Hundreds of Tucson-area homes are available as short-term furnished rentals by owners trying to get income from second properties, houses they couldn't sell or picked up at a bargain price during the real estate crash. Some owners vacate their primary residences to cash in on winter visitor season, or just the Gem & Mineral Show.
Turning a house into a stranger's vacation or extended business trip home is made easier by international Web-based services such as Home Away and Vacation Rentals by Owner (VRBO) that match would-be visitors with furnished residences by the day, week or month.
Home Away claims to have 735,000 vacation rental home listings spread over 168 countries, including more than 300 in Tucson and Green Valley.
Tucson properties rent for everything from $75 a night or $1,500 a month in off-season (roughly May through October or November) to $1,200 a night and $5,500 or more monthly in peak winter periods. Sometimes, they rent for even higher prices during the Tucson Gem & Mineral Show, based on a check of local offerings on Vacation Rentals by Owner's (VRBO) and HomeAway's websites.
But it's not just a matter of paying for a listing, finding another place to sleep, cleaning house, handing over the keys to a visitor and saying "Thanks for the dough," warns J.C. Niles, a local real estate agent who manages some furnished vacation rental properties.
"It's not for everyone," says Niles. "What I tell people is if you were going to walk away from your home and start all over," it could be a moneymaker.
Niles says if you have to furnish the place, you can't do it on-the-cheap because the kind of people who rent furnished houses - at least the kind of clients he wants - don't want rundown college crash pad or beach house furnishings. "They want a nice place," Niles says.
Although he says furnished places rent for roughly twice what unfurnished places do, "you typically only get your furnished (property) rented about half a year."
Beyond that, Niles says he likes to rent his properties a month at a time, never by the night and preferably not just by the week. "I prefer to do monthly rentals because I get better tenants. They don't treat it like a hotel room. Your costs tend to rise with daily rentals. Also, return tenants tend to treat it more nicely."
Another tip he offers is being skeptical of potential renters who don't check him out thoroughly enough. If someone isn't interested enough to check out to whom they're sending a deposit check to for hundreds or often thousands of dollars, Niles says, there may be reason to worry. He's heard the stories about houses being rented as stash houses, though he hasn't had any problems.
Mary Ganapol has good things to say about the dozens of visitors who have stayed at her former main residence, a one-bedroom Craftsman house she calls Casa de Jacobus, in West University near Tucson Magnet High School. Despite its proximity to the university, with just a single bedroom it's made for no more than a couple, and doesn't attract college students. Ganapol says she prefers to rent to older adults, which cuts down on the potential for damages and aggravated neighbors. The 1,050-square-foot California Bungalow rents for $75 a night (with a three-night minimum), $500 a week and $1,500 per month.
Asked for an anecdote about a less than ideal rental experience, Ganapol pauses for several seconds, and then says the only thing she can think of was someone who asked for a $27 adjustment in their bill because she had lowered her rates since they made reservations.
"I've had such wonderful people in there," Ganapol says of her former primary residence. She left the house furnished and moved into her husband's home when she got married a few years ago.
"I did some work to prepare it. I redid the hardwood floors. I painted inside and out, a minor kitchen remodeling and it was good to go. That's about all I did," Ganapol says.
Her favorite tenants, like some other rental owners interviewed for this story, are, "People from Canada, mostly birders. They leave the place immaculate. They're so glad to be here. You walk in (after they leave) and you're not even sure they were there."
At first Ganapol had reservations about having strangers in her house, her home of nine years. But experience, she says, has built trust, so much so that Ganapol says her main rule is "fewer rules." She says she thinks too many furnished rental owners nag their visitors with too many rules.
"I can't stand when I go into a rental and see little signs on what to do and what not to do. There are people that have lots and lots of rules." When she sees a place like that, says Ganapol, who has rented through VRBO in Europe and throughout the U.S., "I move on."
The other thing she feels strongly about is keeping the rates simple. "I don't even charge higher rates in the winter," she says. No fee for the washer and dryer. No complicated deposit and cleaning deposit formulas and fees based on different lengths of stay.
