Rental Ins and Outs
Here, you’ll find all sorts of questions you might have asked yourselves. This is a HUGE compendium of advice we’ve given to people like yourselves for past quarter-century. We immodestly happen to think it’s not only informative, but pretty funny as well. But it’s LONG. We just can’t resist sharing everything we know with you. And once you begin to read these FAQs through, we will bet that you won’t be able to resist either.
Click on each question, and a larger window opens up.
- freestanding homes with (or without) their own private swimming pool and/or tennis court, those without pools tending to be in coastal resorts where there is easy access to the sea for swimming;
- more rustic freestanding farmhouses, with or without their own private swimming pools.
- freestanding cottages on an estate where, if there is a swimming pool, it is shared by all the renters of the cottages. apartments which form part of a structure and where facilities like the pool are shared. These apartments can be quite elegant and luxurious indeed. Other times, they are far more than decent but not fancy. The structure which has been divided up could be a grand noble palace; it could be a former farmhouse; it could be a mill or other rural outbuilding. The former status of these structures is no indication of the level of luxury to which the owner has restored them. In short, a former bishop’s palace could have been divided up into cookie-cutter, style-free units, while a much more “rustic” farmhouse might have been divided into a series of quite luxurious flats. You never know.
- flats or indeed entire houses, within cities.
In short, we describe all of our offerings, of whatever sort, as a “villa”.
The short answer is: As early in the game as possible.
BUT before giving a complete answer to this question, we urge you please to contact us no matter how short the notice. We may still have the exactly right place for you. It is by no means certain that a very popular villa might not by fluke have remained remain open for just your week, even if you call as late as two weeks ahead of time, even in peak season. We’ve seen this happen repeatedly over the years. So don’t be discouraged from asking. More likely, you’ll have to make a few compromises, but most often we can find something for you far better than merely adequate.
Obviously, flexibility on your part helps. If you’ve got to have the perfect apartment in the Dorsoduro section of Venice, with two absolutely equal bedrooms, each with its own en-suite bath and a terrace, then please give us more than two weeks’ notice!
One thing we love about last-minute requests, though: There’s no agonizing. We say what we’ve got. You take it or leave it. And that’s it.
Having said all of that, here’s The Rule of Thumb:
If you’re looking for a free-standing house with 3 or more bedrooms, in the Tuscan or Umbrian countryside, with its own swimming pool, anytime between May and October, we suggest making a commitment one year in advance. We have NEVER seen bookings being done as far ahead as now. Truly popular villas have bookings even two years ahead.
Our most requested period in the year, bar none, is the last two weeks in June. If that is the period you want, then get your act together early, and we mean it. There aren’t that many good free-standing villas to go around anyhow, and the competition is intense. You Europeans know you’ve got to book way ahead; North Americans are only now catching on.
A fall rental demands an even longer lead time than one in spring. Why? Because many people do their trip-planning at the same time for the following year, whether that trip is to be in May or October. Thus, in the fall of the preceding year, we are simultaneously receiving requests for both spring and fall of the following year.
City apartments and smaller country cottages are different, and you can often find openings at the relative last minute, meaning 2 to 6 months in advance, especially in mid- or low season
Another thing about cities: They don’t usually have seasons. Our experience now is that February and March are just as popular for rental as spring and fall months.
Again: For all rentals, it takes only one other person to have come along before you to ruin your chances for that one house you’ve just got to have.
And finally: Call us anyway. Some of the very best houses – including important villas in popular locations which have had most of the season booked more than a year in advance – still have gaps which may never be filled.
Renting a villa or apartment or cottage in Italy is not the same as staying in hotel. If you rent a cottage at Cape Cod for a month and the light bulb burns out, or the toilet paper or soap runs out, you replace it by going to the store and buying a new one. You take the garbage out. You make your beds. There is no concierge. You make your own plans for hikes or daytrips, and you make your own restaurant reservations. And in general, these same rules of common sense apply in Italy as well. Property owners are not hotel concierges, although they are often – not always – generous in giving advice. If traveling independently intimidates you, be honest about it and stay in a hotel where such concierge services are (supposedly) included. In short, when we want hotel services, we go to hotel. If you want the same, we give you the same advice.
We believe in being completely candid with you. We know these properties personally. In our written descriptions, when we say a place is “rustic” or “simple”, we mean it. When we say it’s “truly deluxe”, we mean it. (As promised on our homepage, we won’t use the word “luxury” because it’s such a slippery term.) We and you may have vastly different definitions of these sorts of adjectives, and it is extremely important that we understand our respective standards. When we say “rustic”, we don’t envision Laura Ashley. If you do, then please say so. This is perhaps the most crucial part of our work with you.
Moreover, if you’re two or three couples traveling together, staying in hotel defeats the purpose of why you’re presumably together in the first place: to socialize. We don’t think that socializing in a hotel lobby makes it, when compared to your own living room or by your own swimming pool.
Staying for 2 weeks in a hotel if you’re a family with children? Forget it. An accommodation of your own will let you have real quality time together. Perhaps even more important from a practical point of view, food is so much easier with children when you’ve got your own place. It isn’t that you have to cook every night, or at all. But a kitchen gives you the capability of doing takeout, heating food up, and dining on real dishes, not paper plates.
