A villa to call your own

Whether it's a month by the lake, a year in Provence, or simply a summer spent under the Tuscan sun, chances are you're a-hankerin' to get in some of that sweet, sweet villa life we all read about in that ever popular sub-genre of travel writing, the "I bought a house in [foreign country] and had all sorts of quirky adventures fixing it up and getting to know the locals, and aren't you jealous?"

Well, not all of us can afford to buy, for cash, some delightful fixer-upper farmhouse in the rural heart of [fill in your favorite country here; Italy, France, Spain, etc.]. Ah. but we can pretend we did so, if only for a few weeks or so. That's where those magic words come in: "villa rental."

The phrase to make you heart go pitter-patter, to turn some pedestrian vacation into an act of 'summering in Europe,' to make your friends and neighbors extremely jealous.

And I'm here to tell you, it's so darn easy (and, often, cheap), it's almost criminal.

Shopping for that Villa

Here are some general tips and strategies to keep in mind for finding the perfect villa, no matter where you plan to rent:

Agency or DIY?

Villas are easiest to arrange through a travel agent or villa rental consortium, but you'll sometimes find the best deals by contacting people privately in the destination itself—via local papers, English-language magazines, the tourist board, or virtual classifieds.

The concept of a villa rental agency is simple enough: these are companies with stables of villas in a catalog and act as middlemen between the villa owners and all potential renters.

Virtual classifieds, on the other hand, are sites where owners can rent their villas directly to you, the vacationer. They key here is that there's no middleman getting a piece of the action (translation: raising the price for you), or setting an artifically high rental rate. This is free market at its best, baby.

It make take more digging—and more know-how—than the villa rental agencies, but it can cost a heck of a lot less. Since these classifieds are unvetted resources, they are a buyer-beware environment. However, if you keep your wits about you and do your homework well (and are a do-it-yourselfer to begin with), they can be the single best resources to find that villa.

Of course , since these spaces are not really controlled, plenty of villa agencies sign up and advertise their services in the classfieds—same way that realtors will list a tempting apartment in the "For Rent" section of your local paper with the tag "...and dozens more!" I'm not saying you can't find a perfectly great place that way, but just as a word of warning that not all the listings are actually individual owners.

Resouces for finding the villa of your dreams

Rentalo (www.rentalo.com) - Simply massive: more than 120,000 rental properties in 15,000 locations around the world. Probably the best place to start your search, and certainly the best for one-stop shopping. Just a sampling: it lists some 200 villas for rent in Provence, 144 villas in Tuscany, and 669 rentals in Andalusia (Southern Spain). They also handle everything from standard hotels to B&Bs, agriturism, and even castles in Ireland.

Belvilla (www.belvilla.co.uk) - British branch of a Dutch company... but what do you care where they're based? What counts is that Belvilla has a vast catalog—more than 12,000 properties in 16 countries across Europe—and, in my experience, some of the best prices on truly stellar rental homes. Put it this way: recently, when I was researching an article for a magazine that included a way to rent villas, I had to pick a single villa in Italy as an example. I combed through the cataloges of two-dozen agencies mentioned here and came up with a shortlist of about 10 properties that might make the cut to send along to my editors. Three of those finalists I found on Belvilla. 'Nuff said.

VRBO (www.vrbo.comParnter) - That stands for "Vacation Rentals By Owner," a worldwide virtual classfieds section devoted to 32,500 villas, apartments, cottages, houses, and other places to lay your head—from $500 per week in Provence, $450 per week in Tuscany, or $400 per week in England. Though designed to allow villa and vacation home owners to rent to the public directly—ostensibly cutting out the extra costs involved in working through a middle-man rental agency—in my experience plenty of small-fry local rental agencies use it as well (not that there's anything wrong with renting through those folks; just wanted to let you know that not every property listed is truly direct from the owner).

Craigslist (www.craigslist.org) - For those of you not lucky enough to live in one of the 60-odd cities served by craigslist, a word of explanation: craiglist.org is a virtual classified section that has pretty much supplanted every other method of finding an apartment, job, bass guitarist, lonely single, used piece of furniture, pet, etc. (or disposing of any of the above). What most don't know is that it also lists vacation rentals. Now, so far the individual European craigslists aren't terribly in-depth, but be sure to rilfe through the craigslists of major US cities, too—doesn't matter if you live there or not—because that's where American folks with a summer villa post ads to recoup some of their investment by renting it out while they're not there.

