How to successfully rent out your vacation property

Chances are, most Canadians still won’t be flying south this winter for a sun-soaked holiday so they’ll probably be looking for domestic vacation rental properties closer to home instead. If you own a cottage and are considering renting it out for the season, this is a great time to do so, says HGTV’s Income Property and cottage rental expert Scott McGillivray.

“Right now, more than ever, domestic vacation properties are at a premium,” says McGillivray. “It’s hard to ignore the size of the opportunity and the rental rates you can generate.”

However, if you’ve never played landlord before, you’ve got some homework to do first. We asked McGillivray for his best advice on how to protect your home, your stuff and your sanity.

It’s not as easy as it looks on TV

“It can be super lucrative to have a vacation rental property, but it can also end in disaster if you’re completely unprepared,” warns McGillivray.

Because short-term vacation rentals don’t fall under the same jurisdiction as single-family residential rentals — which are usually governed by the province with straightforward landlord and tenant agreements — you’ll want to protect yourself against damage to your property by drawing up a rental agreement. To figure out what to charge, calculate your expenses plus add-ons such as the cost of turning the property over between guests and extra stress on your power grid and septic system. And even though it’s a landlord’s market right now, don’t get greedy by asking too much for your place, warns McGillivray.

“I’ve seen people post their place for a fortune, and then it ends up being available for a longer period of time, or you might end up with 30 people splitting an expensive price and then having a huge party there — that’s a lot of stress on your property,” he says.

Instead, list at a price that is market appropriate but also within the demographic you’re looking for. Always include a refundable damage deposit — typically, 10-25% of the rent you’re charging, paid upfront — plus a cleaning fee, he suggests.


Avoid the horror stories you read about on social media

Unless you screen potential renters, you might end up with people who aren’t exactly respectful of your property. Whether they neglect to clean up the aftermath of a drunken soirée, melt your plug-in tea kettle on the stove or cram extra people in without permission, bad renters are out there, says McGillivray.

“It’s your vacation property, where you have a lot of memories, and it’s nice to generate some income, but it can also be scary if you don’t get the right people,” he explains. “So really make sure you’re vetting your tenants properly. I see landlords who have bad experiences because they have no signed contract, didn’t take any credit card or any driver’s license information and no damage deposit. I never break the rules, whether it’s someone related to me or a complete stranger from another country.”

Ask potential tenants for their rental history and other references, advises McGillivray.

“I would never rent my property to just anyone,” he says. “Take the time to contact previous landlords.”


Prepare your property

Short-term vacation rentals are considered furnished, turnkey experiences, which means you supply linens, towels and an equipped kitchen. Be sure to pack up your valuables, sentimental and personal items like clothing and toiletries, along with any alcohol into a locked closet or utility room, advises McGillivray.

Since the pandemic, cleaning standards and expectations have increased, so in addition to washing all bedding and towels, you’ll want to take disinfecting to the next level.

“We now clean the furniture with antibacterial sprays, and we also leave sanitizing wipes and hand sanitizer for guests,” says McGillivray. “Our cleaning staff wear masks and shields, and tenants are told to bring their own toiletries.”

It’s also a good idea to leave your tenants with a checklist for how you want the property returned to you. Pro tip: Leave cleaning supplies plus a vacuum and broom with dustpan, so renters can tidy up.

“Don’t go into this ignorant; take your time and do your homework,” says McGillivray. “The more work you do up front, the less it’s going to cost you on the back end.”