Editor's note: As a special feature for April, TheStreet.com offers a 20-part series on virtually everything you need to know about real estate. This installment, which was originally published as Top 1%, is part 16.

You're looking for an investment. Not just any investment, but a special one you can enjoy, too. Really enjoy -- I'm not just talking about income, capital gains and tax stuff.

Vacation homes in the right spots have long been a good buy. At the end of the day, they offer both financial and lifestyle rewards. It's kind of a double return on your investment.

But not just any vacation-home market works for everyone. Unless money is no object, you have to buy smart to minimize risk and realize those lifestyle benefits you seek.

So where does it make the most sense to play? Let me shed some light.

First, I'm avoiding what I call "cliché cachet" places. Sure, we'd all like to own property in Vail, Aspen, Sun Valley, Lake Tahoe or the Hamptons, but I'm not adding anything by bringing these to your attention.

I'll also avoid places located in the middle of nowhere. Sure, Livingston, Mont., Pagosa Springs, Colo., Silver City, N.M., or northern Minnesota lake country offer great vacation surroundings, but they can take a long time to get to, if they can be reached at all during certain times of the year.

Places closer to cities or gateways are easier to rent, and easier to use yourself.

Click here for the video version of this story from Jennifer Openshaw.

I also stayed away from the most hurricane-prone areas or other areas with high risk -- and high cost -- of protecting against natural disasters. You shouldn't have to worry about your vacation home.

So here are my criteria:
  • Affordable: Median home prices less than $350,000, although "prime" properties in these areas, along the shore for instance, can be much higher.
  • Convenient: Close to a major city or airport gateway -- less than two hours away.
  • Active vacation rental market: Self-explanatory.
  • Plenty to do: When going outside is difficult, an attractive town center with historic interest is a plus, as is a relatively pleasant climate for the region.
  • Room to grow: Moderate appreciation rates below the 2005-06 U.S. average. Also, where possible, close to more upscale and expensive destinations.

And here are my picks:
  • Granby, Colo.: About 90 miles northwest of Denver, Granby sits at a major crossroads and gateway to a vast mountain area, including ski and mountain resort Winter Park and Rocky Mountain National Park, both within 20 miles. Granby itself is an old railroad town featuring new residential and resort areas and two new golf course communities. Median home prices of $275,000 are $200,000 below those of nearby Winter Park.
  • Brunswick, Ga.: The town of Brunswick itself has plenty of historic interest, but the so-called Golden Isles barrier islands areas of St. Simons Island and Jekyll Island are rapidly coming into their own as destinations. Some areas are quite upscale, with multimillion-dollar homes and fancy shopping districts. Brunswick is about 80 miles north of Jacksonville, Fla., and lies in a zone thus far relatively immune from hurricanes.
  • Freeport, Maine: Long famous for L.L. Bean, this cute town just off the shore and just north of Portland -- and Boston -- has a lot to offer besides shopping. Nearby areas include Yarmouth and the more well-known Kennebunkport. You can get there cheaply by flying Southwest to Manchester, N.H. Lobster, anyone?
  • Fairhope, Ala.: This artsy and somewhat eclectic town sits just east of Mobile Bay, adjacent to Alabama's Gulf Shore beaches. Waterfront and town features have brought the local name "Carmel by the Bay" in reference to the more-famous central California namesake.
  • Depoe Bay-Lincoln City, Ore.: Southwest of Portland, this area features lush rugged coastal scenery and a series of classic and mostly unspoiled coastal towns along U.S. 101. The area is dotted with state parks and beaches. There's plenty of right-sized housing along the coast and a short distance away, and it attracts a cultured population from other West Coast cities.

These choices, of course, only scratch the surface. Dozens of places all over the country meet my criteria, probably some nearer to where you live. But my list gives you a place to start and, more importantly, a thought process to decide what works best for you.

Build up that cozy fire, and I'll be over.

Jennifer Openshaw, a passionate advocate for helping Americans improve their finances and build their personal fortunes, is CEO of The Millionaire Zone and America Online's personal finance editor. In addition to appearing regularly on TV shows such as "Oprah" and "Good Morning America" and on CNN, Openshaw is host of ABC Radio's "Winning Advice" and serves as an adviser to some of America's top corporations. Her new book, "The Millionaire Zone," will hit bookstores in April 2007.

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