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Tuesday, Sep 23, 2014
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Vacation home rentals gaining momentum

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Angel Luna bought a three-bedroom bungalow five minutes from the water in Apollo Beach when she moved to Florida to launch her jewelry and clothing design business.

She soon decided she would rather live where she worked in West Shore than commute from South County, but Luna wanted to retain ownership of the bungalow and even use it on occasion.

That's when a chance conversation with a fellow passenger at Tampa International Airport alerted her to the opportunity to turn her home into a vacation rental with an international firm specializing in connecting homeowners and short-term clients.

Luna became one of a growing number of people who own second homes or vacation homes and are linked through a vacation rental firm specializing in Internet bookings with people seeking an alternative to hotels.

The vacation rentals niche is evolving with the changing economy. It's expanding from its long-standing presence in Florida's East Coast, Orlando and other major U.S. cities to gain momentum nationwide, data from sources indicates.

The global travel market research firm PhoCusWright's reported the percentage of U.S. adults who stayed in a vacation rental within a two-year period increased from 10 percent in a 2007 vacation rental study to 12 percent in 2012, amounting to $23 billion in vacation rentals last year.

Firms such as Austin, Texas-based HomeAway Inc., which Luna contacted and which bills itself as the world's largest online vacation rentals company, have started up in recent years to capitalize on homeowners' desire to augment their incomes and vacationers' interests - especially family gatherings or other large groups - to save money by not renting multiple hotel rooms.

Luna gained a revenue source to cover the mortgage on the Apollo Beach home along with some lessons regarding the ups and downs of vacation rentals.

"I decided to try it and it was fantastic - up to a point," Luna said.

HomeAway provides instructions and tips on renting, along with a website with more than 710,000 international vacation home listings.

v vLuna began renting her home in February and quickly secured rentals that began to cover the $1,300 monthly mortgage. The three bedrooms and a futon can sleep 10 people.

She was cautious, preferring to rent to people from out of the country she thought would take better care of her property, wary of those from the local area who might be inclined to walk away with furnishings.

Luna provided Internet access, towels and linens, a washing machine and dryer, dishes and utensils, a dishwasher and TV, a DVD player and video and music library.

But one local group she took a chance on did not tell her what they really were up to: holding a wedding at 8 p.m. on a weekend night and causing a ruckus that displeased neighbors.

"After that I learned to ask more questions," Luna said.

In June, Luna encountered another issue she did not see coming.

She got a notice from the homeowners association that renting her home was in violation of its guidelines.

"I worked hard making something of this and the association kept calling me," Luna said. She currently is not renting the home.

The management company for the homeowners association, Rizzetta & Co. in Tampa, could not be reached for comment regarding the association bylaws.

Oliver O'Riordan, another HomeAway client, also noted pros and cons, although he said his experience has been primarily positive.

For the traveler, vacation rentals are a really good deal that provide substantial savings, said Oliver O'Riordan, a charter fishing captain from Apollo Beach who also goes by the name Capt. Oli.

"There's no cost for parking, there's the advantage of having a kitchen to cook rather than eating in a restaurant," he said. "On the renters' side, it is good business, not perfect. It appears to be a cash cow, but it's very, very intensive."

O'Riordan discovered VRBO.com (Vacation Rentals By Owner) about five years ago. HomeAway acquired VRBO.com in 2006 and continues to list under that brand, along with VacationRentals.com in the United States and nine other brands internationally.

Sometimes O'Riordan's rental home customers select his property for a stay in Apollo Beach to combine with his charter fishing adventures. Other times they book the rental and learn about the fishing.

The 3,000-square-foot home he rents has four bedrooms, four bathrooms and can sleep 14. It's equipped with Wi-Fi, a bar and game room, outdoor cooking that can accommodate game in excess of 100 pounds and two wood-burning fireplaces.

O'Riordan's house is occupied 70 percent of the year. A minimum two-night stay is priced at $500 a night or $1,900 a week through Dec. 20.

The advantage of a vacation rental for a group of people is apparent through O'Riordan's business model, comparing his price with the cost of multiple hotel rooms to accommodate a number of people.

O'Riordan explained that hotel rooms are built to be somewhat indestructible, though homes are not and a lot of upkeep is required. When something breaks, he repairs it to commercial rather than residential standards.

"But I don't oversell," O'Riordan said. "I don't advertise it as a model home or some luscious accommodation. It is a bit of an older house.

"You cannot make everybody happy," O'Riordan said. "But it seems more than nine out of 10 are."

Companies doing business in vacation home rentals distinguish their operations from time-share ownership, in which people buy a share of a property and are assigned designated dates or periods for usage.

v vWithin the vacation home rentals market are at least four general types of operations.

Wyndham Vacation Rentals, a division of the worldwide hospitality firm, handles bookings and regular maintenance of a home on the owner's behalf and said it is the world's largest professionally managed vacation rentals firm.

HomeAway lists online vacation homes for individuals for a fee, providing marketing support and what amounts to coursework in how to successfully rent a home.

Firms such as Starmark Vacation Homes in Celebration specialize in vacation rentals in a specific location, such as the Orlando market.

And there are some property owners who might take out an ad in a local newspaper to find business.

"Two types of people rent vacation homes - families and groups," said Jon Gray, senior vice president of the Americas for HomeAway.

Luna prefers families; comments from those renters on the HomeAway .com site were positive.

"The stay was great," a renter in March said. "The accommodations were clean, neat and pleasant. Would definitely stay here again. The owner was available and easy to interact with and helpful when needed."

Another wrote in May, "Staying at this place was a blast. The rooms are fantastic, they're comfortable and make u feel like your right at home."

Luna said her experience with her home rental was as positive as her patrons. She would like to resolve her issues with the neighborhood association and resume her vacation rentals to help pay her mortgage.

"I like my house," she said. "It is always good to have something you own."

tjackovics@tampatrib.com

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