For rent

Take precautions before letting paying guests into home

January 04, 2009|By Jessica Anderson | Jessica Anderson,jessica.anderson@baltsun.com

So with hotels across the region booked for this month's inauguration, you've decided to make a few bucks by renting out your home for the first time.

And now that you've got someone lined up as a renter, you're wondering what to do before you hand over the keys to make sure you get paid and don't return to find your house full of trash.

"It's amazing how trusting people are," says Christine Karpinski, author of How to Rent by Owner and other books on renting vacation homes. She warns that homeowners must remember that renting is a "business transaction."

The contract

Karpinski and Marie R. Ferguson, author of, Breaking all the Rules: How to Rent Your Vacation Home, insist that homeowners must put together contracts. Ferguson says the contract should require the names, addresses and phone numbers of the homeowners and renters, and each individual listed should sign it.

"Put everything in writing," says Justin Halloran, vice president of homeaway.com, a vacation rental site. He added that any restrictions on age, occupancy, pets and smokers should be included in writing.

The contract should also include the exact dates and times of arrival and departure, Ferguson writes in an e-mail interview, and any fees - such as the rental fee, a security deposit and a cleaning fee. When setting the security deposit, Karpinski suggests 10 percent of the total cost of the rent or $200, whichever is more.

Both Ferguson and Karpinski agree that the homeowner must include a cancellation policy in the contract.

Ferguson says the contract should also explain what happens in case of an emergency - "if the power goes out, or if you get locked out of the unit, who will be on standby to answer your needs?"

Karpinski suggests using free sample contracts on homeaway.com.

Screening renters

Homeowners should screen renters before signing a contract. Karpinski says homeowners should talk to potential renters over the phone and see what their intentions are. If your guest is trying to "squeeze 16 people into a three-bedroom home," she says "it's not the best for you or your home."

Ferguson suggests requiring the name, address and telephone number of each potential renter up front, as well as credit references with telephone numbers and a security deposit.

Ben Frederick, a real estate agent in Baltimore trying to rent out his place for the inauguration, says he would require potential renters to fill out a rental application listing a current home address, and he would do a background check and a credit check.

Halloran says he believes that a background check for a short-term rental is excessive, but he would "at least Google the person" to look for possible red flags.

Homeowner Eunita Booker says she is watching for warnings as she seeks to rent out her Cecil County home and two properties in Baltimore County - all of which are listed on craigslist.com. She plans to talk to potential renters over the phone, to "find out their intentions and the number of people."

Protecting your property

It may seem obvious, but Ferguson reminds homeowners not to leave out any valuables such as cash or jewelry.

Less obvious, Karpinski says, is that homeowners should put away personal items, such as toothbrushes and medications.

Preparing for guests

While different ads on craigslist advertise a fully stocked fridge or other amenities, Karpinski said that, at a minimum, the homeowner should supply fresh sheets, towels, blankets, a coffeemaker, creamer and sugar - what most people would expect to get in a hotel.

Karpinski also suggests making sure all smoke detectors and fire extinguishers work.

The biggest problems, she says, tend to come from a lack of communication.

"First-time travelers are really nervous about getting the keys, getting to the property," because they need to know, "How do I know this is real?" Halloran says. Simple things like getting the keys and knowing where to park are important details often overlooked.

Ferguson says the most common mistake made by homeowners is "not having an emergency person on call available to the renters."

Getting the money

Karpinski says she doesn't take deposits for her own rental homes, but instead takes credit card numbers and then charges for any damages. She warns that if you do take a check deposit, make sure to cash that check because the renter could stop the payment. Halloran suggests using paypal.com to ensure a safe transaction. He also recommends keeping records of all communications in case a dispute arises.

Despite the long list of tasks, Karpinski says, "the risk is worth the reward."

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