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What Are the Rules for Booking Summer Vacation Rentals?

By Michelle Baran

May 27, 2020

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This architecturally stunning home in Wimberley, Texas, is available to be booked through Vrbo. Texas is not currently restricting vacation rentals.

Courtesy of Vrbo

This architecturally stunning home in Wimberley, Texas, is available to be booked through Vrbo. Texas is not currently restricting vacation rentals.

Airbnb, Vrbo, and other vacation rental services have all seen an uptick in bookings as states emerge from coronavirus lockdowns. But are we actually allowed to vacation at these properties? It depends where and when you want to stay.

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As states begin to reopen following shelter-in-place orders that were instituted in mid-March to help mitigate the spread of coronavirus, travelers are starting to explore their options for what to do with their newfound freedom. Some are looking for outdoor spaces, some may want to go camping or head out in an RV. And others are looking into vacation rentals as a safe and secluded escape, according to the latest vacation rental data.

Vacation rental bookings bottomed out in early April, when Airbnb and Vrbo together experienced just more than 916,000 total bookings worldwide, according to short-term rental data tracker AirDNA. But by mid-May bookings had rebounded to over 2 million—937,000 of which were for U.S. properties.

AirDNA reported that the U.S. destinations seeing the fastest regrowth in vacation rental bookings are Big Bear Lake, California; South Padre Island, Texas; Carolina Beach, North Carolina; Ocean City, Maryland; and Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.

“When it comes to what types of accommodations travelers are looking for, vacation homes are an appealing choice because you can enjoy the space, privacy and the amenities of an entire home without having to share the space with anyone else,” said Melanie Fish, a travel expert with Vrbo.

Since mid-April, the site has seen an upward trend in U.S. traveler demand for vacation rentals, especially for longer stays toward the end of summer. “If there is a lake, river or mountain they can drive to, that’s where they want to go to get away,” said Fish.

Airbnb last week reported that travelers are increasingly searching for and planning trips, with an uptick in activity on the search engine’s wish list function, which allows users to bookmark rentals they’re interested in.

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Guesty, the software that’s used by property management companies on Airbnb, Vrbo, and Booking.com, among others, says its latest data shows that bookings for Labor Day could actually exceed those of last year—the company’s 2020 Labor Day reservations are already at the same level as 2019 bookings. Guesty predicts that by Labor Day, travelers will be ready to take advantage of a stockpile of unused vacation days and will use their remote working flexibility to take domestic “staycations.”

Private home and villa rental service Onefinestay reported that inquiries have almost doubled in the past two weeks compared to the two weeks prior and that it is seeing a lot more requests for longer stays (two weeks or more) than normal.

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A complicated patchwork of rules

While the desire is there, it’s easier to rent in some places than others. States have begun loosening restrictions on numerous businesses, but some, like California and Illinois, still have statewide orders in place that officially prohibit nonessential travel, and thus make vacation rentals officially off limits. Even in states that prohibit nonessential travel, however, individual counties and cities appear to be turning a blind eye or moving forward with their own plans for reopening that may include allowing rentals. In other states, such as New York and Texas, vacation rentals are fair game.

Here are some guidelines to help you figure out what is actually available to you as well as some examples of how various states are approaching the vacation rental market.

Figure out what the restrictions are

You’ll want to find out what is actually allowed before wasting a ton of time looking at properties in a destination where short-term vacation rentals aren’t even permitted yet. If owners or rental services are taking bookings despite any official mandates, you should at least arm yourself with information before you take any potential risks in booking.

If you have some ideas of where you would like to go, Airbnb has an impressively comprehensive compilation of the majority of regulations that have been issued for vacation rentals the world over. It offers a great starting point—we used the links it provided to find out which entities had issued orders and guidance on vacation rentals, and then we went to the site of the actual municipality (whether it was a city or county) to find out whether there had been any updates.

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The situation is very fluid, and individual jurisdictions are meeting regularly and rolling out new press releases, orders, and plans for reopening frequently, as they look for ways to help relieve the financial strain of lockdown. Vacation rentals that may have been restricted last week could now be allowed in the town or county you were hoping to visit.

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Contact the host

In a pre-COVID world, a lot of us had gotten used to instantly booking vacation rentals without touching base with the host first. But these days, getting in touch with someone before you book is crucial. Just because a space is listed for the dates and location you are searching, that doesn’t mean it’s actually available. Individual owners and management companies may not have properly updated their calendars to reflect our new reality. In order to find out what’s really available, you should definitely reach out to the host first and ask if the rental is in fact open for leisure bookings (for instance, some jurisdictions are allowing for essential workers or people who need to quarantine to book, but not the average traveler just looking for a getaway).

This is also a great way to establish a line of communication in case you would like to be informed once the property is available to be booked. If they don’t have the green light to rent their space out yet, you could ask for them to send a message when they do so that you could be among the first to book.

Double-check the cancellation policy

While you’ve got the host’s attention, check to see if the cancellation policy is the same as what’s stated on the listing. If the host tells you they won’t be as stringent because of the current pandemic, don’t take their word for it. The bottom line is that whatever the listing states as the cancellation policy, that will be the policy you are stuck with if you end up needing to change the booking. And if it’s a strict policy, you will likely lose money if you need to cancel or change the reservation.

In California, nonessential travel is off limits, but rentals are available in some places

This gorgeous beachfront Airbnb in Malibu, California, isn’t currently available for booking.

The state of California’s Resilience Roadmap is a four-stage plan for the gradual reopening of businesses since a statewide stay-at-home order was issued on March 19, 2020.

