Buying a Winter Escape? What to Look for in a Vacation Home

Buying a Winter Escape? What to Look for in a Vacation Home

Written By

Melina Gillies

If the thought of snow has you quaking, and you regularly survive the winter by escaping it, you may be ready to plant roots by purchasing your own vacation home (yay, you!). But before you stake your beach umbrella in the sand, how do you know which locations or housing options will work for you? While the answer will vary, these are the questions every purchaser needs to ask first — and what steps to take to find the vacation home that’s a perfect fit.

Where to buy?

This may seem like a no-brainer, but ask yourself how much you actually know about the area in which you intend to buy. Don’t let your own great vacation memories cloud your impression of the realities of ownership in the area. Visit in all four seasons to pick up on any changes which occur, particularly in safety. Trulia provides a great interactive map with crime information all across the country, which can be an excellent source of information. Search popular rental sites to determine overall occupancy rates, as the areas that rent well year-round are going to be your best bet, especially if you plan on renting out the property. Also consider travel time when you make your decision. A house that requires constant plane travel to reach likely won’t be used as much as one that can be reached by car.

Sailboat and beach

Can I afford it?

While you’ve likely drawn up a rough budget, be sure to talk to your lender to ensure that what you want matches what you can afford. A second home requires at least a 20 percent down payment, and your total monthly payments on houses and vehicles can’t exceed 36 percent of your total income. If you’re counting on rental income to help you pay for it, don’t. When budgeting, rental income should be considered a bonus, not a must-have to maintain the property. Following this rule of thumb will ensure you’re able to carry the property on your own.

Aside from the purchase costs, ensure that you’re knowledgeable about property taxes, insurance, maintenance fees, and utilities, as they still need to be paid regardless of whether anyone is using the home. The elements can wreak havoc on a home, so whether your winter getaway is on the beach or slope-side, put money aside for the inevitable repairs. Speak to other local homeowners to get a sense of how often exterior repairs need to be made.

What about a second set of eyes?

Renting your property may not be a problem from afar, but responding to maintenance issues or emergencies will be. Sure, it may be more cost-effective to handle it all yourself, but after all, you’re buying a vacation home to relax in. Ditch the stress and consider a reputable property manager who handles everything from screening renters to coordinating maintenance to ensuring the property is cleaned professionally between guests. Many property managers even offer a set number of guaranteed rentals per year, which can be a reliable source of extra income. Be sure to speak to other property owners in the area for recommendations. Also, don’t forget the importance of hiring good housekeeping staff, as they’re the ones who see your home both before and after a rental, and can alert you immediately to any issues that require attention. For any property that will be vacant at all during the year, a smart home monitoring system is a must, offering a valuable second set of eyes whether you’re at or away from your vacation home.

What makes a good rental, anyway?

While grandma’s household cast-offs and no cable may suit you fine, paying guests will expect a certain level of amenities. Comfortable furniture, beds, and Wi-Fi top the list, as do basic household supplies, matching dinnerware, and linens. As most vacation rentals are group affairs, providing lots of places to sleep is essential and makes good business sense.

The ideal rental location is one where a car isn’t required to experience the major tourist attractions. For a sunny location, that means as close to the beach as you can get within your budget, or a backyard pool. Even if you use the home regularly, remove your clothes and excessive personal items while you’re not there to ensure that guests feel at home. The rental industry runs on guest reviews, so you’ll never go wrong by budgeting in items that will improve the guest experience.

Seagulls and beach chairs

How do I plan for the future?

You may plan on keeping your vacation home in the family for generations to come (and I’m sure your grandchildren will thank you) but protecting your investment should be top of mind, even if you don’t plan to sell. Work with a local real estate agent who knows the area — and the rental business — before making your choice to maximize your chance of an investment that will hold value.

Most of all, be sure that you’re buying the property for you, first. There are plenty of ways to invest, but making memories that last in a place that warms your heart should be the driving force behind your decisions. Happy hunting!