She doesn't allow pets, not that she has anything against a well-behaved dog. "I have dogs. But if I had a choice between identical places, I'd probably choose the place that doesn't allow pets, just because I wouldn't know if it would smell like pets when you open the door."
Her simple plan seems to have worked. She says she's booked a year in advance for the peak season, with a number of repeat visitors. She doesn't rent the house much in the summer, but has had occasional visiting faculty from Europe and Canada.
She also avoided the plague of Arizona rentals and B&Bs - tacky Southwestern décor (no Kokopelli, no howling bandanna coyotes, she says) - and the bane of rentals everywhere - knickknack mania and gingham proliferation.
"I keep it real sparse and clean, a little Zen."
Her idea of the personal touch is providing menus to good local restaurants, places within walking distance, and plenty of information on art galleries.
Like Ganapol, Dick Guilmette, could recount nothing but positive experiences from the year-plus of handling a Catalina Foothills furnished one-bedroom rental condo for his daughter. The 900-square-foot, one-bedroom condo with a sleeper couch in the living room and community pool and tennis courts rents for $2,000 a month in high season, $1,200 in hotter months.
Of course, Guilmette, a retired Massachusetts corporate security director and former policeman, says his instincts are probably better than average in sniffing out potentially troublesome tenants. He, too, likes the Canadian and British visitors.
"We've had a lot of visitors from Canada," educators and bicyclists, says retiree Guilmette. One recent favorite was a visiting British professor who rented a Harley and toured Southern Arizona.
The one-bedroom, with a pullout couch in the living, limits visitors to singles or at most two couples, and Guilmette says he prefers people in their 60s.
"We've never had any damage to the apartment," he says.
His daughter, Jeana Huml, bought the condo unseen while she was still living in Europe and handled the website listings - on both VRBO and HomeAway - remotely while her father did the background checks, met the visitors and was the local contact.
Huml also bought five other Tucson area houses and condos, which are rented out by the year unfurnished. She says the furnished condo was an experiment. "I wasn't sure if I should do the vacation market," she says. But, besides acting as an experiment in vacation rentals, she says it gave her a place to stay when she came to visit. Now living in Tucson, she recently got her real estate license and is convinced the condo was a good investment.
Coming from Europe herself, she understands why people from colder climates such as Canada love it here in the winter. "And you get tennis, the pool, everything at way under resort prices."
And, she says, "No, really, I haven't had any problems. It's been amazing. They've all been so nice. They make me gifts. Cookies. One person bought me a candle set."
make your home ready for rent
Thinking of making your home available for vacation rental? Here are some tips from HomeAway.com
• Furnish with easy-to-clean items. Cleaning on a regular basis spruces up the look of your place.
• Keep the quality. Furnishings in vacation homes don't need to be the most expensive, but it should be high quality enough to look good and be durable.
• Go for comfort. The idea behind a vacation is to relax. Chairs and couches should be comfy. Futons may be less expensive, but they are also less comfortable.
• Have the decor match the rent. If you're looking for a luxury vacation tenant, make sure everything from your appliances to your linens are up to standard.
• Test those beds. Vacationers want to sleep well. Test the mattresses - if you don't like them, neither will they.
• Give them space. Closets and storage are essential. If you are short on closet space, consider an armoire.
• Make it kid friendly. Glass tables, sharp corners, or breakable knickknacks are an invitation for destruction.
• Looks count. Make the place tasteful and take good photographs for the websites. If painting or refinishing floors is needed, do it - it'll pay in the end.
Help from pros
There are dozens of store front and Web-based vacation property rental businesses, locally, regionally and worldwide offering Tucson properties.
HomeAway and Vacation Rentals by Owner (VRBO) are the two largest, part of a worldwide, Texas-based group that has grown in recent years by buying smaller companies here and abroad.
The fees range widely. Local property owners using the large Web services say they pay flat fees of between $350 and $500 per listing a year. In addition to the base subscription fee, which includes photos and guest reviews, there are additional services available, such as damage insurance and payment clearing services, and video listings. There are even seminars for subscribers.
Some vacation rental sites: