How to rent a villa, house, or cottage while traveling
This villa in the Val d'Elsa region of Tuscany, between the Chianti and San Gimignano, sleeps four and costs just €108 per night with Belvilla.org. I'm not joking.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]. 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.
Here are some general tips and strategies to keep in mind for finding the perfect villa, no matter where you plan to rent:
- Shop around with several villa rental companies until you find one you feel comfortable with and whose prices are in your ballpark.
- Work with agencies that specialize in that region or city, and be sure the company will work with you to match you to your ideal rental, not just try to foist off on you a property they want to move.
- Peruse as many photos as you can: of the exteriors, interiors, and (if they have them) views out the window so you have a true sense of what living there will be like.
- Ask to see a floor plan and layout of the property to give you a sense of the size of the place, plus to be sure you don't all have to troop through one person's bedroom to use the bathroom.
- Ask if it's purely a rental property or perhaps a private home where the owners are away part of the year (rentals that are lived-in like that tend to be better, as it's more likely all the plumbing, electrical, etc. will be working properly).
- For particularly long stays, it pays for one member of the party to make a short reconnaissance trip over there to check out the top options before you settle on one.
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.
Using an agency
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. There are links to a half-dozen of the best of these below.
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 artificially 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 classifieds—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.
One of the biggest and best, with more than 165,000 rentals around the world, including around 8,500 in Italy alone.
Simply massive: more than 200,000 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, 1,655 villas in Tuscany, 272 apartments in Rome, and 669 rentals in Andalusia (Southern Spain). They also handle everything from standard hotels to B&Bs, agriturism, and even castles in Ireland.
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 15,000 properties in 17 countries across Europe, including 1,426 in Italy—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 catalogues of some two dozen agencies, including all those mentioned here, and came up with a shortlist of 10 properties that might make the cut to send along to my editors. Three of those finalists I found on Belvilla. 'Nuff said.
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).
Hideaways International (www.hideaways.com)
This one requires a membership ($195 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.
Villas International (www.villasintl.com)
Long-established agency, with 25,000 properties in perhaps more countries around the world than any other—especially in Europe: 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.
VRBO stands for "Vacation Rentals By Owner," a worldwide virtual classifieds section devoted to 110,000 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).
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 rifle 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 terribly 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.