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IN THE NEWS: New York Times
Sunday, March 02, 2003

By Bob Tedeshi

Randy McNamara spent last spring in a protracted spin cycle of Internet irritation. Mr. McNamara, a salesman for a printing company in Phoenix, was hunting for a vacation rental home in southwestern Montana, and for three weeks he visited Web sites that offered little, if anything, enticing.

Then one evening he typed "some phrase into some search engine - I don't know what" and saw a link for Mountain Home: Montana Vacation Rentals. A few clicks later Mr. McNamara's screen at last showed him his perfect vacation abode: a two-bedroom cabin less than a half-hour from Bozeman, Mont., and less than 45 minutes from Yellowstone, for around $1,500 a week.

Mr. McNamara had persistence - a useful attribute for those venturing online to rent a vacation home. While it shouldn't take three weeks floating in the black hole of cyberspace before one finds a good place, little about the process is quick and easy.

Part of the reason is that renting a home is, of course, infinitely more complicated than, say, booking a flight or vetting hotel rooms online. But market forces haven't helped, either. In September, Expedia.com essentially shut down for financial reasons its VacationSpot.com Web site, which once listed more than 25,000 independently owned vacation properties, including thousands of private homes and villas.

Part of the value of VacationSpot, aside from its wide selection and useful customer reviews, was that it frequently allowed customers to book online, knowing the company would intercede on the customer's behalf if the property fell short of expectations.

Now that VacationSpot is but a link to Expedia's usual offerings, surfers looking for a single site displaying an array of house rentals are generally on their own. The most notable exception is ResortQuest International, a Memphis-based company in operation since 1998.

Unlike most sites that include thousands of vacation rental listings, ResortQuest does not simply list homes on the homeowner's behalf, like the classified section in a newspaper. Rather, ResortQuest is the property manager for all of the 6,500 or so homes and villas it lists, "so if there's something you're not happy with, we make it right," said Bob Adams, the company's chief marketing officer. Mr. Adams said remedies for unhappy guests could include moving them to different places or granting refunds.

The site, which also rents about 13,000 condos, lists properties in 17 states, Puerto Rico, Canada and Mexico, but has the most offerings in Hawaii, the Western mountain states, Florida and the Carolinas. Mr. Adams would not cite the average cost of a rental home, but said "we pretty much meet the income earner who's midrange to above." For instance, a three-bedroom house on Nantucket that rated lowest in ResortQuest's five-level luxury rating system listed for $3,000 a week, while a four-bedroom Nantucket home that garnered the site's third-highest rating listed for $6,000 to $7,500 a week.

ResortQuest includes some useful features not available on other house rental sites, like that rating system, online booking for most locations and an around-the-clock 800 number. For most other companies that offer thousands of listings, you'd be lucky to find a working phone number or e-mail address on the site. That's because many listings sites seek only to put consumers in touch with homeowners offering places to rent, then step back to let the parties work out acceptable terms.

That is not to say such sites cannot be extremely helpful; surfers should merely be aware that if something goes wrong during their stay - if, say, the vacation home is sandwiched between two fraternity houses during rush week - they are unlikely to find any recourse from the company that runs the site where they found it.

That said, among the better of the listing sites is First Choice Vacation Rentals (www.choice1.com), which has been in business since 1994. First Choice offers more than 5,000 homes for rent, with most of its listings in Orlando, Lake Tahoe, Hawaii and Mexico. The site has a clean design, with an effective search tool called the DestinationsFinder, which helps users narrow their choices, based on price range, property type and the like.

First Choice also includes enough photos of each home for prospective renters to get a good sense of the property and offers a useful "notepad" feature, where users can keep a listing of properties they're considering.

Like many other listing sites, First Choice allows homeowners to list testimonials of past renters. Since property owners can edit whatever appears on their pages, readers should wade carefully into the reviews. According to Tracy Lotz, First Choice's owner, customers who review sites must leave their e-mail address with First Choice. "That way, we can minimize any bogus testimonials from owners," Mr. Lotz said. "But still, this is a commercial for them."

One reason customers should look for a way to contact the management of any rental-home listing site is to let the sites hear about unscrupulous homeowners. Mr. Lotz, whose site lists a phone number and an e-mail address, said he had removed one homeowner in the eight years his site has operated, after being alerted by customers to what he called a misrepresentation of the property's proximity to the ski slopes.

For those looking for listings in the Northeast, CyberRentals is a good place to start. Like First Choice, CyberRentals is not a property manager; it lists rentals by owner. The company lists about 8,500 properties, mostly in North America, with roughly 35 percent in Northeastern vacation hot spots like Cape Cod, Vermont and the Hamptons.

As is typical of the better vacation sites, CyberRentals separates its offers by the number of bedrooms in the house, and prominently lists the price range for the home in the listings, so you don't have to click away to the home's description page to see if it's in your ballpark. It will also display icons showing whether pets are permitted. But the site does not give the number of homes included in each state, so you sometimes waste time clicking to a state that has sparse listings.

Search engines will turn up countless competitors to CyberRentals and First Choice. And although a trip to Google, Yahoo and others early in the process is worthwhile, so is a visit to the Web site of the Vacation Rental Managers Association, a trade group of property managers in the United States, Canada and Mexico.

The association's Web site includes an indispensable directory, accessible from a link in the middle of the site's home page, of its more than 500 members, who represent about 135,000 vacation properties in all. The directory is divided geographically, by state and Canadian province.

The Web sites of the individual property managers can be woefully inadequate or stellar, depending on one's luck, but property managers are typically much easier to reach by phone than are individual homeowners, who can view customer service as nothing more than a sideline and who rarely have more than one property to offer.

Mr. McNamara could have saved him- self a little time last spring by going to the association site earlier in the search process. There, sitting last among the four Montana property managers, is Mountain-Home.com.

Published in the New York Times, Sunday, March 2, 2003. Written by Bob Tedeshi

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