By Eileen AJ Connelly, AP Personal Finance Writer

The promise of a free meal, a $100 gift card or even a few nights gratis lodging may pull you into the sales presentation at a timeshare resort. The question of whether it makes sense to invest tens of thousands of dollars may send you away puzzled — or worse, second-guessing the decision you made to sign the papers.

While real estate prices have plunged across the nation in the past two years, there's been no parallel decline in what developers charge for timeshares. For an average $20,000, buyers get the right to stay at a resort — usually in a 1- or 2-bedroom condominium with at least a mini-kitchen — for a set period of time each year. While some resorts cost less than $15,000, the price can double for certain locations and time slots.

The bottom has dropped out of the resale market in the recession, however. An Internet search reveals hundreds of "for sale" ads for timeshare deeds, often for as little as $1, even for prime times in places like Cape Cod, South Carolina's Hilton Head Island, Manhattan and Hawaii. There are a variety of reasons people sell — from not using the vacation time to no longer being able to afford the annual maintenance fees — and the resale market is flooded right now.

How, then, can you decide whether or not a timeshare is a good investment?

The key, owners and industry experts say, is in the way you think about the purchase.

If your goal is to buy a timeshare and resell it for a profit, you're going to be disappointed. Even before the economic downturn, resale prices were typically a fraction of what resort developers would charge for the same properties.

But if you buy hoping to lock in some nice vacation accommodations for the coming years, it may be worth your money.

The Timeshare Marketplace

"Timeshares are not an investment," said Angela Gridelli, an interior designer and decorative artist who lives on Long Island, N.Y., and currently owns four timeshares.

"A timeshare is not like purchasing a condo or a home," she said. "If anything, it's like a car, where the value on your timeshare is going to depreciate every year."

Gridelli said if she were to try to sell the two timeshares she purchased at full price— one in Aruba and one in New Jersey — she would take in 60% or 70% less than the roughly $25,000 each she paid. But she's not looking to sell — she uses her timeshares as a way to travel extensively, typically getting nicer accommodations than she could otherwise afford.

The way she calculates it, Gridelli says over time, the total purchase price, plus her annual maintenance fees, compares favorably to how much it would cost for similar vacations staying in hotels.

The key is knowing how to exchange what you own for other travel opportunities. For instance, last year she traded time at one of her timeshares for a week in Spain. All she paid was the $333 maintenance fee for her timeshare, plus an $89 fee for the exchange. Her neighbors at the 2-bedroom condo were paying $500 a night to rent a similar unit.

The extra space in such facilities also means more comfort, and the potential to bring along more family members without having to pay for multiple hotel rooms.

Gridelli said she's had so much success traveling using timeshares, she hopes to buy more on the resale market, especially since prices have dropped.

Multiple purchases are not uncommon. About 47 percent of sales are made to existing owners, according to the American Resort Development Association, the Washington-based trade and lobby group for timeshare developers.

Yet timeshares have a decidedly mixed reputation among the public at large, and Internet chat rooms can burn up with complaints from owners who are unhappy with various aspects of their purchases.

The Sales Pitch

One criticism is that the sales presentations can involve high-pressure pitches, and often require prospective buyers to meet with two or three different people who will try to convince them to sign the papers that day.

Many who take tours at these resorts do so multiple times, often to help supplement vacations with the free theme park tickets, gift cards, meals and other incentives offered for sitting through an hour or 90-minute pitch.

The incentives don't stop there. If you indicate you are interested, you might be offered an upgrade on the type of unit you're getting, or some other inducement.

"It's worth it for us to continue to do that type of marketing, because consumers respond to it," said Adam Schwartz, senior vice president of Wyndham Vacation Ownership, the timeshare unit of Wyndham Worldwide Corp.

Another issue is the way the purchases are characterized, said Lisa Ann Schreier, a former timeshare saleswoman who is now the director of Timeshare Insights, a consulting service. "It's sold as a product," she said, adding that she believes the industry would be better off selling them as a vacation service. "The industry is still relying on the old standby of you're buying a piece of vacation property." And sales people still often imply that buyers will be able to get a return on their investment if they sell it in the future, she said.

Howard Nussbaum, CEO of the development association, said the industry group discourages sales pitches promising increased value. "I'm not saying there isn't a rogue salesperson out there, but I can tell you the quality developers that are my members have fail-safes in place to avoid that."

He noted that many states now have laws requiring "recision periods," wherein buyers have a few days or a week to reconsider their purchase and back out of it.

The Basics

There are several different types of timeshare deals.

ARDA says about 67 percent of timeshare companies sell "intervals" — either specific weeks or "floating" weeks that can be used during certain parts of the year or sometimes every other year. Prime slots during holiday periods or at the height of a season — for instance ski season in Colorado or midwinter in the Caribbean — command higher prices.

The remaining third of developers use a points system or another flexible program that allows people to book vacations at different times, spending their points as they go — with more desirable locations and time slots and larger units costing more points.

All timeshares also require annual maintenance fees, which average $646 according to ARDA, and sometimes yearly membership fees as well.

With both intervals and points, owners can trade the time they have at their resort for locations elsewhere, typically by using an exchange company. There are two major exchange companies, RCI, a subsidiary of Wyndham Worldwide Corp., and Interval International, a segment of Interval Leisure Group Inc. Both require membership fees to use their services — starting at $89 a year.

The Exchange System

Beyond the hard sell approach, another common complaint from owners is lack of success trying to trade in what they own for time at other resorts.

Gridelli, who volunteers on the Web site, a site for owners to share information and strategies, said you can't get full value from a timeshare until you learn the ins and outs of exchanging.

Because she has learned how to upgrade what she owns when she exchanges, she's able to get more vacation time — and knowing the system helps her book the destinations she wants.

"When you don't know how to use it, you don't get the best bang for your buck," Gridelli said.

Many of the owners she tries to help are unable to get the exchanges they want because they own in locations like Orlando, Fla., and Las Vegas, where oversaturation has reduced demand for trades. Or they don't plan far enough in advance and the spots they're looking for are taken.

Gridelli said it's up to owners to research the value of different locations before they buy, and learn how to use the exchange system to their advantage. "Unfortunately, you're not going to get a company to teach you," she said.

"That free dinner or that free round of golf seems to draw people in, and they purchase things after just a sales presentation. Nobody should do that," she added. "Would you just walk in and buy a car that way?"

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