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The floating dock outside the author’s Airbnb rental in Ontario this summer was perfect for her active teens. Choosing the location with smaller kids would require a lot more supervision.

Courtesy of Heather Greenwood Davis

Hotels are great, but if you (and your wallet) could use vacation plans that include a little more space and a little less resort fee, you aren’t alone.

According to Statista.com, the private vacation rentals market is growing at a record pace among Canadians. Revenue from Canadian travellers is pegged at US$937-million for 2018 (and expected to grow to US$1.18-billion in 2022). Canada Stays, a vacation rental marketplace that focuses on places within Canada, reported a 74-per-cent increase in bookings in 2017 alone.

Colour me not surprised.

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Families with kids have long known that “luxury” is a place where you can make midnight sandwiches on demand and not have to adhere to a 7 p.m. “family bed time” because the light of the TV keeps everyone up.

More space, less money can seem like an obvious choice – but navigating the home rental experience isn’t always easy.

The first time my family tried a vacation rental was in 2011. We were in Australia, with two tired and cranky kids, and looking forward to a jet lag-induced nap. When our airport taxi pulled up to the rental, the entry code didn’t work. That was how we discovered we’d been scammed. We ended up plying the kids with promises of ice cream on Bondi Beach while fighting for our deposit and searching for a solution.

Heather Greenwood Davis attempts to distract the kids from the fact that they are temporarily homeless after arriving in Bondi Beach, Australia, in 2011.

Courtesy of Heather Greenwood Davis

We’ve had hits and misses since that 2011 booking, but it was only this past summer that we regained our confidence.

It happened when our first pick for a summer Airbnb rental rejected us. Though we weren’t thrilled at the time, their requirement that renters have prior positive reviews made us more trusting of the system. As newbies, we had no reviews, but we tinkered with our profile, found a new place, reached out to owners directly and had an incredible experience.

It shouldn’t have taken seven years.

Whether you’re looking for an apartment in France or a winter cottage in Muskoka, these tips might be the difference between a stay to remember and children eating ice cream, salted with your guilty tears.

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The Greenwood Davis family are all smiles at their Airbnb rental this summer. The happy experience taught the clan a lot about what to look for in a home vacation rental.

Courtesy of Heather Greenwood Davis

Know what you want before you start looking

Have a written list of what you need so that you won’t be so swayed by a beautiful property that you miss that it has no bathtub for the kids. And nothing is worse than running all day, coming home with a just-pop-it-the-oven pizza and a bottle of wine, only to find out that your home has no oven or corkscrew. (Ask me how I know.)

Consider this a mutual application

Sure, you’re hoping to borrow someone’s home, but they are also hoping to rent it. The application process is a two-way street: You should be interviewing them as much as they are interviewing you. Are you a serious cook? You’ll want a home where the kitchen is equipped to handle that. Particularly fussy about your sheets? Get the details that will put your mind at ease. For every question they have about your prior rental experience and pet’s behaviour, you may have a few of your own. Ask them.

Remember you’re renting the neighbourhood too

A 2018 study commissioned by Airbnb found that 49 per cent of Canadians feel that outdoor family-friendly amenities are the “most important” feature when it comes to choosing a place to stay. Pop your rental home location into Google Maps and zoom in. Is the area too secluded? Are you uncomfortable with the proximity to the local nightclub or highways? Are there barriers (noise, sight, physical) to enjoying the outdoor spaces? Does the pool look sketchy? Are the neighbours a problem? I’ve had friends show up for rentals and then been asked to pretend they were visiting family because neighbours were opposed to the rental. Not cool.

Be realistic about your children

Not every “family-friendly” space is actually friendly for your family. That gorgeous glass fireplace in the living room? Remember how Johnny loves to throw things. The easy-access dock? Remember your wandering three-year-old. Be realistic about how your family will behave before locking into a spot that will have you constantly nervous. Pick a home that suits you and your family, and you won’t have to adapt. (Also: Take pictures of the property on arrival. You’ll want to be able to prove the black handprint on the white couch was there when you arrived.)

Understand what’s included

Never assume. Is there a charge for parking? Is the WiFi limited to the front room? Is it pet-friendly? Do they have basic home supplies such as salt, pepper and soap? Are you expected to bring your own towels? Be thorough in your ask. The extra costs that may be associated with the “little things” may change your choice. Besides, the time to find out that there isn’t a second roll of toilet paper in the house isn’t when you reach for it.

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