For Cincinnati, Ohio’s Heyd family, renting their summer home on Spider Lake in Michigan makes sense—and cents: “The biggest benefit of renting really is to defray costs,” Diana Heyd says. They find that every bit helps. “Folks up north like to say, ‘Well, at least it pays the taxes.’”
The Heyds have also gotten to know some of their returning guests via email and, like many other cabin owners, enjoy sharing their piece of paradise with other families.
Intrigued about the possibilities of renting your own cabin to guests? Information to guide you abounds. In fact, entire books and web sites delve into the topic. Here we offer an overview to start your journey.
The Right Place and Space
For some would-be renters, the first question is, “where should my cabin be?” The answer is simple: Build where you want to spend your vacation. Chances are, others will want to be in that place, too. “People looking to own a cabin should first choose a location they would enjoy themselves, since they will be using it personally,” says Adam Annen from HomeAway, an online marketplace for vacation home rentals. Annen suggests that travelers are drawn to cabins near amenities, whether that’s a ski slope, lake, river or winery.
Those local attractions could help make or break the success of your home-renting endeavor, so if you’re weighing one location against another, make a list of attractions to help you compare and decide. “It is also important to determine any home rental regulations for the area as well,” Annen advises.
With the “where” question answered, it’s time to decide what to build. Your cabin can be small or large, but make it on par with other properties in the area. If most guests travel to your destination in large groups of friends or family, a larger home might be more attractive (and can command higher rental fees). Of course, you should stay in line with your budget and personal preferences when determining the size of your cabin.
When you design a home with renting in mind, there are a few details to include in your floor plan and finishes:
- Locking storage space for your family’s personal things that stay at the cabin.
- Bedrooms large enough for queen or king size beds.
- Durable finishes and appliances that will hold up to wear and tear and not be too complicated for guests to use. Tile or laminate floors could be better than carpet; a simple coffee maker better than a fancy espresso machine.
- You can give every bedroom an en suite bath if you’d like, but most guests are prepared to share bathrooms, says Pamela Miracle, president of Escape to Blue Ridge, a cabin rental agency in northern Georgia. “Typically guests are family members or good friends,” she says.
- Make sure you have plenty of space for guests to park, too.
No matter what size your cabin is, its curb appeal and interior appearance are critical. “Guests want a well-maintained home and amenities that range from great linens to great beds,” Miracle says. Guests expect queen or king size beds, flat-screen TVs, wi-fi and sheets and towels that are “sometimes better than what they have at home.”
Furnishings are important, too. “If you want to put grandma’s old furniture in your own cabin, it’s fine—but maybe not for renters,” Miracle says. Furniture that’s clean, durable and comfortable puts guests at ease: Think of the furniture in a hotel room, for instance. Your cabin doesn’t have to be antiseptic or devoid of personal style, but spotless and clutter-free is the goal.
“Don’t keep anything of real value in the home while you are renting,” Heyd advises. “Save big upgrades until you stop renting.” She considers mattresses, couches and anything moveable to be easily replaceable. “You’d be amazed at what people don’t clean up!”
Expert Christine Karpinski offers a different opinion: “Many people assume that the renters will trash their homes, so they don’t put nice things in them, but I have found the exact inverse,” she says. “The nicer you make your home, the renters will take better care of it.” Karpinski, author of the book How to Rent Vacation Properties by Owner, says nicer homes attract more guests, allow for higher rates and make more money.
The ideal rental cabin is tidy outdoors, too, and all of its appliances and utilities are in good working order, Miracle says. Keeping the cabin in top-notch shape, especially with groups of guests using it week after week is a task you can take on yourself or outsource.
Professional Help or DIY?
How will you manage and maintain your cabin during the rental season? If you live in close proximity, doing it yourself is an option—but be prepared for phone calls from guests when something breaks, time spent tracking reservations and loads of laundry.
Homeowners can get help with many of the tasks by using a property management company or rental agency that offers services like opening up your cabin, mowing the lawn, housekeeping, guest booking and more. The Heyds use paid help, but still do the legwork of renting themselves. “As long as you get a property manager and cleaning crew, renting yourself is pretty easy and you get to keep more of the money without a rental company involved,” says Heyd, who maintains a web site for her family’s cabin and takes advantage of VRBO, an online rental service to market her listing.
Indeed, the internet is a boon for people wanting to rent their homes. With sites like HomeAway and VRBO, independent homeowners can spread the word about their rental cabins to a wide audience. Fees for these online services vary. With HomeAway, for instance, cabin owners can choose to pay an annual subscription fee to be included on the site or list the home for free upfront and pay a percentage when it’s rented out. “This is known as pay-per-booking and is a good option for those who wish to rent their cabin sparingly, or perhaps to test the waters,” Annen says.
For even fewer headaches, you can have your property manager or agency take care of everything for you. Escape to Blue Ridge, for instance, is an agency that manages 130 cabin properties, offering services to guests such as a reservationist, a concierge and round-the-clock customer service. Cabin owners rely on this type of agency to book guests, collect rent, take care of maintenance and market their properties to would-be guests. Agencies like Escape to Blue Ridge charge cabin owners a percentage of rental fees.
To find trustworthy help, Miracle suggests talking to other cabin owners in the area, asking local business owners or the local chamber of commerce for recommendations. Be sure the agency or property manager maintains a strong local and online presence to make your cabin as visible as possible to potential guests.
Drawbacks and Payoffs
Whichever management approach you choose, Miracle says, “operate it as a business.” Be prepared to re-invest in the cabin as needed. “Plan to replace things that wear out, like furnishings and linens.”
You should talk to your accountant about tax implications for owning and renting the home, but, Karpinski says, vacation rentals in general are great write-offs. Owners can easily write off many expenses to off-set the income, including depreciation, loan interest, HOA dues, PMI, furnishings and supplies, she says. “Many of these things are cost of ownership when you own a second home, which are generally not refundable unless you are renting out your property.”
Take time to discuss necessary coverage for the cabin with your insurance agent. Study other local rental listings or ask your property manager about how much you can charge for renting your cabin.
There will be work involved: “When we leave after being up there we have to ‘de-Heyd’ the place,” Heyd says. “We lock up all of our personal items, like food and lake toys. That always adds a lot of time to our leaving and when we return.” Keep in mind that even with careful screening, people may not always treat your cabin with the care you would.
Will the hassles be worth it? “Renting out a vacation property, such as a cabin, is an excellent way to offset the cost of ownership of the property,” Annen says. “The average vacation rental owner on HomeAway is able to gross about $28,000 in rental income from their property.” About half of HomeAway’s owners are able to cover 75 percent or more of their mortgage from renting.
As a renter, you’ll still have time to enjoy your own cabin. “The average owner on our site rents about 18 weeks each year,” Annen says. “Many people are able to find a balance between personal and rental use.” This is especially true if your cabin’s location affords a mix of seasonal activities.
And, more and more vacation travelers are choosing cabins and similar accommodations over traditional hotel rooms. With more than 18,000 cabins listed for rent on HomeAway, the site saw a 44 percent increase in people looking for cabins last year, Annen reports, with more than 3.3 million searches.