By Laura Wallis
Illustrations by Kelsey Grass
Among the many perks of owning property in Vacationland: a steady influx of visitors who just might be willing to shell out for a stay in your pad. Make the most of your asset with help from our insider guide.
Once you’ve heard it, it’s hard to resist the siren call of the Maine getaway: the bustle of a coastal village in summer or the tranquility of a cabin on a western lake, its quiet broken only by the occasional loon. That appeal is evidenced by the throngs of vacation renters who arrive each year. Vacationland is enjoying a hotter-than-ever short-term rental market right now, thanks in large part to the explosive growth of peer-to-peer rental companies. Airbnb reports that its service brought more than 450,000 guests to the state in 2018 — resulting in $66 million in supplemental income for Maine homeowners. At the same time, traditional vacation rentals, operated by local agencies, are still very much thriving. According to industry group Vacation Rental Professionals of Maine, there are currently 93 such agencies, which rake in roughly $420 million per year in tourism dollars for the state.
If you’re thinking of tapping into the market — whether to help cover the cost of your dream summer cottage, bankroll your future retirement home, or feather your year-round nest — opportunity awaits. But it’s smart to do your homework first. Keep reading for a primer on how to get started.
Decide What Kind of Listing You Want
Unless you’ve got loads of time, and a large network of potential renters, you’ll probably need help managing and marketing your property.
You Can Go Local
If you want the rewards of renting your place without much day-to-day involvement — say your primary residence is far away, or you’re just too busy to be the point person — working with a local agency can be ideal. Specific services vary, but you can expect an agency to advise you on pricing and preparing your home for listing; take photos and market the house online; screen and book potential renters; manage maintenance and cleaning; and handle the finances, including filing state taxes and preparing accounting paperwork. Most local agents also offer personal touches to make guests feel welcome — from leaving a bottle of wine or fresh flowers in the house to answering calls about the best place to rent a kayak or pick up fresh lobster.
The local in local agency is the selling point that can’t be overstated, and not just for the charm factor. “We’re there to check and keep an eye on things,” Michaela Bichrest, of Your Island Connection in Harpswell, says. They’re also there to cover emergencies, which can be reassuring if you’re 1,000 miles away and the water heater doesn’t work or the lights won’t come on.
Some agencies keep a full-time maintenance team on staff during the season; others rely on a close network of local pros they can trust to pick up the phone, even on busy holiday weekends. “Some people call and call and don’t get them,” notes Bichrest. “We call and they come right down.” This level of service, of course, comes at a price. Expect to pay a commission on rental income ranging from 15 to 35 percent or higher.
You Can Go Online
If you’re able to be more involved in the process — perhaps you’re renting part of your primary home, you live close to your rental, or you’re far flung but have great local connections — a peer-to-peer rental marketplace might be for you. Some of the biggest names, in addition to Airbnb, include HomeAway and VRBO — both owned by Expedia — and FlipKey, a TripAdvisor company. It’s hard to beat the exposure these platforms provide. As Alison Kwong, public relations manager at HomeAway, points out, “listings through local rental agencies are often viewed by travelers who are already familiar with the local and surrounding areas, but listings on HomeAway are viewed by millions of travelers from around the world.”
If you go the online route, it’s important to find the right match. Philosophically, Airbnb is focused on community building, emphasizing guest-host interaction and a wide variety of stays, including shorter two- and three-day rentals and shared living spaces. HomeAway and VRBO, on the other hand, deal exclusively with unhosted (i.e., the homeowners are not on premises), whole-home rentals — and provide a two-for-one benefit, automatically distributing listings from one site to the other. FlipKey offers private rooms and whole properties that may be viewed by a broader range of travelers, since TripAdvisor also showcases hotels, restaurants, and more.
Most companies have resources to assist with pricing your property and creating a successful listing; some, like Airbnb and HomeAway, also collect and remit Maine state taxes and other fees. Commissions range from about 3 to 8 percent of booking (HomeAway and VRBO also offer a $499 annual subscription option in lieu of booking fees), so, in theory, you keep more of your profits. But there are other expenses you’ll need to keep in mind (see Consider Other Costs below).
You Can Do Both
With so much competition from online homesharing companies, local agencies are scrambling to keep up with the times. Many advertise at least some of their properties on the major online platforms to expand their customer base. But aside from adding an extra layer of fees, Audrey Miller, of Cottage Connection in Boothbay, cautions that the national companies sometimes have rules — like cancellation policies that allow for a full or partial refund within seven days of the rental period — that don’t always suit the unique Maine marketplace. “When you have a house that’s only available for eight weeks in the summer and someone cancels that late, the chances of recovering that reservation are nil,” she explains.
