Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

August 19, 2017
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Virtual Villas

Finding that perfect holiday home online

Mike and Ruth, a medical couple from Edmonton -- she's a ped, he's a surgeon -- spent last Easter in Taos, New Mexico. They stayed in an adobe, a traditional New Mexican home originally made of mud bricks, halfway between the town and the ski hill. "It was great," Ruth told a friend, "two kiva fireplaces and a hot tub. Fabulous views. We loved it."

Nice work if you can get it. And you can get it more easily now than ever, thanks largely to the Internet -- provided, that is, you take a few common-sense precautions.

What traveller has not dreamed of that perfect villa in Tuscany, perched on a hillside overlooking vineyards and olive groves, where the friendly neighbours come by with welcoming baskets of wine and fresh produce? Or perhaps your fantasy runs to a beach house on Spain's Costa del Sol? Or a stone cottage in the romantic Dordogne region of France, famous for its truffles and foie gras?

It can be yours. Better yet, if you're willing to stay put for at least a week, it will probably cost you less than what you'd pay at a hotel.

On the downside, you could find yourself in a cheerless hovel 10 kilometres from the nearest shop, whose most recent inhabitants, a large healthy family of rats, you discover on day two, are still in residence.

The Internet doesn't guarantee villa heaven -- or protect you from a holiday house from hell -- but it does give you more of a chance of getting it right by delivering a much wider range of choice both in quality and price.

Until the last couple of years, owners of rentable holiday homes relied almost entirely on brokers and property management outfits to find tenants. For the would-be renter, the process was somewhat tiresome. You contacted a manager who handled properties in the area you were interested in; were sent brochures and copies of listings, rather like those realtors use when selling houses; made your choice from an often very limited number of offerings; sent in a deposit, and off you went. Perhaps the sole advantage of the cumbersome process was that you dealt with a company that had experience with the property and if things went terribly wrong -- and they do, oh they do -- you had the broker to fall back on. It's a safety net you should be reluctant to give up and you don't have to.

Recently, vacation home-owners with a yen to rent out their properties have discovered the much wider market that's available to them through the Internet and there's been a surge in listings. Some list privately through their own websites but the more common practice is to list with property managers who are already on the web. The advantage of using one of these commercial sites is that they will go to bat for you if something goes wrong.

Wanted: Villa
To get a sense of how these services work, I visited three sites in search of an adobe in either Santa Fe or Taos, New Mexico, similar to the one rented by the doctors from Edmonton. I chose this area because I'm familiar with it and was in a position to evaluate the offerings. I then had a look at a few listings in southern Spain, a region where I have stayed at villas in the past.

I began my search using yahoo.com, excite.com and altavista.com search engines. I typed in "villa rentals" and hit "Search" on each to see how they differed. The results were disconcerting. Yahoo, for example, which emerged as the best of the three, first yielded an unwieldy 11,425 sites. Most were focused narrowly on particular areas and were not useful. Many simply provided a description of their services and a telephone number or suggested you email in your request.

 

At www.vacationspot.com I had better luck. The site, operated by Expedia, claims to have 25,000 properties at over 4000 destinations. The search feature on the home page fortunately makes quick work of zeroing in on your choices. An accompanying form allows you to fill in your likes and dislikes using check-off boxes. You indicate such things as number of persons, what amenities you'd like and, most important, how much you want to pay. I dutifully ticked off my choices for properties that sleep two adults and two kids, have a fireplace and a CD player and cost $140 a night or less (All prices in US dollars).

While this exercise helped me get my options in order, it had no discernible effect on the properties which came up. A long list showed everything from a palatial historic adobe in the heart of Santa Fe at $4750 a week, to what looked like a former hippie pad for $65 a night in the town of Cerrillos, on the old road between Albuquerque and Santa Fe referred to in guidebooks as "The Turquoise Trail." Still, it was easy to scroll down the list and click on those that looked interesting. Most had several photos together with an often lavish description and, more practical, a list of what the vacation home contained: hot tub, 52-inch television, commercial-style gas range and so on.

My choice had none of these but did boast a shower, a colour TV, a CD player and a serviceable-looking stove. The blue window trim set off the terra cotta of the adobe exterior and the inside looked warm and cozy with nifty traditional log beams and stripped sapling ceilings. It was easy to imagine curling up in front of the artsy-looking fireplace. The bunk beds in the smaller of the two bedrooms would be a certain hit with the kids. The location was also ideal, right on Canyon Road, a street of small restaurants, cafÄs and a slew of art galleries just a short stroll from the central plaza. The price ran from $200 to $386 a night, just out of my range, but it looked like a good value in expensive Santa Fe, especially if shared by two couples instead of a family.

Farther down the list I found a spot in Taos which, while about a 15-minute drive from the plaza there, offered accommodation for up to eight for between $150 and $300 a night, depending on the season -- a real value if you go in on it with friends or relatives. The search also turned up a number of interesting places to stay in the $65 to $125-a-night range, which looked like a better value than most hotel rooms in the area. A $65-a-night motel in Santa Fe can only be found well away from the action on Cerillos Road, a highway on the outskirts.

I repeated the exercise on another site, cyberRentals.com. Though not as slick, a handy clickable map of the US quickly came up with six properties each in Santa Fe and Taos. Again the descriptions were lively and the photos numerous. It's a particularly good site if you're looking from something to rent in the States.

This site, like most of the larger US-based operators, also offers rentals in Europe and the Caribbean. I had my best experience in finding a villa in Spain, though, with a site called rentvillas.com. The site's search engine takes you through a series of screens which narrow in on your area of interest. First Europe, then Spain, then Andalucia, then Malaga province. The search came up with 23 rental villas, many of them in small towns in the hills overlooking the Mediterranean. I'd been to many of the locations and can vouch for their beauty. Not only that, the prices were excellent, with properties in the $300 to $500-a-week range. The difficulty is that unless you know the region, the wrong choice might find you in a town whose last visitors were Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. All sites were short on maps pinpointing the exact location and it's something you should check before you book. The three rules of real estate also apply to renting a holiday home: location, location, location.

This site offers a free print catalogue and also has an online newspaper. Like other major sites it also allows you to collect your choices in a "favourites" account, here called "My suitcase." The advantage of this is that you can review and compare your picks without having to click your way back and forth. It's handy.

Some sites also allow customers who have rented the property in the past to leave "reviews," an excellent way to get the real goods on a prospective spot. Less convenient is the fact that you can't yet book a villa online with rentvillas.com or any other site that I came across. Most sites provide 800 numbers you can call to book and to ask questions and all provide email addresses.

The sites do not, as a rule, own any of the properties they list and, in many cases, may not act as manager either. Indeed all of the sites offer a free or low-cost listing service to home-owners who wish to put their properties online. That means you will probably not be dealing with the booking agent when the electricity goes out during a storm and the roof starts to leak. It's important, then, to make sure you know as much as you can about the property before you leave home, including the telephone numbers of who to call in an emergency.

What the Internet does well is allow you to visit a large range of houses offered by a variety of services and individual owners without leaving your computer. This beats telephoning agents and requesting catalogues or listings through the mail or by fax. It can't guarantee that you'll be happy with your choice. But then we're each responsible for our own happiness, isn't that what they say? It goes double for renting a vacation villa.

 

This article was accurate when it was published. Please confirm rates and details directly with the companies in question.

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