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Consumer Reports | Product Review

Timeshares are worth another look

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Once upon a time, if you said you owned a timeshare, you might get a withering look of disdain from someone who felt you had caved in to a hard sell for a vacation option that most people were as eager to exit as they were quick to sign up.

But times have changed for timeshares. A quiet revolution in the industry now shows that they can be a savvy vacation strategy.

The industry has become much more consumer-friendly and transparent, insiders insist, largely because major hospitality chains — such as Disney, Four Seasons, Hilton, Hyatt, Marriott, Ritz-Carlton, Starwood, and Wyndham — are among the big players. The entry of these global giants has “solidified the product and brought credibility to the sales process,” says Michael Brown, chief operating officer of Hilton Grand Vacations, which operates 71 club-affiliated resorts in the United States, Canada, Europe, and Mexico.

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Today you needn’t even sit through a company’s sales pitch in person. You can contact representatives by phone or live chat. And you can go online to check out images and videos of the properties, and get detailed information about the complete cost of ownership.

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There has been a demographic shift among timeshare owners, which number 9.1 million US households. In 2014, consumers bought almost $8 billion of timeshare properties,with an average sales price of $20,020 and average annual maintenance fees of $880. Though the median age of timeshare owners is 51, the concept resonates loudly with younger people. Among owners who have bought in recent years, the median age is 39. And half of them have children younger than 18 living at home.

Fixed-week, fixed-resort timeshares are still around, but they’ve been upstaged by more flexible plans that allow owners to vacation at any property around the world that’s affiliated with the brand. In other words, you’re not married to one place. Many of the plans are tied to points-based vacation ownership. You buy a certain number of points and use them at one or more resorts within a brand.

What to consider if you might buy. Timeshares are ideally geared toward those committed to vacationing every year. If you have limited time off from work or a job that forces you to change plans on a dime, a timeshare might not be for you. Also consider that the appeal of the resort options must stand the test of time. A timeshare at Disney’s Magic Kingdom might be great for 15 years, but once the kids are grown, most of the magic might be gone.

Timeshare exchange companies allow owners to trade units within a resort system. Developers have a relationship with an exchange company, which administers the service for owners at the resort. Owners become members of the exchange system when they buy their timeshare. At most resorts, the developer pays for each new member’s first year in the exchange company, but members pay after that.

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Not your typical investment. You also need to disabuse yourself of the idea that you are owning investment property. You may rent, sell, exchange, or bequeath your particular timeshare unit. But unlike an actual piece of real estate, a vacation ownership’s value is tied exclusively to its use as a vacation destination. “It’s a lifestyle investment, not a financial one,” says Randy Conrads, cofounder of RedWeek, a website that lists timeshares for sale or rent. “You’re buying a vacation property that you thought you’d use.”