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RISMEDIA, Oct. 2, 2008-It’s that time of year again. Summer is cooling down and the “off season” has begun. Between counting your rental income and planning a few autumn weekends in your vacation home-hey, why should paying guests have all the fun?-you may have found yourself wondering how you can shore up more bookings in the future. Vacation home rental expert Christine Karpinski has the solution: next time you’re in your beach cottage or mountain cabin, don your “guest glasses” and perform a do-it-yourself audit.

“It’s always a good idea to look your place over from a guest’s perspective,” says Karpinski, director of Owner Community for HomeAway.com (the online vacation home rental marketplace) and author of How to Rent Vacation Properties by Owner, 2nd Edition: The Complete Guide to Buy, Manage, Furnish, Rent, Maintain and Advertise Your Vacation Rental Investment (Kinney Pollack Press, 2007, ISBN: 0-9748249-9-2, $26.00). “If anything is damaged or run-down or just inconveniently appointed, believe me, they’ll notice.

“All those little details add up quickly and dominate a guest’s memory of her vacation experience,” she adds. “And while she may not say anything to you about it, if she has too many problems, she’ll just quietly go somewhere else next time.”

Staying on top of the condition of your vacation property-including safety, aesthetic, and comfort/convenience issues as well as maintenance projects requires constant vigilance. And end of peak season, when business typically drops off and you’re flush with cash from the summer, is the perfect time to go over your property with the proverbial fine-toothed comb.

Karpinski provides the following checklist for your convenience:

Safety Issues

– Does your front door stick? This can be a problem, particularly in humid areas. If so, it’s a fire hazard and should be fixed immediately.
– Do sliding glass doors lock? Install a lower lock that would be accessible to children or shorter adults-or use the less expensive cut-off-hockey-stick alternative.
– What about windows? Do they open easily? Do all latches work?
– Are deck stairs standard height? Have you checked for loose boards, railings, and stairs?
– Have you had breaker panels and plug receptacles inspected lately? You should do so every two years-especially in coastal areas because salt corrodes wiring and causes malfunctions and fire hazards.
– Do all electrical receptacles have plug covers?
– Do you have several flashlights on hand as well as a good supply of fresh batteries in case of a power outage?
– Have dryer vents been cleaned out lately?
– Do all smoke detectors work? Test them. Add fresh batteries.

“It’s probably a good idea to schedule a professional home inspection if you haven’t done so lately,” notes Karpinski. “You definitely want to catch safety problems before a guest gets injured. Any step you can take to reduce your liability is a step worth taking, even if it costs a bit of money.”

Aesthetics

– What kind of job is the housekeeper doing? When you arrive, is the house spotless and welcoming?
– Is the outside of the property neat and clean? Decks? Patios? Porches? If you’re located on a public beach, ask the housekeeper to check for debris in the sand in front of the house.
– Has the property been deep cleaned in the past year? This means washing baseboards, shampooing carpets, steam-cleaning sofas, vacuuming refrigerator condenser coils. You must do this at least once a year, if not twice, so be prepared to pay your housekeeper extra.
– Is Mother Nature taking over your property? If you have a house in the mountains or on a lake where you are “buying” a view, be sure nature hasn’t overgrown your wonderful selling point. Trim all trees and bushes.
– Do your walls look dull and dingy? You can change the aesthetic of a room quickly and fairly painlessly with a couple of fresh coats of paint. Plain white walls rarely photograph well. Add a little color to the walls and your property will sell itself.
– Does your décor look dated? There are many easy, relatively inexpensive ways to update your home. For instance, you can add colorful curtains or throw pillows to rooms that look a bit blah. New knobs or pulls in your kitchen or on your dresser can do wonders. New functional items like placemats, decorative kitchen towels, or new shower curtains can spruce up the place at a very minimal cost.

Comfort/Convenience

– Are all appliances-refrigerator, dishwasher, washer/dryer, AC, furnace-in good working order? If something major is showing signs of aging, have it serviced or even replaced right now. Yes, it’s pricey but it’s probably better to pony up now than to make an emergency purchase and deal with unhappy renters (who’ll never come back) later.
– Are you well-stocked on replaceable items like coffee filters, paper towels, toilet paper, soap, toothpaste, and toothbrushes?
– Do you have extra light bulbs on hand for all light fixtures and lamps in the house?
– How convenient is your kitchen? Make sure it’s equipped with enough plates, glasses, and flatware for double the number of people you sleep. (You might consider adding disposable plates, drinking cups, and utensils as well.) You should also have a coffee pot, microwave, adequate cooking gear, and a dining room table that will seat the same number of people that your rental sleeps (add a fold-up table if necessary).
– Are bed linens fresh and new-looking? Consider purchasing light pastel-colored sheets; “yellowing” won’t be nearly as apparent. Your linen closet should include at least two sets of high-quality sheets for each bed, pillows with pillow protectors, extra blankets, and mattress pads.
– Are alarm clocks in good working order?
– Is your automatic garage door opener working?
– Is there a remote for every TV set?
– Do your bath towels strike the right balance between lightweight and luxurious? Overly plush towels take too long to dry, which will annoy guests who do their own laundry (not to mention your housekeeper!).
– Do you have enough bath linens? You should provide at least two bath towels, two hand towels, and four washcloths per guest.
– Do all beds have mattress covers?
– Is there a full-length mirror somewhere in the house? Are all mirrors hung at comfortable heights?
– Do you offer plenty of rainy day distractions? TVs and DVD players should be standard, but you should also have on hand a stack of movies, a couple of decks of cards, board games, puzzles, bestselling novels, toys for the kids, and so forth.
– Is your property stocked with “hospitality” items? Arrange to have the housekeeper leave a nice bottle of wine or sparkling water in the fridge after she cleans. As the weather gets colder, a gift basket with hot cocoa and cookies or perhaps a selection of holiday teas would be most welcome as well.

If you’re cringing at the thought of paying for all the refurbishments, repairs, and purchases this list may suggest, take heart says Karpinski. One, most of what you’ll spend is tax deductible. And two, it’s an investment that’s sure to pay off down the road.

“Attending to all those little details isn’t about staving off disgruntlement; it’s about creating delight,” she says. “Your guests may not even realize why they liked your place so much-they probably won’t go home and tell their friends, ‘I loved the house because it had plenty of coffee filters and fresh-looking bed sheets!’-but they’ll know they had a fantastic time, and that’s all that matters. Delighted guests are your ticket to repeat bookings-and that’s your ticket to easy rental income, year after year after year.”

Christine Karpinski is the author of “How to Rent Vacation Properties by Owner, 2nd Edition: The Complete Guide to Buy, Manage, Furnish, Rent, Maintain and Advertise Your Vacation Rental Investment” (Kinney Pollack Press, 2007, ISBN: 0-9748249-9-2, $26.00) and “Profit from Your Vacation Home Dream: The Complete Guide to a Savvy Financial and Emotional Investment” (Kaplan, 2005, ISBN: 1-4195069-1-9, $19.95).

Her books, combined with her seminars, media appearances, and website (OwnerCommunity.com), help thousands of people purchase and manage their vacation homes. Today she serves as director of Owner Community for HomeAway, Inc.

For more information, visit www.HomeAway.com.