Travel

How to unload an unwanted timeshare without getting scammed

ANTHONY RUSSO

There are ways to get rid of your timeshare — and those neverending fees. Just don’t expect to get much, if any, money for it.

I was about 10 years old when my parents took me to a posh new resort in the White Mountains. The place had everything — pool, golf, restaurants — and the getaway was virtually free, as long as we agreed to lock ourselves in a windowless room for 90 minutes with a ruthlessly charming timeshare salesman.

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We left that resort with a free microwave, but not a new timeshare — after all, we already had two. My parents bought into timeshare early on to stretch their downtime dollars. The concept makes sense, at least in theory: Instead of owning a vacation home and all of its related hassles, you just buy a share of one — the one or two weeks a year you’d actually use the place. Nearly 10 million Americans own timeshare, and most of them express satisfaction with it. The trouble is the relentless nature of the annual maintenance fees, which in 2014 averaged $880 a year, according to the American Resort Development Association.

My parents recently grew weary of the incessant yearly dues on their first timeshare — an unremarkable, late-1970s development in New Hampshire they had bought for $4,000 back in 1979. But when they tried to sell the timeshare, they realized it was worthless. They couldn’t even give it back to the resort. And the bills kept coming.

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“After a while people decide, ‘I can’t travel as much anymore,’ or ‘I can’t afford the maintenance fees that go up every year, so I need to sell,’” said Jeff Weir, chief correspondent for Redweek, a timeshare resale and rental website. “But they won’t get back more than 15 percent of what they paid; if they get 10 percent back they’re lucky.”

That’s a tough pill to swallow for a lot of people — especially the bulk of owners who purchased their timeshare at retail prices from a developer, which averaged $22,240 in 2015. While a few high-end resort brands maintain some value, most will never sell near original retail prices.

David Cortese, a broker in Orlando, Fla., said timeshares at the big chains — Disney, Marriott, Hilton, Ritz, Hyatt, and Starwood — are easier to sell, though the season matters. “If you own ski season in Park City or Aspen, for example, that draws plenty of interest from buyers. Whereas if you own mud season, those are virtually impossible to sell.”

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But the outlook is still pretty grim: “Out of the hundreds of thousands of timeshares out there, only 15 percent will end up selling,” Cortese said. “The real challenge is getting rid of the 85 percent.”

Photos from the Gorey family's timeshare days..

Photos from the Gorey family's timeshare days.

To do that, you may have to adjust expectations. “Before the recession, owners could at least expect to get something back via resale,” says Brian Rogers, owner of the Timeshare Users Group (“TUG”) website. “But nowadays, for most owners of average timeshares, to have much hope of finding a buyer, you literally have to give it away for next to nothing — or in many cases, nothing — just to be out from under the annual dues.”

That strategy worked for Judi Zaino of Milford, N.H., who recently unloaded an Arizona timeshare. She listed it on TUG’s Timeshare Marketplace and, to make it more attractive to buyers, paid the upcoming maintenance fees; all the buyer needed to pay in Year 1 was closing costs, amounting to a few hundred dollars. “I was able to give it away in less than a week,” Zaino said. “You have to price it right. Which is to say, give it away and then some.”

Those who bought a timeshare on the secondary market have a better chance of breaking even. After retiring in 2003, Kevin Casey of Essex purchased 12 winter timeshares in Florida on the resale market — most for just a few hundred bucks — thinking he’d stitch together a snowbird’s lifestyle. It didn’t take long to realize timesharing wasn’t for him, but getting rid of a dozen timeshares was far more time-consuming.

“I was able to part company with all 12 timeshares, but it took me five years, and I certainly didn’t make any money,” Casey said. “Some I was able to sell for what I had paid for them. But I have to tell you, it was a lot of work.”

Casey listed a handful of his timeshares for cheap on TUG’s bargain board, and sold his two most valuable intervals on Redweek for about $5,000 each, roughly what he’d paid for them. “Those were the two I’d paid relatively serious money for,” he said. “The others I’d bought for hundreds at most, maybe $1,000, and that’s basically what they brought back.”

To advertise on TUG, you must be a member, which costs $15 a year and includes free ad credits. On Redweek, annual membership runs $18.99 and posting a resale ad costs $59.99. Those are the only upfront fees you should even think about paying, however. Scammers eagerly exploit the disconnect between timeshare owners’ perceptions and the reality of the market, promising to fetch impossible prices. Whether it’s called an appraisal fee, advertising fee, or any other name, Rogers is adamant: Never pay anything upfront.

A company called Vacation Property Resales promised to sell Casey’s timeshares at whatever price he wanted. “I’m not proud to admit this, but I paid these people $1,200 to list several of my timeshares,” Casey said. The company was little help once they had his money, and was later investigated and fined by the state of Florida. But they and others continue to thrive, promising owners the impossible. “I don’t know if their activities are outright criminal, but they certainly operate in a gray area,” Casey said.

Donation scams also prey on desperate timeshare owners. Donate for a Cause, for example — under investigation by the Justice Department — would invite owners to donate even a worthless timeshare just to be rid of it, and promise a lucrative tax write-off in return, based on a phony, inflated appraisal of its value. Rogers called timeshare donation a terrible idea. “There is no legitimate tax deduction, and all known charities charge massive upfront fees,” he said.

Likewise, a reputable broker will only charge a commission after your timeshare sells; Weir recommended using a member of the Licensed Timeshare Resale Broker Association. Commissions are generally $1,500 to $2,000 on a timeshare, Cortese said. “We handle the advertising, the offers, the contracts,” he said. If listing and selling a timeshare on your own, Rogers advised using a licensed closing company to handle legal issues like the title transfer. “It’s cheap insurance to make sure the sale is completed successfully,” he said.

And if you’ve found it impossible to sell your timeshare or even give it away, you still have some options. First, Rogers said, contact the resort homeowners association and ask if they’ll take it back. Though it’s rare, some do, but you must be up-to-date with your dues.

Another option is to rent your timeshare through Redweek, TUG, or even vacation rental sites such as HomeAway. “The timeshare resale market is poor, but the rental market is robust,” Weir said, “because people find that while they can’t sell their timeshare, they can rent it out and often recover most if not all of their maintenance fees.”

Weir noted that some resorts place restrictions on renting for commercial gain, so check your contract. And if you decide to rent out your timeshare, try to book or exchange for an attractive week. “Typically if you’re renting, you want to secure the week at your resort as early as possible — hopefully it’s a good week — and list as far in advance as possible,” Weir said.

Finally, there’s the nuclear option: Just stop paying your maintenance fees. This will usually end in a potentially credit-crushing foreclosure, though it varies by resort. “Owners should make an attempt to contact the resort homeowners association and explain their situation before they go into default,” Rogers said, “as once they enter default they lose pretty much all their options.” Still, for an older or sick owner who can’t afford the fees and isn’t planning to take out a major loan anytime soon, defaulting could make sense. “For some people who can’t find another way out, that’s a reasonable way to go,” Weir said.

Despite how hard it is to sell one, my parents recently bought even more timeshare, this time at a high-end Marriott property in Florida. They were smart enough to buy on the resale market this time, and have no intentions of exchanging it. “You must love, love, love your home timeshare to make it worth it,” my mom told me.

Rogers, Zaino, and Weir all continue to own and enjoy multiple timeshares as well. “If people go into timesharing with their eyes wide open, and they understand how to use their week and understand the finances, I think it’s a wonderful way to have a vacation,” Zaino said.

Jon Gorey can be reached at jongorey@yahoo.com
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