Our quest began with a visit to Panama City Beach, where we stayed at some relatives’ home, about three blocks from the beach. For months before our trip to Florida, I began to contact several real estate agents. Not an easy task when you’re doing it from your home in the Midwest. But we muddled through. This California native was beach-starved and I wasn’t going to let 800+ miles stand in my way of the beach dream. Then we narrowed our real estate agent list down to one we enjoyed working with. We also printed out listings and photos, and trimmed down our shopping list of homes.
Location, location, location! Although we desired an actual single family dwelling on the beach, our budget limited our search to beachfront condos. So letting our agents know our price range, this helped narrow our search considerably. To make a long story short, hours of condo shopping resulted in finding our dream condo. We now owned a ground floor, beachfront condo on the quiet west end of Panama City Beach. I prefer a view closer to the ground as I’m agoraphobic (fear of heights) and I hate using an elevator. I have no aversion to using stairs, but I already use them at home. So I figured why not provide my older guests and those with young children with nosebleed-free accommodations. Nothing beats stepping right onto the sand from your patio. I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. We returned a month later to close on our property, refurnished, and enjoy our first week as condo owners. That was the easy part!
We always knew we’d eventually run the business without the help of an agency, but we needed some guidance to get our feet wet (no pun intended). For the first couple of months, we used a rental agency while we figured out what we were doing. We knew we’d need to secure reliable housekeepers, obtain vacation rental web sites to list our property, and work our property into a successful business. Well, at least try to get it to pay its own bills. When we were ready, we learned that it was actually easier, for us. I won’t claim it’s easier for everyone. But since we only own one condo, it was a no-brainer.
I cannot stress enough how important record keeping is in this business. You must record every transaction relating to your business. Every loss, gain and receipt must be meticulously recorded…right down to the housekeeper fees, bed tax collected, and heaven forbid, stolen towels! By the way, we’ve only had spices removed! So find yourself a good spreadsheet template. Also, keep good records of your correspondence and emails with your guests, inquiries, housekeeping and maintenance staff. You are more likely to enjoy repeat guests if clear and friendly conversations exist between you.
I have made it a habit to contact my inquirers immediately (within that day). They are usually impressed that I took the time to get back to them. Some never get back to me even after I take the time to call or email them. But I figure, hey, it’s their loss! By the way, every email I receive from potential guests, whether they rent or not, get filed. I try to reconnect with them for the following season, or when I run specials. Never underestimate what an invitation to bookmark your listing site for future rentals can do for your business. Repeat guests can eventually become your bread and butter. This year we’ve enjoyed about 90 percent occupancy. There are other factors to contribute to this phenomenon.
Provide your guests with all the creature comforts. Upgrade your cable programming to HD and furnish the nicest high def television you can afford. Prices have really dropped as resolution and contrast ratio have risen. For the living room, a 40” to 52” LCD does nicely. However, be sure to put locks on pay-per-view. Also, it would behoove you to have a smaller HD LCD in the bedroom, instead of a bulky tube TV. The LCDs run cooler and do not attract as much dust. Also, provide DVD players in the living room as well as the master bedroom. If you have extra DVDs lying around, stock a few for your guests. Provide movies for younger guests. Mark them clearly and keep an inventory.
For the basic price of combining local phone service with DSL, the rewards are obvious. I’ve rarely had guests that didn’t need it or use it. Many ask for it and prospects just may choose your rental over another that doesn’t provide Internet service.
I cannot stress enough how important a good housekeeper is. Find one that has a spotless reputation, great references, flexible, has great attention to detail. Your housekeeper deserves to have good communication with you, for schedules, expectations, prompt payment and a good working relationship. She/he can make or break your business. Keep them happy and everyone wins.
Keep your rental like you would your home. Not only will it feel more like home for your guests, they will tend to respect it more. Provide plenty of linens and first-day amenities such as little soaps, TP, tea, spices, etc., will remind them they are not in a mere hotel. Little touches like bedtime mints, champagne for newlyweds, even a couple of loads of dishwasher soap will make them yearn to return.
A comfortable bed that they don’t want to get out of is sure to bring your guests back. Don’t scrimp on comfort here. A sturdy mattress will last years longer than one from a discount store. Do provide moisture-proof anti-microbial pillow and mattress covers. Let your guests know this, as it will ensure them that you have their health and comfort at the top of your list.
Keep your appliances updated and good working order. If you buy new, get extended warranties. I guarantee it will be worth it, and it’s tax deductible. Provide your guests with tips and information on how to use them. High efficiency front loading washers use only HE (low sudsing) detergent. Remind them to keep the lint traps clean on your dryer. Provide coffee filters! They are cheap, and even if you don’t provide coffee (which can go stale anyway), your guests will appreciate not having to buy filters.
It’s nice to keep a broom and dustpans, bagless vacuum and some cleaning supplies available for your guests to use. Some may never use them; after all, they are on vacation! But then you may have guests like myself, A-types that can stand to see dust or sand on the floor. My housekeepers are always delighted to walk into a recently vacated unit that was sparkling clean. It can happen!
When the deal is closed and your guests have only weeks until they arrive, be sure to send them receipts for payment, email to print out of what you expect of them, how to check in and out, how to get keys, times, phone numbers and anything else that will make their arrival and departure as smooth as silk. Encourage your guests to sign a guestbook. Others will enjoy reading pages of kudos and you can write their entries into the much-forgotten online guestbook!
Every January, I create a letter to email all my contacts, whether they actually stayed or just inquired. Then I write them and invite them to check our web sites to start planning their next vacation. I remind them to book early, especially for peak times like March through the end of September. Guests that you expect to return will appreciate the reminder. If you prefer not to rent to college age guests, and we strictly avoid this, do be cordial and diplomatic when emailing them back. Firmly remind them of your policy but don’t burn the bridge. Let them know to share your link with their parents, should they be shopping around for great accommodations. A little diplomacy may lead to a booking you didn’t expect.
Lastly, I’d encourage rental owners to remember what it is like to be on the other side of the door. Treat your guests as you would like to be treated. Do for them what you can afford, try to break even, and try to enjoy your vacation home yourself when you can. We’ve developed some great relationships with our renters. The dividends will be great new friendships and happy memories for all. Have fun with it and many happy returns!