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Tips for Booking Vacation Rental Homes

We give you four rules to follow to get the best place for your money.

Renting a vacation home directly from the owner can help you cut costs, gain more space or privacy, and live like a local, especially in exotic places.

Whether you're looking for a ski chalet that sleeps 24, a beachside cabana for two, or an apartment in New York or virtually any other city in the world, it's out there -- and thanks to the Internet, it's easy to find.

You can rent just about anything, anywhere, at most any price point. Indeed, per person, rentals can be cheaper than hotels, and you may save more by making some meals yourself.

Of course, there is some risk involved. You may have to mail a check or provide a credit card number to a stranger. There's the possibility that unexpected events, misinformation or miscommunication could ruin your vacation.

There's no way to eliminate those risks, but you can minimize them by following these four rules:

1) Google away.

When you search for rentals, leave no (virtual) stone unturned. There are any number of rental Web sites out there, from worldwide to local, including the including the "vacation rentals" section of



The best site may well be

, but that firm now also runs

Vacation Rentals by Owner


Vacation Rentals




There are hundreds more, but the sites above allow owners to post availability calendars, photos, and descriptions in a format that allows for easy comparisons, and all include traveler reviews. Read them all, then take your research a step further. For example, check


to get an idea of the property's value, and head to


(GOOG) - Get Free Report

Earth to check its surroundings.

In short, know what you're looking for, how much it should cost -- and whether a listing sounds too good to be true.

2) Be flexible.

In your research, you'll quickly determine how prices vary by location and amenities. Want to be slope slide at the ski area, right on the beach, or in the hottest section of town? You'll pay more.

Determine the amenities you need, the ones you want, and what you can do without. For more-luxurious accommodations at a lower price, check out places a little further out. You may have to give up an amenity or two to stay within budget.

3) Talk it out.

Be comfortable with the owner, or the people he or she has on site to help you. Ask a lot of questions: Are linens provided? What is the bed configuration? How is the water pressure? What's the parking situation? Who will help you if, say, the pilot light goes out or there's a plumbing problem?

Finally, ask about renovations, construction projects, and facility/activity closures in the area. If you're not satisfied with the answers, move on to another owner.

4) Get it in writing.

Once you've settled on a place, get a rental agreement on paper. Make sure it specifies dates, check-in and checkout times, deposit and payment requirements, and your responsibilities. Check cancellation policies, which can vary widely -- even by season at the same rental.

Between talking with the owner and reading the contents a written agreement, you should feel comfortable with the situation. If not, move on. Remember: There are plenty of great options out there.

Note: Over the last 12 years, the reporter has successfully booked vacation rentals from owners in Ireland, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Utah, South Carolina, Massachusetts and Maine.

Mike Woelflein is a business and personal finance freelance writer. A former senior industry specialist with Standard & Poor's and managing editor of ColoradoBiz magazine, he has also written for The Denver Post and American Express.