Vacation rentals – more to consider

A while back I wrote about the merits of vacation rentals as well as some useful questions to ask when considering a vacation rental.  Spending several weeks in Paris, plus a few days in Switzerland and a few days in Normandy have provoked some additional things to consider when it comes to vacation rentals, especially for families with smaller children.

Lived in or not?

The question here is whether the apartment/home is the owner’s primary residence, which yields both pros and cons.  Our Paris rental belongs to a woman and her two teenagers.  They live there year-round, except for the month in the summer that they (like many of the French) take to head elsewhere.  Since it’s their full-time residence, and they’ve lived there for many years, the apartment is very lived-in.  It means there’s stuff on every shelf, including books, schoolwork, and artwork (the owner is a talented artist in her off-time).  This can be good if the family includes smaller children, because it means they have toys, kid books, and the house may be relatively baby-proof.  But in our case, the apartment has stuff everywhere that our kids can break!  We did an initial run-through of the apartment, moving things to higher shelves, but throughout our stay we’ve encounter kids fiddling with something that were probably best left unfiddled with.  Little by little, we’ve moved trinkets, knick-knacks, and interesting objects up higher.  And while a few things have broken, the damage has been pretty minor.  We had asked the owner if she had any kid toys or blocks, and she was able to find some Keva blocks for our kids to use, which have provided hours of entertainment to our boys.  Still, a lived-in house with smaller kids might have been a better match.

Alternatively, a not-lived-in rental can be practical.  The place we stayed in in Normandy was essentially a bare apartment.  Pros?  Pretty much nothing to break or wear out.  Cons?  Not much to play with.  It works alright if there’s an outside area or if you’ve brought some of your own toys, games, etc.  And in Normandy, when the weather was great (most of the time), we had no problems.  On our last day, though, with the arrival of rain, we found ourselves with the DVD player and LeapPads for the few hours when we weren’t at the local circus.  A not-lived-in rental can also mean it lacks household amenities, like a blender or a toaster.  It’s worth asking or looking closely at rental photos if you’re concerned about what may not be present in a place that is strictly used for unknown renters.

Best of all?  A mix between the two.  The place we stayed in Switzerland, just below Verbier, was well-equipped for kids.  It had games, a few puzzles, a trampoline, and all the household amenities we needed.  The owners clearly spend a fair amount of time there, if not all of their time.  But they are also well-acquainted with renters, and they know what they’re doing in that regard.  The house was perfectly clean when we arrived.  Everything was in functioning order.  There was no clutter.  There were brochures on the table with area attractions.  THIS is the best kind of rental property, and our boys still talk about just how great the place was, with comments like, “I wish we could have the Switzerland house right here in Paris.”  Yes, wouldn’t that be nice?!?

Who can help?

If you’re renting from someone who will be leaving the area for the time you’re there, make sure you have a good way to reach them or, better yet, someone nearby who can help.  In Paris, even though our owner is in Italy, we have her son and daughter-in-law living in the building next door, and we can reach them by phone or text message if we needed something.  That came in handy when there was a leaky toilet that required repair.

In Switzerland, we had a local contact name and phone number, but we didn’t have Switzerland cell phones and I wasn’t entirely sure how much it would cost to contact them using our French cell phones.  If any real needs had arisen, I would’ve bit the bullet and called.  But no needs ever arose, so we went without contact other than an email or two to the owner who had headed to England for a week or two.  Still, better to have someone to reach if we needed something—and these owners were well prepared by providing that info beforehand.

Just make sure you’ve got someone to help you if you need it.  And if you can sit down with the owner on day one at your rental, you’ll be one step ahead—you can ask where to shop, questions about mass transit, nearby parks, apartment questions, etc.  Otherwise you’ll spend extra time getting your bearings that you could be spending out on the tourist trail!


One last one that I’ve mentioned previously, but I feel that it’s earned an additional mention—PETS.  At worst, this can be a very serious problem if there are allergy problems in your family.  At best, it can mean some additional entertainment for your kids.  And somewhere in between, it can mean pet hair and unwanted smells in the apartment.

In our case, we are fortunate not to have pet allergies.  But we found out shortly after signing the Paris rental agreement that there were “mostly outdoor” cats that spend time in the apartment, as well.  This wasn’t what we bargained for—not something we wanted to include in our Parisian vacation.  But after some back and forth, we were assured the cat-door could be blocked and they would be fed by others and stay outside.  What we weren’t expecting was the first night in the apartment, with cats at the cat-door, crying to come in, tapping throughout the night with meows to rend the sky.  I spent a chunk of the night barricading the cat-door, glaring at the confused kitties.  Nor were we anticipating the corner of the apartment that smelled strongly of cats and maybe cat urine.  We used some essential oils to lessen the smell, but it persists.

In Switzerland, the owner warned us beforehand that the upstairs neighbor had a cat, Caramel, that spent most of its time outside but “shouldn’t be a problem.”  Well, since we are allergy-free and the house was clean of cat hair and smells, it wasn’t too serious.  But it was a bit of an issue when sweet Caramel jumped through our open windows to sit on the couch next to us in the evenings.  We made the best of it, closing windows during mealtimes, welcoming the cat at other times.

All this to say, though, is if you’re not a pet person, ask up front.  Be clear with the owner about your needs, and try to sense whether “there’s a neighbor cat” could mean that you’ll have a cat on your lap in the evenings.  If the owner mentions pets, it’s likely you’ll encounter them on your stay, even if they technically live elsewhere…

Still a good idea?

We stand by the value of apartment/vacation rentals.  HomeAway and Airbnb, as well as smaller, regional players offer a great selection of places throughout the world.  These places truly can be marvelous.  Just ask our kids about the Swiss chalet.  But know what you’re getting before you book, and if you’re worried about something that you think may not get resolved, keep looking for the right match for your family.

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