The state has entered Stage 2, which allows for the reopening of lower-risk workplaces such as retail (with curbside pickup), manufacturing, and some offices where telecommuting is not possible. Travel is only allowed for getting to and from allowable activities and businesses and for personal exercise and outdoor recreation.

The resumption of nonessential travel (at least at the state level) does not enter the picture until Stage 4 (although some counties and cities have hospitality slated to be part of an earlier Stage 3 of their reopening plans), which is when larger venues such as nightclubs, concert venues, and live sporting events would be allowed to open and take place.

Given the statewide mandate, numerous counties and cities throughout California have issued guidance and notices reminding short-term rental owners that their properties cannot be rented out to vacationers, at least not yet. Some of those notices come with a threat of a hefty fine for violations.

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But there are some notable exceptions. On May 15, San Bernardino County, a massive expanse east of Los Angeles that encompasses popular destinations such as Big Bear Lake, Joshua Tree, Lake Arrowhead, and Death Valley, declared that short-term rentals were cleared to operate.

On May 12, the city of Newport Beach in Southern California voted to allow short-term rentals to operate with a three-night minimum stay beginning on May 20. The Newport Beach city council had approved a temporary ban on all short-term rentals on April 3.

“We are getting calls for nightly rentals, but people are hesitant to book without knowing for sure if shelter-in-place restrictions will be lifted,” said Gregory Herr, who handles revenue management and marketing for Monterey, California-based Sanctuary Vacation Rentals. Herr said the company has experienced a “significant increase” in inquiries as people anticipate a further relaxing of restrictions. As restrictions continue to ease and travelers get a better grasp of the rules, as kids wrap up their remote schooling responsibilities, and as people increasingly look for a change of scenery, the company expects there will be even more demand for rentals.

No statewide rules against rentals in New York

This home in Woodstock, New York, is up for grabs on Vrbo.

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In New York State, there is no statewide restriction on vacation rentals. If you use the state’s regional reopening plan search tool and look up the rules for hotels, motels, bed-and-breakfasts, and other vacation accommodations, the results state that these businesses are all currently allowed to operate statewide.

However, there are some counties that have asked visitors to remain at bay.

On May 23, Essex County officials released a statement asking property owners to remove their listings from services such as Airbnb and Vrbo due to an “alarming influx of travelers from outside the county.” The Essex County board of supervisors are strongly and respectfully requesting that owners refrain from offering up vacation rentals, but they stop short of stating whether they have any way to enforce it. The board did say that they would find multiple families staying in a single abode in violation of the state’s executive order prohibiting nonessential gatherings of any size.

Essex County is home to the Adirondacks and includes destinations such as Lake Placid, Lake Champlain, Lake George, and Saranac Lake.

Washington County in upstate New York released an almost identical plea to that of Essex.

Florida Has Started Reopening to Travelers—Here’s What You Need to Know

In Florida, a growing list of counties allowing vacation rentals

As of May 18, individual counties throughout Florida were able to request approval to begin allowing vacation rentals to operate. There are 67 counties in Florida, and as of May 26, 2020, 42 counties were granted approval for vacation rental operations. They include Bay, Brevard, Charlotte, Citrus, Dixie, Duval, Escambia, Flagler, Franklin, Gulf, Highlands, Jackson, Lafayette, Lake, Lee, Levy, Manatee, Monroe (which includes the Keys), Nassau, Okaloosa, Orange (which includes Orlando), Osceola, Pinellas, Santa Rosa, Sarasota, St. Johns, Wakulla, and Walton counties.

A comprehensive and regularly updated list of which counties are allowing vacation rentals to operate is available on Florida’s Department of Business and Professional Regulation site.

Illinois “discourages” nonessential travel

In Chicago, the rules are not totally clear.

Back in March, Illinois issued an executive order that included the restriction of nonessential travel throughout the state. Earlier this month, the state released its road map to recovery, which states that in Phases 1 and 2 of reopening, nonessential travel is “discouraged.” By Phases 3 and 4, nonessential travel will be allowed as long as it complies with recommendations made by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Illinois Department of Public Health.

How this translates into the availability of vacation home rentals is murky. There are plenty of listings for vacation rentals that appear to be available for booking throughout the state, including in Chicago. But we would advise contacting owners prior to booking anything to make sure that the bookings can and will go forward.

Individual counties have the right to restrict rentals in New Jersey

In an executive order issued in March, New Jersey state officials granted individual counties throughout the state the right to issue restrictions on leisure accommodations such as hotels and vacation rentals in an effort to curb the spread of COVID-19.

What that means is that, similar to California, there’s a complicated patchwork of rules handed down by different counties and municipalities, and you have to check each one individually to see what is allowed or not.

In Texas, vacation rentals are fair game

Marfa, Texas, originally banned vacation rentals but Presidio County has since allowed them.

There are no restrictions on vacation rentals in Texas, including in Marfa, the tiny arts hub in western Texas. Presidio County, which includes Marfa, had initially issued an order in March to close hotels, motels, and short-term rentals but was informed that the order was stricter than the statewide guidance and thus unlawful. On May 1, the Presidio County order was rescinded and vacation rentals have been fair game throughout the state ever since.

Be patient and persevere

We all need a break right now and for many of us, a vacation rental feels like one of the safest ways to get a refreshing change of location while not endangering ourselves or others. If we travel safely, bringing most of our provisions with us, and exercise the same precautions we would at home, a rental could be a great way to get away responsibly.

If the destination you were hoping to rent in currently isn’t allowing short-term rental bookings, don’t despair. Things are constantly changing. It could be a matter of just days or weeks before a new ordinance allows vacation rentals to be booked. The summer hasn’t even officially begun yet—that much-needed getaway could soon be yours.

>> Next: What to Know If You’re Escaping in an RV This Weekend

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