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Rent High Life in Plush Homes: Unreal Estate

Stocks in this article: HOT PCLN MAR

Amid the economic crisis, 54% of HomeAway's property owners had to rent out space just to cover costs. Value-hungry renters seeking amenities as simple as a kitchen have stabilized or increased business for 62% of those owners. Craigslist, meanwhile, says personal interaction has caused rentals to triple on its site in the past two years.

"When you're doing a vacation rental (or quite separate but also popular, a housing swap) you typically meet the owner of the house or apartment and have many conversations with the other party," says Susan McTavish Best, spokeswoman for Craigslist.

Forming relationships with snowbirds in Florida is great for business, but doing the same in costly locales like Boston (where Business Travel News says hotel rooms average $248 a night) or Moscow (where hotels average a world-record $379 a night) is pure genius. In an effort to fill ski-cabin space during the offseason, homeowners in Vermont often send me and my friends restaurant and activity suggestions weeks in advance.

While most vacation rental sites are still sheltered by investors, with HomeAway pulling in $250 million in venture capital in November alone, they afford clients something their competitors at Orbitz Worldwide (OWW), (PCLN), Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide (HOT) and Marriott International (MAR) can't: personality. A big outfit might put freeze-dried coffee on your table in the morning and change the sheets, but it takes the little guys to offer you their houseboat on Boston's Charles River, a windmill on one of Greece's Aegean Islands (a two-bedroom on Cyclades for $403 to $547 a night) or a room on the Champs Elysees with a view of the Eiffel Tower (one bedroom, $323 to $425 a night).

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