For example, recently on the New York site, just in a single day's postings, I saw a $600/week three-bedroom cottage in Ireland's terrbily scenic Co. Kerry and a 17th century farmhouse in France with six bedrooms going for $885 a week (divide that price 12 ways and you and your friends/loved ones are looking at paying about $10.50 apiece per night), plus a one-bedroom in Cannes for $650/week.

Interhome (www.interhome.com) - This is one of the biggest and best-established in the business (est. in 1965 as "Swiss Chalet" in Zurich), with more than 30,000 holiday homes in Europe (plus Florida), including: Austria, Belgium, Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Germany, Great Britain, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, Spain, and their home country of Switzerland. They book 95% of their villas directly from the owners, and have 60 local service offices scattered around Europe (plus, like I said, Florida).

Euro Relais (www.eurorelais.com) - Some 6,000 rental properties from modest farmhouses to castles and manor homes throughout Western Europe (Austria, Belgium, France, Great Britain, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, Switzerland, Spain) and Southeastern Europe (Croatia, Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovakia, Turkey).

Hideaways International (www.hideaways.com) - This one requires a membership ($185 yearly), but has some 2,000 truly choice properties around the world, plus other member benefits. Austria, Belgium, Cyprus, Czech Republic, England, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Malta, Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Scotland, Spain, Switzerland, Wales.

International Rentals (www.internationalrentals.com) - There are some incredible bargains (€161 for a week by the sea on a Croatian island anyone?) alongside some amazingly expensive upscale options as well in Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic Denmark, England, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland Italy, Lithuania, Malta, Netherlands, Norway, Poland Portugal, Scotland, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and Turkey.

Villas International (www.villasintl.com) - Long-established agency, with properties in perhaps more countries than any other—Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, England, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Malta, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Scotland, Spain, Switzerland, Turkey, and Wales.

More general villa rental resources that specialize in Western and Mediterranean Europe

1001 Villas (www.1001-villa-holidaylets.com) - Not all the 1,001 villas—rented direct from the owners—are in Europe, though there are dozens upon dozens each in France, Greece, Italy, Portugal, Spain, Turkey. There are also a surprisingly large number on European islands—the Canaries (La Palma, Tenerife, Lanzarote), the Balearics (Ibiza, Mallorca), Cyprus, Malta, and such.

At Home Abroad (www.athomeabroadinc.com) - Long-established agency with select properties in England, France, Ireland, Italy, and Portugal.

Barclay International (www.barclayweb.com) - One of the world’s premier villa rental services since 1963. (And yes, “premier” does mean “a bit pricey”). Excellent properties and service, though, in England, France, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Portugal, and Spain (plus the Caribbean and Hawaii).

British Travel International (www.britishtravel.com) - More than 9,000 cottages and villas in the British Isles (Ireland included), plus around 400 to 500 each in France, Italy, and Spain, and 125 in Portugal. Sadly, only a sampler of their catalog is on-line. (Come on, folks, the is the age of the Internet. If I can put this site together from my desktop computer in my spare time, you can slap a virtual catalog together!)

Cottage & Villa Holidays (www.cottageholidays.com) - Rentals in England, France, Ireland, Italy, Portugal, Scotland, and Spain.

Homeabroad (www.homeabroad.com) - Focused on Italy and France but with an ever-expanding list in the UK, Greece, Ireland, Spain, and Portugal (plus some apartments in London). Don’t let the pathetic handful of listings on the website fool you; they rep over 1,000 properties.

LaCure (lacurevillas.com) - Seriously upscale luxury villas in Italy (about 100), France (50), Greece (30), and Spain (20).

Rent Villas (www.rentvillas.com) - Good track record for Italy, France, Spain, Portugal, Ireland, the UK, Greece, and Turkey.