There’s also a new crop of national rental agencies, such as Turnkey and Vacasa, that perform many of the functions of local outfits, including providing access and scheduling cleaning and maintenance, but advertise via partnerships with all the big booking sites, so your listing is seen by the largest pool of potential renters. And they do it for lower commissions (generally around 18 percent) than local agencies usually can. But reviews so far are mixed, in part, perhaps, because companies “from away” lack the bedrock of regional vendors and knowledge, and because they are working to standardize an industry that, in Maine, is its own beast. Miller has heard some pushback from homeowners who felt that incorporating the “luxury” details the agencies wanted altered the character of their homes. “We have our own brand and charm as a state, and houses reflect that,” she says. “We don’t want to be cookie cutter.”
Make It Shine
Following these expert tips can make the difference between a full and empty house.
Clean, clean, clean. “We are sticklers for cleanliness,” Michaela Bichrest says. “We check the property twice on turnover day, because if someone is going to complain, they’re going to complain about that.”
Also, Wi-Fi, Wi-Fi, Wi-Fi. “Good Wi-Fi and television are musts,” Maureen Regan says. “Gone are the days when people want that old cabin experience.” (And even if they do, they still want decent Wi-Fi.)
But play up the Maine charm too. Instead of focusing on modern luxury in every detail, think about how guests will use the property. Make sure there’s a lobster pot and crackers, books, board games, and plenty of wine glasses. “If you’re on the water, people will want to get in,” adds Audrey Miller. “Provide them with kayaks, canoes, ladders.”
Create an eye-catching listing. Light woods and walls are appealing in listings, and cheerful in person. After sprucing up, hire a professional to photograph your space and, if your listing website allows for it, include a virtual tour.
Emphasize the family dynamic. Maine is not wild-party, spring-break territory. Paint a picture of the kind of experience a family can share in your listing, so they can imagine their vacation.
Don’t get too personal. “Decorate the home how you like, as you’ll be enjoying it personally, but remember that a traveler doesn’t necessarily want to be in a home filled with family photos and paraphernalia,” Alison Kwong says.
If you don’t want to be replacing your linens all the time, stock up on white sheets and towels made from Egyptian or pima cotton. They can be bleached to remove stains and are durable enough to hold up to heavy use.
Set the Right Price
There is a lot of information at your disposal for pricing your property. An agent can review comps of similar houses in your area to give you a starting point. And many will have tools — either low-tech (“Over 25 years, we have developed a 20-question worksheet,” Miller says), or high, like proprietary software that eliminates guesswork. If you’re employing a homesharing platform, you might give a third-party vendor such as Beyond Pricing, PriceLabs, or Wheelhouse a spin. For a fee (typically 1 percent of bookings), they use real-time market data to determine the ideal price for your property on a given date, with the goal of optimizing revenue. Platforms like Airbnb and HomeAway have also introduced their own (free) versions of these programs — it might take some trials to see which tools give you the best results.
For those in the market for a rental property, it behooves you to research pricing before you make a down payment. “[Selling agents] don’t always have a knowledge of what people are getting for rent in an area,” Regan says. “Some people will be told they can get $3,000 a week, but they might not even be able to get $2,000 — and that can hurt their financial outlook.”
Pets or No Pets?
To protect yourself against unexpected damage, be sure your lease spells out the rules: no smoking, maximum number of guests/cars, and pets or no pets. Regarding the latter question, Maureen Regan says her agency used to have a pet-free policy, but recently began offering some properties that allow one dog. “It turns out, especially if the house is in a less ideal location, permitting pets can be an advantage,” she says. Audrey Miller agrees: “Maine is very dog friendly,” so banning them could cause you to lose potential customers. If you permit pooches, you’ll want to charge an extra fee (typically $100 to $300 per week) for more in-depth cleaning between renters. And, no matter where you land on the issue, remember that, per law, you must allow service animals.
Know the Laws
The surge in short-term vacation rentals has led to backlash across the country — primarily over concerns about transient populations in residential communities, unfair competition with hotels and inns, and a scarcity of affordable, long-term rental housing. Last fall, a referendum in South Portland upheld regulations banning almost all short-term, unhosted rentals in residential neighborhoods. In Portland, such rentals must be registered annually with the city and are capped at 400. A number of smaller vacation towns also have or are considering regulations. Rockland, for example, has temporarily capped unhosted short-term rentals at 45; Camden requires short-term rentals to be a minimum of seven days; and Kennebunkport has established a committee to examine rental rules. Long story short: Don’t put up a For Rent sign until you’re sure your place is legal.
