Renting a house or condo can be a great way to get more family togetherness, settle in and get to know a region, and possibly save some money compared to resorts or eco-lodges…if you’re aware of the potential pitfalls.
Mistakes to Avoid When Renting a Vacation Home
Location, Location, Location
People constantly contact us asking for day trips to Monteverde, Arenal, Corcovado or other top 10 destinations from the wonderful house they rented on VRBO. Unfortunately often the only help we can offer is an explanation of why it’s impossible and what they’ll have to settle for instead.
A week in a beach house on the Nicoya peninsula is perfect if you’re going to wake up every morning grab your surf board and hit the waves before spending a relaxing day in a hammock. Just don’t kid yourself that you’re going to spend the evening in the hot springs at Arenal volcano. It’s a five hour drive. One way. Monteverde Cloud Forest…ditto. Manuel Antonio Rainforest…ditto.
Costa Rica is a small country but the most popular tourist destinations are several hours (3 hrs – 8 hrs) apart. If you’re going to base your stay in a rental house make sure the things you want to do are reasonably close before reserving.
Bargain hunters are particularly susceptible to this error because there are some very nice houses at very low prices in the central valley. While there are a number of things to do around San José the closest beach is an hour and a half away (longer with traffic) and of course it’s packed with many of the one million central valley residents also headed to the closest beach. Most of the famous natural destinations are three to six hours drive each way leaving little or no time to enjoy them on a day trip.
Don’t Underestimate the Nickels & Dimes
Renting almost always looks unbelievably economical at first glance but small additional costs can really add up.
We recently rented a 2 bedroom condo for 2 nights for the listed rate of $120 a night. We ended up paying almost twice that much per night after the added $125 cleaning fee, $45 service fee, $28 booking fee, and $34 tourist lodging tax.
If you have to rent a 4WD to get up the mile long driveway (fairly common, be sure to ask) it’s going to cost $30-$50 more per day than a sedan which would work if you were staying at a hotel or lodge with pavement.
Don’t overestimate the small savings either – “we’ll save a bundle with a kitchen where we can make our own meals” is often a misconception – see food cost details…
Head Count & Bed Count
If one or two couples are traveling together it’s possible to find a rental with two master suites and the only argument will be who gets the ocean view and who gets the jungle view. On the other hand someone is likely to end up on the couch when extended or multiple families or groups rent.
Read the fine print and assign beds carefully. A 2 bedroom 2 bath house that sleeps 11 should make you hesitate.
Sleeper sofas, pull-out beds and futons are often much less comfortable than king size orthopedic mattresses and even premium real estate usually only has air-conditioning in the bedrooms. Un-airconditioned common areas and living rooms are also usually not hermetically sealed so whoever sleeps there may wake up with a face full of mosquito bites as well as an aching back, sweat stained pajamas and a bad attitude.
We had three couples with five kids (11 people total) in a brand new ultra-luxury 4 bedroom 6 bath beach villa listed to sleep 14. We ended up pulling the sofas from the living room and loft around the king bed in one of the master bedrooms to create a huge slumber party platform so the kids could have air-conditioning.
Worked great for seven and nine year olds but might be uncomfortable for teenagers or a bit too cozy for adults.
Beach hotels without air-conditioning are typically in the $12-$35 a night range so make your price comparisons (and bed assignments) accordingly.
Over Hill Over Dale
Walk to the beach, hang around all day, buy a couple of lobsters when the fishing boats come in and then stop by the local fruit and vegetable stand on the way home. Sounds perfect doesn’t it?
There are a few spots where this tropical daydream scenario could play out but the vast majority of the time the fishermen don’t land on the tourist beaches (they’re eight km away around a rocky point), the only fresh fruit and vegetables are in the supermarket in town and the house is two miles up a hill that looks like Mount Everest after a long day in the sun.
As an extreme example rental houses on Cabo Matapalo are about an hour away from the nearest mini-market and four hours from the nearest large supermarket. There are a few restaurants but they might be more than an hour away on foot so if you didn’t bring a big cooler loaded with viands (and maybe some beer) you’ll be doing some driving.
We love to walk and often do over ten miles a day but even we typically want a car and spend significant amounts of time running errands when renting. There’s something to be said for just bellying up to the buffet at a resort.
Six Nights a Week
If a hotel is $100 a night and a rental house is $600 a week the house is obviously a better deal… right?
It’s just simple math…$600 a week divided by seven = $86 a night right…
Wrong. A rental “week” is Saturday to Friday.
You’re probably still confused since that sounds like seven days… Sat, Sun, Mon, Tues, Wed, Thur, Fri…yep seven…
Except you check in on Saturday and check out on Friday. Now you’re catching on. Where do you stay Friday night?
A rental “week” may include seven days and six nights so $600 a week is $100 a night. The in between day is called the turnover and that’s when the maids come in and hopefully clean, wash sheets and towels, and sterilize everything from top to bottom. At the hotel they make your bed and vacuum the sand out of the living room daily. It’s nice not to have housekeeping to do when you’re on vacation and when pricing make sure to compare apples to apples.
Another aspect of the rental week is that it’s literally Saturday to Friday. You cannot arrive on Thursday and depart on Wednesday which may make other planning more difficult. Many rentals also offer nightly rates that are typically higher and/or include a separate cleaning fee.
Walking distance to the beach, bars and restaurants means drinking, partying and reveling the night away to the pounding beat of the latest club music…whether you want to or not.
Costa Rica is behind the curve on addressing noise pollution and because most beach front bars are open air they can often be heard inside the neighboring condos until two in the morning. Mountainside ocean view homes are more likely to have their windows rattled by tractor trailer air-brakes as the semi-trucks get an early start ahead of the traffic at 4:30 am.
Checking online reviews will sometimes reveal noise issues, but clubs can come and go in a matter of months so the quiet hideaway you book in June may be party central when you arrive in January.
Getting the Right Vacation Rental
The perfect rental is out there. It’s just a matter of finding it and the single most important factor is starting out with realistic expectations.
Expect stay in one place. Weekly rates are lower and it takes a while to figure out the logistics and infrastructure (groceries, gas, recreation and entertainment). Side trips are great but you probably aren’t coming to Costa Rica to spend 10 hours a day in the car.
Expect to live with what you choose. If you pick nearby nightlife then don’t expect everyone else to stay in when you’re too tired to go out. Decide you want dry hot beach weather? Don’t expect there to be any cool misty rain or cloud forest nearby. If you choose deserted remember to bring the groceries…
Expect to pay more and choose from leftovers if you don’t reserve at least six months in advance.