Special Places to Stay (www.specialplacestostay.co.uk) - Alastair Sawday’s series of accommodations guidebooks is now available on-line, covering the Britain, France, Ireland, Italy, Portugal, and Spain (plus India and Morocco). Many are run more as proper hotels—though in the countryside—though some are self-catering.

Ville et Village (www.villeetvillage.com) - Over 1,500 properties of all stripes, most in France and also Italy, with a smattering in Spain and Portugal.

VillaNet (www.rentavilla.com) - Many agencies focus on the priciest properties (earns them bigger commissions, I guess), but not VillaNet. It features a refreshing range of villas in all price categories throughout Italy, France, and Portugal.

Villas & Apartments Abroad (www.vaanyc.com) - Primo places—palaces castles, and the like—in Italy, France, and a bit in Ireland, Scotland, Greece, and Austria, but the listings are quite coy (don’t tell you precisely where they are, nor the prices, which is a Cardinal Sin in my book). If the properties weren’t so spectacular, I wouldn’t even bother listing the site.

Villa Rentals in France

At Home in France (www.athomeinfrance.com) - Great selection in the most popular areas: Provence, Paris, the Dordogne, the Côte d’Azur, and Langudoc.

Chez Nous (www.cheznous.com) - Some 300 rentals in all bits of France (including Corsica), starting at quite low price—cottages in Normandy or the Côte d’Azur from €230 per week and the like.

France-USA Contacts (www.fusac.com) - Virtual classifieds.

Gites de France (www.gites-de-france.fr) - Self-catering country cottages (and some farmstays) all across la belle France.

Provence West (www.provencewest.com) - Looking to spend that week in Provence?

Rentals France (www.rentalsfrance.com) - Hundreds of French rentals, some direct for owner, some via agencies. A little bit for everyone here.

Villa rentals in Greece

Living International (www.livinginternational.net) - Gorgeous villas and suites on the chicest Greek Isles—Mykonos, Lindos, Hydra, and Santorini.

Sunisle Holidays (www.sunisle.co.uk) - Only about 20 properties, but they’re all quite nice.

Villa rentals in Italy

Home Base Abroad (www.homebase-abroad.com) - Super-select (and super-expensive) collection of private villas in Tuscany, Umbria, the Amalfi Coast, and Lake Como.

Italian Vacation Villas (www.villasitalia.com) - About 450 rentals, mostly in Tuscany & Umbria.

Marjorie Shaw’s Insider’s Italy (www.insidersitaly.com) - Boutique agency with intimate knowledge of each property, but you do pay extra for this breed of service.

The Parker Company (www.theparkercompany.com) - The top Italy rental specialist, just 350 properties, but immaculately chosen ones with loads of info on each property on the site. Plus the company is set up to help you plan and book things to do during your stay (cooking classes, bike rides and such) through its Actividayz branch.

Travel-Italy.com (www.travel-italy.com) - Prodigious catalog of some 2,300 villas and apartments, with many fine finds and wonderfully cheap options, but annoyingly you have to click on a property name from the regional list, then on a link within that to find out the cost (makes it harder to comparison shop at a glance).

Villa Rentals in Spain

Mijas & Estepona Villas (www.mijas-villas.com also www.estepona-villas.com) - The villa life on the Costa del Sol. Villas listed from most expensive to cheapest, so scroll down for the ones that go for €350-€550 per week.

El Sol Villas (www.elsolvillas.com) - Specialist in Spanish villas (and apartments in Madrid), plus they’re dabbling in Italy now. Most of their stuff is pretty high-test—very lovely houses, but in the range of $1,500 to $3,500 weekly (and even higher).

International Lodging Corporation (www.ilcweb.com) - Spain specialist with about 150 properties on tap.

Rent In Spain (www.rentinspain.co.uk) - Rentals direct from the owners, whether you’re into stately villas, city apartments, or rustic cortijos. Most on the Costa del Sol, Costa tropical, or Costa Blanca.

Villa Plus (www.villaplus.co.uk) - Specialist in the Iberian seaside, with sections on the Algarve, Costa del Sol, and Mallorca. Most are modern and high-end, but unfortunately to get a price on a single villa you have to go through the whole booking process with dates and everything (very annoying).


This article was last updated in January 2008 . All information was accurate at the time.

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