Staying at a real home away from home

Golden Valley is a picturesque rural area of southwestern North Carolina that isn't on a state road map. About five times each day, though, potential vacationers contact Bob Singer about renting a house or cabin he manages there.

Singer's small company, which managed one cabin seven years ago and now manages 10 homes with views of the Blue Ridge Mountains, is part of a vacation rental industry that's growing rapidly, both at popular and obscure destinations.

"The Internet is the only way I could make a buck," says Singer, who pays $3,000 annually to list the 10 properties at Rentalo.com.

The Internet is doing for vacation rentals what eBay ebay and similar online marketplaces have done for merchandise sellers. For not much money, owners can now display via the Web their vacation properties to a worldwide audience of potential renters.

As a result, big-money investors are rushing to exploit the Web. Some are moving to consolidate listings and make money by conducting the rental transaction, brokering the deal or managing the property.

In one sure sign of the industry boom, big online travel agencies such as Expedia expe, Travelocity and Hotels.com, which once offered only hotel rooms, are displaying vacation home rentals as a lodging choice.

Big-name companies such as Barry Diller's IAC iaci and Wyndham Worldwide wyn, the leader in marketing and managing vacation rentals in Europe, are moving aggressively into the business. HomeAway, a well-financed start-up launched in 2005, aims to consolidate vacation rental websites and make itself a nationally recognized brand.

The Web has unleashed "the next growth wave" in the once-sleepy business of vacation rentals, says Steve Reich, an executive at LeisureLink, a vacation property marketing firm. "The Internet made the vacation rental inventory more searchable and less dependent on word of mouth and print ads," says Reich.

Travelers are benefitting from more choices and better websites, including some with video tours of each property. They're also demanding and getting a higher degree of assurance that the vacation property they rent meets expected standards, and that they won't be fleeced.

And owners of second homes, such as Joe Morgan, are reaping the benefits of greater exposure on the Web. Morgan, a Tampa anesthesiologist who owns a five-bedroom house managed by Singer, had planned to sell it. The general downturn in the real estate market prompted Morgan to hold onto the new house. He's been so successful renting it that he no longer plans to sell. And he's now planning to build a second rental home in North Carolina. "We've been absolutely thrilled, so far," he says.

The target of all the activity are travelers such as Kathleen Jurkovich of Minneapolis. She plans to rent a vacation house in New Mexico because she loved a house in Santa Barbara, Calif., she rented for her family through a rental website three years ago.

"It was completely as advertised and had a beautiful patio on a cliff overlooking the ocean and the Channel Islands," she says.

On the rise

Estimates about the size of the vacation rental market in the USA vary. One of the more expansive estimates, from HomeAway, says it generates $63 billion in revenue annually, or nearly half as much as the hotel industry.

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