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The Affordances of Home, Away from Home

The Affordances of Home, Away from Home

A decade ago, before Airbnb existed, Wendy Hilliard and her family avoided hotels and instead vacationed the way many do now: They rented a house. It wasn’t as easy to do so as it is now, but they prioritized the advantages of having their own shared spaces.

“I think people were looking for it because I know our family vacationed that way years and years ago. That’s why we got into the business,” said Hilliard. “But I don’t think access was as easy.”

Hilliard and her husband are now on the other side of the industry—they own and operate DayStar Lodge on North Idaho’s Twin Lakes—and they are part of a shift in the way people stay when they travel.

Hotels aren’t the only option anymore, and that’s most certainly true in the Inland Northwest. Vacation rental companies are growing to meet demand; more families with second homes are renting them out—and some are even acquiring second homes for the sole purpose of doing so.

And now that it is so easy to find vacation rentals just about anywhere people vacation, all with a quick search of the Internet, the business is booming. In a March press release, Airbnb boasted that it has more than 6 million listings around the world, which it claims is more than the number of hotel rooms the six largest hotels have all together

“The biggest benefit is really the cost for what you end up getting,” said Steve Russo, owner of Go Sandpoint Vacation Rentals, which manages a dozen properties in the area. “A hotel typically is a room, with a kitchenette if you’re lucky. So when you can rent a house and get a couple families in there, you’re getting a ton of space. It makes the whole experience so much better.”

That includes in-house laundry, a well-appointed kitchen, large shared spaces along with private bedrooms, and, often in North Idaho, lake access; all for a comparable rate when split among a large enough group.

With the rise has also come a professionalization of the industry, and the standards of quality have risen, Hilliard said.

“Twenty, 30 years ago, a lot of these places were people’s family homes, filled with personal things, their clothes in the closets, castoffs from Goodwill in the kitchen,” Hilliard said. “Now it’s a lot more professional. Kitchens are better outfitted, no family pictures on the walls, so people can come in and feel this is their space. This is their home for a week. And you just don’t get that in a hotel. And you really didn’t get that 20 years ago, either.”

Cheryl and Robert Lantz entered the industry in 2012 when they noticed that many vacation rentals and second homes weren’t being monetized to their full potential. Many of their eventual clients had a second home they couldn’t sell for what they owed on it, Cheryl said.

But by renting it out, they could make it profitable. Now their company, Vacation Rental Authority, manages 60 vacation homes in North Idaho.

“Most of the inventory we brought on was creating new vacation rentals out of homes that were just sitting there,” Cheryl said. “The homes are taken better care of than long-term leased homes. It’s really good for the property values for the homes around them.”

Local companies like these have a mixed relationship with the larger listing sites, like Airbnb, VRBO, and FlipKey, which list many local company’s properties. Those sites are great for marketing, they said, but not so much for direct service when, for example, the heat stops working or the dishwasher leaks.

And that is becoming even more apparent, Cheryl said, now that some of those sites use outside call centers to handle client inquiries. They often will not list the local management company’s contact information, and that has led to some of the Lantzs’ clients receiving misinformation.

All agreed that, when possible, it is best to book directly through the local management company. In some cases, it is less expensive, too, they said.

“When someone rents from someone like me, they get a much more individualized experience,” said Hilliard, who will soon be removing her property from the large listing sites. “When your fridge goes out, VRBO’s going to be no help. I’m going to be the one to call and get a repairman out. … A good owner is going to take care of their guests. It makes me feel really good to help someone have a good vacation, and I think most owners are like that.”

There are benefits for renting out a home using a local company as well, Russo said. Something he sees often now is that people want a vacation home, but they only expect to use it a few weeks each year. That’s where management companies can help clients by renting out the house the rest of the year.

“Having people at the house will alleviate problems,” Russo said. “A lot of homes get in trouble when they sit there. Having some activity in the house offsets that.”

Still, local experts admitted that it often requires more effort and research to find and then vet vacation rental companies in places families are, often by the very nature of a vacation, unfamiliar with. Google comes in handy, they said.

“Reviews are really important. Try to find Google reviews because they can’t be manipulated,” said Russo, who added that Airbnb, for example, doesn’t have to publish all reviews that are submitted. “Google is the No. 1 source.”

If you do book through a large listing service, he suggested people try to get in touch with the local agency that manages the property.

“Call and talk to the people who actually have the house and ask all the questions you have,” he said.

Hotels appear to be trying to keep up, as many major chains are expanding their extended stay brands; StayBridge Suites is expected to open a new location in Coeur d’Alene this summer, for example. Its website emphasizes its full-sized kitchens and its large shared spaces.

But for many, the familiar comforts of a house, where they can still do a bit of work if they need to (thanks to the nearly ubiquitous Wi-Fi at vacation rentals) with a beautiful view and access to the outdoors, all with their family and friends around them, is too attractive to pass up—especially if the cost is comparable.

“People are looking for a space, kind of a home away from home,” Hilliard said, “More personal than a hotel, where most people like to cook their own meals and feel like they have a private space on a lake.”

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