Consider Other Costs
For starters, lodging sales tax in Maine is 9 percent. Of course, you (or your agent) can pass this expense on to your renters, but you need to remember it for your balance sheet. Your city or town may also require a registration fee (typically $100 to a few hundred dollars annually) for your property. And you’ll need insurance: A standard homeowner’s policy isn’t likely to cover damage and liability associated with renting. Some companies offer short-term rental riders on existing plans or you might need commercial coverage. If you’re listing online, platforms like Airbnb offer free damage protection and liability insurance; your insurance carrier can help you determine if the coverage is adequate for your needs.
Also factor in costs associated with keeping your house safety-code compliant (something you’d want to do anyway!) and employing a cleaning/maintenance staff if you’re not with an agency or performing these functions yourself. You might pay a flat fee to keep local vendors and/or a caretaker on retainer, or pay on a per-task basis. Don’t forget about trash pickup if your municipality doesn’t provide this.
Then there’s the cost of reinvesting in your property. “As with any business, I recommend homeowners take at least 10 percent of the money they bring in and put it back into their house each year,” Maureen Regan, of Seaside Vacation Rentals in York, says. That might mean painting, making repairs, or updating décor, technology, and linens. “People expect the experience to be equal to the home they have, or better,” she says.
How They Do It
Meet some homeowners who are happily — and successfully — navigating the Maine rental scene.
The Local Investor
John Scavo, York Beach
Scavo’s rental house in York Beach is just three miles from his primary residence, and for him, the ideal investment property. Before buying it in 2017, he’d owned and rented out a three-family home in Boston, but “it was getting harder and harder to take care of from 60 miles away!”
Today, he manages the vacation home with the help of York’s Seaside Vacation Rentals, but doesn’t avail himself of all their services. “They handle the reservations, accounting, guests, cleaning, and so on; I’m the property manager,” he explains. Though he just started renting the house last summer, he had little trouble booking it through most of the high season.
His secrets to success? “The house is extremely clean, and I take care of it as if I lived there.” He has also created detailed guides that explain everything from how to work the appliances to the best dining spots in town. And he’s learned to take a flexible approach to pricing. “The first month, it wasn’t getting hits. [My agent] said, ‘we should probably come down a couple hundred.’ We did — found the sweet spot — and it really filled up.” Even now, if people want to book but can’t quite meet the price, he’ll work with them. “The building is paid for, so I can have some flexibility.”
Holly and John Raymond, Owls Head
Virginians Holly and John Raymond have owned a farmhouse in Owls Head for 14 years. She was born in Maine and always knew she wanted to come back. “I drove my husband nuts until we bought a place!”
They now spend up to eight weeks a year at the farmhouse and rent it some in the interim. Holly manages the property and bookings, advertising via word of mouth and the occasional Facebook post. “We had an agency, but I was finding more renters locally and through our family,” she says. Because the house is truly their second home — and they don’t feel the need to book it solid — the pair prefers vetting visitors personally. The arrangement works because they’ve built a dependable local network that includes a housekeeper, a neighbor who watches the place when they’re away, and contractors they know well.
Her best tip? Immerse yourself in the community. “We were worried about the whole ‘from away’ thing. Would there be a stigma? But our lobsterman-friend said, ‘if you come in and pay taxes and don’t try to change things, you’ll have more help than you’ll ever need.’ And he was right.”
The Hosting Team
Carol Sue Cain and Jim Botts, Lubec
Northern California residents Carol Sue Cain and Jim Botts plan to retire to Maine in a couple of years. In anticipation (and with proceeds from a condo they sold back home), they bought a circa 1900 Victorian and modest, two-bedroom guest cottage near West Quoddy Head lighthouse.
Though they intend to live in the Victorian and rent the cottage for retirement income, for now, they’re renting out both residences long distance. They make it work with the help of local partners. They purchased the main house from a property manager who’d been renting it out for nine years and agreed to continue managing it for a fee. And they rent the cottage via Airbnb, with an assist from a local Realtor who serves as their “boots on the ground” for a share of the hosting profits.
It’s a family affair: the agent’s builder-husband helps line up contractors, when needed, and her daughter-in-law is the housekeeper. Right away, the arrangement paid off. “After our first summer rental season, we became a Super Host!” Cain says, referring to a designation on Airbnb for its most highly rated hosts.