Many Americans contemplating a vacation home abandoned that dream when the housing market collapsed. But now that home values have climbed month after month, with the median price up about 20% since its bottom nearly three years ago, you may once again be toying with the idea of that lakefront, ski or beach getaway place. About 13% of homes purchased last year were intended as vacation homes, up from 11% in 2012, according to the National Association of Realtors.
Yet you shouldn’t let the fact that the market has stabilized drive your buying decisions. Instead follow these seven steps to take to make sure a vacation home is right for you, and won’t turn out to be an expensive headache.
1. Choose the Location Carefully
This may sound obvious, but before you start shopping you need to be able to specify why exactly you want this second home. The answer should shape where you look. For example, 87% of vacation home purchasers in 2013 planned to use the property primarily to getaway with their families, according to the NAR. Thus the typical home purchased was an average 180 miles from the buyers’ primary residence.
If the main purpose is for you and your loved ones to gather together and enjoy the house as a family, you’ll need it to be in an area that is easily accessible for everyone, and that offers plenty of activities for different age groups. While you may think jumping on a flight to Florida isn’t a big deal, elderly grandparents or parents of small children may disagree.
Buyers who plan to rent the home to others- as 25% of purchasers do- may want to choose a location with numerous seasons of rental demand, so you aren’t limited to income only, say, three months of the year (likely when you want to use the home too). When you’re viewing the home as an investment property you’ll also care more about projected growth rates of the communities you’re considering, as well as the health of the local economy.
2. Rent Before You Purchase
Before you lock yourself in, rent a place (more than once is best) in the area you’re considering to be certain you’ll actually enjoy it. Stay for at least two weeks to make sure you don’t grow bored on extended stays.
Try to visit in different seasons to understand weather and crowd patterns. For example, you may realize that you hate needing to book a dinner reservation well in advance during the summer busy season, when you’re there to relax.
Or if you plan to eventually move to the home full-time, as one-third of buyers do, you may decide a house outside of town is actually too lonely and inconvenient. Only 32% of vacation homes purchased last year were in a small town or rural locale.
You’ll also learn what part of town you prefer. For example, in Orlando vacation homes are spread out throughout the city, but you may prefer the shops and restaurants in Kissimmee over Davenport.
3. Buy Under Your Budget
Don’t fall into the trap of purchasing a property that is a stretch to afford. Buying a house with too high of monthly carrying costs causes stress, and most people go on vacation to getaway from troubles. It also means that if you eventually decide you want to hire someone to manage the place, or care for the yard, there won’t be any wiggle room in your budget to afford it.
Keep in mind that you can always upgrade to a bigger house down the road.
4. Be Realistic About How Often You’ll Use It
My wife and I have three kids. When they were young we bought a vacation home near our house. We used it all the time. As the kids got older, though, we visited the house less and less. Weekend sports games, friends sleeping over, and church and school activities left too little time to get there.
Be realistic when you make assumptions about how often you’ll actually be able to use the place. You may be better off working out a rental agreement with an owner in the area to use his or her place two or three times a year- and forget about the place when you’re not there.
5. Understand the Tax Implications
Don’t assume you know what the tax consequences of owning that property will be, based on your experience with your primary residence. Second homes can be more complicated.
If you are going to rent out the property, you will need to pay income taxes on the rental income you receive. Your property taxes may also run higher than what you pay now, either because the tax rate in the vacation area is higher than where you live, or because its a second home and not a primary residence. For example, the taxes on second homes in Florida are usually much higher than for primary residences.
A qualified real estate agent should be able to provide details about taxes in the area, and possibly even tips on ways to save, such as buying just outside the city limits.
6. Make a Conservative Estimate of Rental Income
Most buyers tend to be overly optimistic about how often they’ll rent out the place. Talk to a local vacation rental agency about how many weeks of the year you can realistically expect demand. For example, even in a winter and summer destination such as Lake Tahoe you can’t expect to fill the place every month of the year.
You also need a realistic estimate of how much expenses will eat into that income. Presume repairs will cost about 1.5% of the value of the house. So for a $100,000 place budget for at least $1500 a year in repairs. Each year the tab might be higher or lower than the estimate, but this rule of thumb will give you some flexibility from year to year.
Similarly, find out ahead of time what your home insurance tab will run, since second homes are often in hurricane or flood areas and thus pricey to insure, and also may cost more simply because they are empty more often.
7. Don’t Get Caught Up in the Moment
If a friend, family member or another investor brings you an opportunity to buy a vacation home, or to acquire land with aspirations of building a grand home, don’t let yourself be easily persuaded. The proposal can sound romantic but quickly turn into a horror story. Sometimes people have alternative motives. Other times they haven’t actually done their homework to uncover that the so-called deal isn’t really a good one.
So slow down, take your time — and do your research. Move forward only after you have thoroughly run the numbers yourself. An opportunity that turns sour will eat up your money- as well as your precious vacation days.