As a senior vice president for the vacation rental website Homeaway.com, Jon Gray of Austin, Texas, had been staying in rented houses for years, whenever he traveled. “I’ve stayed in vacation rentals on four continents,” he said, “in smaller accommodations or just with my wife.” But it was not until a trip to Barnstable two years ago — when the couple, along with their year-old daughter, rented a three-bedroom, two-bath place near the beach — that it really occurred to Gray how much he preferred rentals to hotels.
“Because of my daughter,” he said, “on that trip I got a full appreciation for traveling as a group or family in a rental. One of the primary benefits is you have a kitchen. And another thing you don’t realize until you travel with kids is that you can put them to bed upstairs and then go downstairs and watch a movie or have a glass of wine with your wife.”
If you are new to living the way locals do while on the Cape or one of the islands, choosing a house to stay in can be overwhelming. And once you are there, what is good guest etiquette? In short, how do you make the most of your Cape or Islands house rental?
Finding a good deal
First, plan to put in a little legwork. A few years ago when Todd Fairchild and John Antonellis of East Boston, engaged at the time, started searching for a place in Provincetown, they initially found only small cottages for $1,800 and up. Fairchild, who now goes by Todd Antonellis, finally located something for $900 a week, but by April it was fully booked. But the couple persisted, and when they asked a friend who rents condos in the area if he knew of anything, he produced a weeklong rental in July for just $700, which was the standard price, not lowered because of the personal connection. “It pays to shop around,” said Antonellis.
Sometimes booking early can get you a better deal, but it’s far from imperative. “It primarily depends on the size of the home,” said Joan Talmadge, who with her husband, Jeff, owns weneedavacation.com, a Cape and Islands database headquartered in Wellesley. “Four-bedrooms-and-up book much earlier in the season, but you can get smaller ones right up until the last minute.” Those eleventh-hour deals can often carry the lowest price tags, too. “If something hasn’t rented,” said Jan Macallister, an agent with Sotheby’s International Realty in Osterville, “call and ask whether there’s any room for negotiation.” These deals can be surprisingly easy to find, too, since vacation-home websites often have last-minute alerts or sections.
As late as early June, Craigslist still had a few gems: How about a fridge-and-microwave-only studio in Truro for $600 a week, or a two-bedroom cottage in Dennisport — right on the beach — for as little as $700 a week? “If you don’t need as much space,” Macallister said, “then don’t pay for it.”
Certain weeks are less popular than others, too, and may be a little less expensive. The last week in August, said Talmadge, is a great time for couples and singles to go, because families with kids are gearing up for the school year — and you might save as much as 10 percent.
Finally, you can sometimes get a freebie or two thrown in just by asking. T.J. Mahony, CEO of Flipkey, a vacation-rental ratings site based in Boston, recommends finding four or five properties you are interested in and calling the owners or managers of each one. Let them know you are looking at other places and tell them your price range, he says. Then say, “If there are any other amenities or add-ins, that would really help me understand exactly what my best option is.” Remember, they want to be booked every summer week — if they’re not, they might be willing to make a deal.
Being a good guest
Some development companies and private owners give discounts of 5 to 15 percent to those who book a year in advance. If you want to return to the same destination year after year, it helps to develop a relationship with the person in charge. “The friendlier you are with them,” said Mahony, “the more flexible they’ll be.”
But how do you make sure they will want you as a return customer?
“Read the rental agreement,” Gray said. “They always have a rental agreement in place that will outline what to do with linens and so forth. Take good care of the place, keeping the kitchen and bathroom clean and nice. Report any maintenance issues that come up. Turn off the lights and everything, especially special amenities like pool heaters, hot tubs, things like that. Remember that this is someone’s second home, and treat it with respect.”
“Most homeowners will say, ‘Leave it like you found it,’ ” said Talmadge. “Remove everything you brought with you, including your food from the fridge. Package up the garbage and put it out. If you moved the furniture, put it back as best you can. Don’t leave a sink full of dirty dishes.”
Finally, Gray added, if you had a great time, say so in the home’s guest book or better yet, go back to the site where you found the property and leave a review. “They really help owners to get more business, and they take a lot of pride in your having a great trip. They want to know you’re happy.”
Making the most of the rental experience
“The owner of the property is an incredible resource,” said Gray. He remembers that before his trip to Barnstable, the home’s owner outlined the route for a hike he could do from the house to the ocean. “It was such a cool little trip,” he said, “and I never would have thought about it if I’d Googled ‘things to do.’ ”
Weneedavacation.com offers a Vacation Planner page, which provides information on dining, activities, shopping, beaches, and museums, and can be filtered by town, activity, and subcategories like boat rentals, live music, and sightseeing and tours. Many owners, Gray said, will leave menus for their favorite restaurants or brochures from local outfitters. “If the owner doesn’t already have it at the house,” he said, “ask for it. Typically they bought a second home because they love the area, so there are things they want to share with you so you’ll enjoy the home the way they do.”
Ask what is provided in terms of, say, cribs and playpens, and if you have any specific needs that might not be terribly common — say, a white-noise machine for bedtime or a special spice blend you cannot live without — don’t forget to bring it. But many owners go out of their way to make your stay great, providing kayaks, bicycles, fire pits, hot tubs, and board games for those rainy days. If what you are looking for is not at the house, ask the owner if there is a place nearby you can rent it.
And remember what makes a home-stay vacation different. “One key differentiating a vacation rental,” said Gray, “is extra space, so you don’t have to do something out every day.” Use the private pool, he recommends. Play bocce. Have a barbecue one night with fish from the local seafood stand. If you don’t have a gourmet kitchen at home but the house you are staying in does have one, live the fantasy for a few nights. “Make a memory of where you’re staying,” said Gray, “not just where you’re going.”Elizabeth Gehrman is a regular contributor to the Globe.