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  • Writer's pictureMarni Jameson

When Renting out Second Home, Sideline Your Emotions

I do not have a second home for the same reason I do not have a second husband. I can barely keep up with the one I have. But I have a lot of friends who are more competent than I am, including my friend Avril, who with her only husband as far as I know, Bill, owns a second home in a ski area, which they rent out about 120 days a year.

Avril emailed me after reading my column about replacing my flatware. After nearly three decades of regular use, I had run low on forks.

“Forks are the first to go in rental homes,” she said in her email. “I have to replace mine once a year.”

“People steal your forks?” I asked.

“Oh, that’s not all!” she said.

Curious, I called her to find out what else folks who rent out their vacation homes - and this is really a first-world problem - had to contend with.

“I used to have this dream of decorating our getaway for me and my family,” Avril said, of the 1800-square foot, three-bedroom-plus-loft cabin in Big Bear Lake, California, which she and her husband have owned for nearly 25 years. “But Bill taught me a long time ago to take my heart out of it. Once I separated my emotions, I was fine.”

Now, Avril and Bill Wood aren’t real estate novices. They own dozens of rental properties in several states, homes that others live in and furnish. But that is quite different from renting out a vacation home that you’ve furnished for yourself and also occasionally live in. The latter situation hits close to home.

“How can you not be emotional about your house?” I asked.

“I don’t put my heart and soul into it anymore,” she said. “That way, when something goes missing, I don’t get upset.” Her aim is to decorate the vacation home nicely enough to attract good tenants, and to occasionally enjoy herself, but also to decorate it affordably with replacement in mind.

“I don’t spend money on the place like I used to. Because restocking goes with the territory, I’ve learned some inexpensive shortcuts.” Here are some of those lessons learned:

· Plan for attrition. Blankets, TV remotes, pots and pans, they go, she said. Budget for it. “Every time I visit the cabin, I survey what’s missing in the way of plates and wine glasses, then go straight to the Dollar Store,” she said. “I used to be nice and stock the kitchen with baggies and aluminum foil, but no one ever replaced them.” Now she keeps kitchen and other personal supplies in rubber bins in a locked closet.

· Get ready for mysterious disappearances. For her, it’s bedspreads. “It’s the weirdest thing,” she said. “Either renters take them, or the cleaning crew takes them to wash and doesn’t return them. I’ll never know.” She stopped buying lovely down-filled duvets, and now buys her bedspreads online at Eddie Bauer on discount. “Eventually, you get numb to it,” she said.

· Use a management company. Because the Woods live nearly two hours away, they have a property manager oversee rental arrangements. The management company deals with the lease agreement, the keys, the cleaning crew, and minor repairs. For that, they get 35 percent of the rental fee. The Woods get the rest. The company also offers some protection. Recently, when a tenant took a new vacuum cleaner, the management company went after the culprit and handled the situation.

· Head off wear and tear. While Avril used to buy decorative area rugs to put over her wood floors in the entry and living areas, now she uses large black rubber mats. “We have a lot of snowy, muddy boots tromping through here in the winter, and in the summer wet sandy kids who’ve been in the lake. The rugs just got ruined,” she said. Though not as pretty, the rubber mats are durable, protect her wood floors, and are safer since they won’t slip. In addition, she’s opted for well-made furniture upholstered in durable fabrics.

· Embrace bed in a box. Beds add up in a place with three or more bedrooms, she said. A decent mattress can cost between $1,000 and $3,000 and are bulky to transport. Her solution: “I go to Costco to buy a bed in a box for $500 to $700. The compressed mattress makes delivery easier. She puts the new mattress on existing box springs, and saves.

· Brace yourself for rearrangements. “I will never understand why renters think they can come into my home and redecorate,” she said. “They don’t just decide the plates and bowls belong on the other side of the kitchen; they move furniture.” One group moved her kitchen table, which seats eight, from the kitchen into the living room to be by the window. Another carried a heavy double dresser from the upstairs bedroom to the downstairs bedroom, a feat that would have required two strong men. Both parties left the furniture where they’d moved it. Perhaps the strangest change, one tenant took the small appetizer plates from the cupboard and hung them on the wall. People have nerve.

CAPTION:Memory Maker ─ Turning a vacation home, like this Big Bear Lake, Calif., cabin, into a short-term rental is not for those who can’t bear the wear and tear, said owner Avril Wood. However, for her, the cost and inconvenience has been worth having a place where she has built many happy family memories, and that earns its keep. “I wouldn’t change anything.” Photo courtesy of Avril Wood.

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