orlando thread includes tips from a Georgia woman who says she always has had success renting through VRBO: "I do Google every phone number that is listed for the rental. . . Many owners have a second web page, with more photos shown.

"I have a long list of questions to ask. Read everything at the VRBO site about the home. Carefully read their contract before signing anything. Find out if someone will meet you at the house or how you will get the keys. Who can you call if there are problems?"

If you're worried, VRBO, HomeAway and VacationRentals offer insurance, starting at $39.

Details: For more, see Renting a vacation house.

Last updated on September 13, 2012