THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Renting a vacation place?

By Shira Springer
Globe Staff / May 15, 2011

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The first sign of potential trouble was a late-night family e-mail. The message: We need to book a Cape Cod vacation rental now. It was mid-March. A family getaway was planned for mid-September.

With a post-Labor Day vacation, we expected less competition. We figured we had maybe a month or two before we had to decide. But a helpful property owner advised that the sooner we booked, the better the selection, especially since we wanted a place near the ocean.

Like much about vacations, the usual rules don’t always apply. Renting a house is about more than availability. Much more. It is about knowing where, how, and when to search.

Did we need to rush in mid-March? Could we have found a better deal, a better place if we had waited? Maybe. Yet going through the process, even if faster than expected, was an education.

While travelers navigate a cookie-cutter experience when booking hotels, the same cannot be said for vacation rentals. Each property has its quirks. The descriptions all sound great; many photos look fit for Architectural Digest. But which are too good to be true or exactly as promised? A lot of research and a little luck go a long way toward finding out.

“There’s still a lot of availability for the summer,’’ said Joan Talmadge, co-owner of Wellesley-based WeNeedaVacation.com, a website largely devoted to rentals on Cape Cod and the islands. “It might be sporadic, but that’s where the search comes in.’’

Since April 1, the website has added 185 listings for the Cape and Islands and co-owner Jeff Talmadge said the rental properties “just keep rolling in.’’ The shoulder season, June and particularly September, offers plenty of options and savings.

Meanwhile, homeowners and brokers report significantly more demand for rentals than last year, when the economy slowed business. Higher gasoline prices are not expected to have much effect on rentals.

Whether you are dreaming of a beach vacation on the Cape or a ski vacation in Vermont, these tips can help.

KNOW WHAT YOU WANT Clicking on profiles of “beautiful,’’ “charming,’’ “modern,’’ “spacious,’’ “spectacular’’ homes, my family entered a virtual rental fantasyland. The ocean views, the docked boats, the wicker furniture on wraparound porches were all tempting. It quickly became difficult to figure out what would best fit our vacation tastes.

Presented with hundreds of possibilities, we switched from a let’s-see-what’s-out-there approach to a more disciplined list-and-look strategy. We considered what we needed vs. what we wanted, then prioritized.

An easy walk to the beach was more important than unobstructed ocean views. With two toddlers along, a cottage with a minimum number of staircases (and other potential child hazards) was more important than garage parking.

“Think about your holiday in a very specific way, about where you want to be spending your time and about exactly what you’ll be doing,’’ said Alexis de Belloy, vice president of HomeAway.com. “Are you going to be spending a lot of time at the property relaxing? Or does proximity to nearby attractions matter most? Location in all areas of real estate is extremely important and vacation rentals are no exception.’’

Sites like HomeAway.com and WeNeedAVacation.com prompt renters for everything from desired price to number of bedrooms to indoor and outdoor features. On WeNeedAVacation.com, renters can specify if they want a screened porch, outdoor shower, boat dock, and golf privileges, among other amenities.

SEEK REPUTABLE SOURCES AND REFERENCES Where a search starts can determine where it finishes. Without exception, industry insiders advise logging on to trusted websites, dealing with professional brokers or experienced owners, and reading property reviews where available.

Reputable listings generally distinguish themselves with a high degree of specificity and transparency, as well as positive and negative reviews. Photos should capture all aspects of a property inside and out. Details about location and amenities should be spelled out, especially for places billed as “a walk to the ocean’’ or “close to the slopes.’’

Many times a well-established site or rental business indicates how long they have been in existence and how long specific properties have been listed.

If the listing doesn’t have the details you want, ask the property owner or manager for additional photos and information. If you don’t get prompt, complete answers, proceed cautiously. After all, a good flow of information both ways works to everyone’s advantage.

“If renters give me information about who’s coming, it helps,’’ said Beth McCartney, a Cape Cod-based real estate agent, who handles a dozen rental properties each year. “Some people have older parents that need a first-floor bedroom or they have young children. If I have some idea about the group, then I have a better idea if the house is suitable for them.’’

Additionally, reviews by past renters can help. Good or bad, they can provide details you might not have considered. Other reliable sources are your family, friends, and neighbors.

“Be thorough in your process,’’ said de Belloy. “Speak to your own network. Speak to any owners who know the area in detail. Read reviews, because they are going to give you some color that might be different than the way the owner is positioning the property.’’

GET PERSONAL AND BE SPECIFIC Finding the right cottage is like finding a good date: It should match your vacation personality.

If you plan kayaking and hiking, search for a place with easy access to water and trails. If you want to watch sunsets from a secluded porch, look for a property so situated. Once choices are narrowed, go beyond the listing and contact property owners and managers.

“We encourage homeowners to talk to renters,’’ said Joan Talmadge. “Although it’s a business decision, it’s important to make a connection. You really want it to be a good fit.’’

The way property owners and managers present rentals reveals a lot. Do they emphasize upgrades that don’t matter much to you? Also, the way owners describe themselves says a lot about the property. And the way owners and property managers respond to questions hints at how well they care for the rental.

“A lot of owners have bought these vacation homes because they like vacationing there,’’ said de Belloy. “So, as you’re speaking to them, you’ll get a sense as to whether they’re similar to you in terms of their tastes and what they like to do. The more similar they are to you in those things, the more likely it is that the house will be set up in a way that is convenient for you. Personal contact makes a huge difference.’’

Personal contact also offers a good opportunity to clarify any aspect of the process that might be interpreted differently, be it the payment plan or linen supply.

Ultimately, renters are responsible for making sure they get what they want. Matching a good search with a little good fortune should make for a good rental experience.

Shira Springer can be reached at springer@globe.com.