Your house is my house – Part I

Are you vacation rental material?

Every time I share pictures and posts from my trips to Italy, I inevitably get asked about how I found our vacation rental property. What I’ve learned over the years is that it’s less about what rental agency or website I use, and more about knowing what kind of experience I want to have. This is the first in a series (I think I could write a book, actually) about my experience with vacation rentals in Italy.

It happens usually the first or second week after I’ve returned from a trip. A friend or co-worker asks me to coffee or lunch so they can pick my brain on finding a rental for their next vacation to Italy or Europe. What happens, though, is I usually wind up asking them a bunch of questions before I can impart any knowledge.

  • Are you staying in one place, or do you plan to go to Rome, Florence, Venice, Pompeii all in seven days?
  • Are you planning to rent a car?
  • Will you be cooking in or eating out?
  • Do you want to be within walking distance of cafes, restaurants, shops, etc.?
  • What type of amenities do you want — Pool? Air conditioning? Internet/WiFi? Bathroom for every bedroom?
  • Do you need housekeeping or can you make your own bed?
  • Do you know what to do if the power goes out or a toilet overflows, or how to deal with minor but sometimes common household problems? (Not an odd question to ask in apartment-living, doorman-dependent Manhattan.)

The reality is, not everyone is cut out for vacation rentals. You can certainly pay to have hotel-like amenities at your vacation rental or you can choose hotels or B&Bs that feel like a vacation rental. In my opinion, however, the top reason for renting a home instead of staying in a hotel is the opportunity to immerse yourself a little more deeply in the culture you are visiting.

Our first vacation rental, in Umbria

Our first vacation rental, in Umbria

For example, when we rent a home or apartment in Italy, we plan to cook some of our meals (although sometimes it’s just breakfast) at home. So that means we have to go to the market or alimentari (food shop) daily or every few days. And what happens there? You get a chance to interact with vendors and other shoppers, try different kinds of products/fruits/vegetables, and have a small, but authentic experience that isn’t included in one of Rick Steve’s tour guides (not knocking Rico Stefani, he’s great).

Italian vacation homes, while equipped with the traveler in mind, still usually reflect local customs and traditions. I’m a big fan of HGTV’s “House Hunters International” and it never ceases to blow my mind when Americans are looking at homes abroad and freak out because things are DIFFERENT from home, like not having a garbage disposal or the presence of a bidet in every bathroom. In fact, I watched an episode last night featuring a woman from Tulsa looking at homes in France, and she said about the bidet, “I just don’t know what we’ll do with that. I guess we’ll find a table to put over it.”

Bird's-eye view of our rental on the Amalfi coast

Bird’s-eye view of our rental on the Amalfi coast

Isn’t that the point of going to new places is to experience things that are not like home? In addition to strange plumbing features, other things you’re likely to encounter in Italian homes:

  • No screens on windows
  • Small refrigerators and even smaller (or non-existent) freezers
  • Stoves and ovens with dials and gauges in Celsius
  • Washing machines and dishwashers whose controls look nothing like what’s on your Maytag at home
  • No trash pick up — generally, you dispose of your refuse (separated for recycling) in centrally located bins in towns
  • No clothes dryers
  • Unheated pools

All of the above, as well as other differences you may encounter, are easily navigable (and can even be part of the fun), you just need to be prepared

The very first house I rented in Italy, back in 2004, was listed by RentVillas.com. They sent me a small but extremely useful book, “Italy, Italian-Style: Notes for the Traveler to Italy”. We rented a farmhouse for a month in Umbria, and the little tips in this indispensable book made the first days of our trip go smoothly. I still have it, although I noticed the founder of RentVillas.com has a book on Amazon, “The Insider’s Guide to Living Like a Local in Italy.” It seems to have the same basic content.

Also good for those who are new to Italy is a handy little book entitled, “Italy: Instructions for Use,” by Nan McElroy. Also available on Amazon.com, it doesn’t seem to have been updated in at least six years (maybe I should write a book). Neither of these books are meant to be in-depth guides to Italy, but they expand on fundamentals for ensuring a stress-free trip.

While I always make sure that there is someone on the ground nearby (an employee of the rental agency or a rep for the owner) should something go wrong, you also need to be prepared to handle certain situations on your own.

View from the loft of our Rome apartment rental

View from the loft of our Rome apartment rental

Say, for example, you’re staying in a farmhouse, in Marche, and there’s a bad storm in the middle of dinner, when you’ve had a bit of wine and your cell phone isn’t working so great, I can almost guarantee you the power will go out.

The remedy is probably just lighting some candles (and opening more wine) while you wait for the power to come back on. You may have to flip a switch, or push an enormous red button on the side of the house like my father did once (that’s another story). The point is, stuff happens, and you have to be up for the challenge of dealing with it.

So, do you think you’re cut out for being a temporary resident of Italy?

In an upcoming post, I’ll share my method for finding the perfect holiday home, including my secret weapon: a really good spreadsheet.

Our rental in Le Marche

Our rental in Le Marche

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3 comments

  1. Julie Birger · · Reply

    I’m pretty sure I hate you.

    1. I love you, Sweet Jules! I assume this means you’re signing up for my next trip?

  2. Actually it was a big white button. If the button had been red I would have been even more terrified.

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