HGTV host Matt Blashaw thinks the chief appeal of a vacation home is its convenience. “It’s an easy vacation,” he explains. “The point is just to go have everything set up the way you want. You know the area, and you know you’re going to have fun.” The vacation may be easy, but the second mortgage probably isn’t.
For that reason, Blashaw helps families on his show, “Vacation House For Free,” renovate under-the-weather homes into retreats worth renting out when the family isn’t in residence.
Of course, no house is actually free, but by earning money on the home when it would otherwise be vacant, homeowners can essentially get a vacation house that pays for itself.
“You’re contributing to your wealth and your future,” Blashaw says, “not throwing your money away on Hilton and Marriott. You’re building equity in what I think is the best investment anyone can have, which is real estate. Plus, people want to have a place they can retire to, so it’s a win-win.”
It’s not quite as easy as it sounds, especially if you’ve never undertaken a renovation. Here, Blashaw provides his top tips for turning your vacation home into a free home.
Buy in a popular location.
Sure, homes are cheaper in under-the-radar locations, but if no one wants to go there, no one will want to rent your house. “The idea of the house is you want to be able to find a vacation home in a place that people want to go to,” explains Blashaw. “You want it to be popular. We’ve been to Cape Cod, Long Beach Island, Maine, the Florida Keys, Lake Tahoe.”
Choose a town that’s relatively easy to get to.
Bora Bora might be a great place to take a vacation, but it’s a little remote for a vacation home. “The thing I’ve been noticing with the show is that people want to take a vacation close to home,” Blashaw says, “typically within a couple hours drive. I think that’s simply because trying to put a family on a plane is a nightmare.”
Realize that you might not be able to use it during the high season.
Depending on your area, Blashaw says, there might be a busy season of 10-16 weeks — and you might need to rent during that time. “People have to be OK with not being there during the season,” cautions Blashaw.
“You can get the most weekly rental rate and the most people desiring the property. Your vacation home isn’t for free unless you have people in it!” he says. There’s a bright side, however: “A lot of people who own vacation homes don’t even want to be there in the high season because it’s so crowded.”
Scout the most popular local rentals.
Figure out what renters in the area want, so you can give it to them. “If you’re looking in an area you want to buy a vacation home, go tour the house that’s a really popular rental,” recommends Blashaw. “What makes it so popular? Proximity to the beach or water activities? How it’s decorated? The kitchen? See what they did to find out what renters in those areas want, then take those ideas and put them into your rental. Make sure you know what rents out all the time so your house will rent out all the time.”
Blashaw notes that you can check listings online at sites like VRBO to see which houses tend to be booked solid, then call the property managers to schedule a tour — or even just go through their photos.
Do the math.
Your vacation home isn’t free if you’re not earning enough to offset the money you put into it. Blashaw recommends calculating the carrying cost, mortgage, taxes, utilities, insurance, and any other costs on an annual basis.
“Then you need to renovate and figure out how many weeks you need to rent at x dollars to have your vacation house for free,” Blashaw explains.
Don’t think you have to renovate the whole place.
While you might be tempted to gut the place, Blashaw recommends being mindful about your renovation and starting with the highest priority areas.
“The rule of standard suburban houses is kitchen is king, then bathrooms, then bedrooms,” he says.
“In vacation rentals, I think it’s a little different. Bathrooms can be overlooked as long as they’re clean and fresh and functional. You need to put money in the decor in the living room, in the furniture to make it comfortable and cater to possibly multiple families with a ton of seating and dining space.”
And if you’re pressed for time (or money), Blashaw has one particular recommendation: “When people walk into a place, they want it to be fresh and clean,” he says. “Nothing will make a space seem cleaner and fresher a than a coat of paint.”
Plan to make renters’ lives as easy as possible.
Once your house is in renting shape, your priority is to fill it — and that can be as easy as putting up a listing on Airbnb, VRBO, or Homeaway.
Blashaw says that by making your house a pleasure to visit, you can ensure repeat renters. “I tell people, ‘If you’re by the beach, make it so that your renters don’t have to do anything but buy groceries and sit in the house.’ Buy a beach wagon, a paddle board, give them a list of restaurants and things they can do. You want your property to be a destination for them every year just like it is for you. I know couples now who don’t even have to market their properties anymore because they have ongoing rental agreements. You have to give them a reason to come back.”