In another area of concern, clients have repeatedly told us over the years that they’re tired of the superficial. They want to get an in-depth look at one particular area, whether it be a full immersion into Rome or Venice, exploration of the Tuscan or Umbrian hilltowns, or simple relaxation on the Amalfi Coast or on Capri.
To us, the best thing about renting a house is the how the rhythm of our daily life becomes transformed. Whether we’re in the country or the city, in the mountains or by the sea, we love getting up and out on an excursion early. We enjoy having a big lunch out. But after consuming that big lunch, often washed down with several glasses of wine, we can think of no more alluring prospect than returning to our apartment or villa or farmhouse or cottage, taking out our mystery novel, and relaxing. Relaxing without a claustrophobic hotel room to call home, relaxing with the ability to raid the refrigerator, with the ability to jump into the pool, with the ability to throw together a salad in the evening and not go out to endure, yet again, the full 3-hour ceremony. Renting a house allows your trip to become a real vacation.
Now, it’s quite true that you can find a 3rd- or maybe even a 2nd-class hotel in this same range or less, including, of course, daily maid service. Bed-and-breakfasts in cities have become a cheaper alternative. So we readily admit that staying in a hotel or B+B can be cheaper, though with ordinary 3-star hotels in Rome and Venice running 300 euros per night or more, it’s hard to imagine a hotel being really advantageous in terms of cost.
And again, the whole experience is different. Having your own apartment with a living room, sometimes a fireplace, a separate bedroom, and a kitchen is entirely different from staying in a hotel room. You may not get the daily maid service (although this can often be arranged), but you get a lot of space and charm which, to our mind, more than compensate. The ability to experience shopping the produce markets and preparing your own lunch with fresh ingredients is a positive one, to say the least.
Finally, even sticking strictly with cost considerations, we would argue that the true comparison should be between an apartment and a hotel suite, not a hotel room. If this is the measure, then the apartment wins hands down. If you’re a group of three couples renting an upscale villa with a swimming pool pool in the countryside for 7000 euros per week split three ways, we think you get yourself a bargain.
If you’re a couple with two kids renting a cottage in high season for 2000 euros a week, we think that’s a bargain these days, at least in Italy, where you’d spend 300 euros a night for two modest rooms in a country hotel and not have the ability to eat in! If you’re among those used to staying in deluxe hotels at 300 to upwards of 800 or 1000 euros per might or more for a room (a room, not a suite), we think a city apartment at 2000 euros per week is a real bargain.
Still, we admit that Vacanza Bella does not claim to be a budget outfit. And nowadays, you can find absolutely anything on the internet at any budget, even a rock-bottom budget. We simply can’t compete with true budget properties, and that’s the simple reality.
There are such villas! And whenever such a villa is offered to us, we encourage the owner to “de-personalize” it. There is such a thing as TOO personal.
On the other hand, there are villas which are strictly “rentals” which are absolutely gorgeous. No owner’s lingerie there!
To us, the best is a mix. And we can give you expert guidance, as we know these villas personally.
In Italy, “immediately” is a relative term. If it’s a Sunday in August, it’s not going to get attended to until Monday at the earliest, even if the owner does his damnedest to resolve the matter.
If it’s a relatively minor matter, don’t call Vacanza Bella; call the owner or housekeeper or custodian or other contact person(s). It’s not that we want to avoid responsibility for fixing something. One time, someone called us in San Francisco from Venice to say they couldn’t find the tea towels. “What the hell do we know about the tea towels?” was the answer we wanted to give.
But don’t hesitate to contact us, by email or by phone, if you simply can’t reach the owner or other responsible person, or if the problem is too big for you to resolve, if there is a real language difficulty, or if the thing isn’t getting resolved to your satisfaction. We will do our very best to smooth things along.
It’s very, very rare for us to have a problem which can’t be resolved. I don’t think it’s happened more than a handful of times in 25 years. Indeed, it’s very rare to have a problem at all. But if you encounter something that needs attention, first call the owner/caretaker/responsible person on-site; then contact us if that doesn’t work.
The fact is that Italian properties are clean. Italians are obsessed with cleanliness, far more so than other nationalities which I won’t mention. But there is another fact which we only became aware of after starting this business, and that is this: People’s standards of cleanliness differ dramatically. We make it a policy of trying to call clients for feedback after their stay. The first question is: Was it clean? You can’t imagine the variety of responses we get to this question. One person says, “It was immaculate.” The next person, who stayed one week later at the very same house, replies, “It was OK but it could have been cleaner.” One person told us once, “The maid should have vacuumed better under the beds.” Our unspoken reply was, “What in the name of God were you doing down on your hands and knees checking?”
Also, often the cleanliness of a property depends largely on who occupied it immediately before you. If they weren’t the greatest at washing their dishes or their pots and pans, you may find that you need to do some work yourself. It is simply not possible for an owner or a housekeeper, with just a few hours between renters, to control the cleanliness of every single pot, pan, plate, fork, small and large appliance. Everyone does his very best, but there are real limits.
The fact is that if you demand that the house you rent pass the white-glove test, that the tops of armoires be spotless, that you can see your reflection in the shine on the kitchen floor, you’re not going to be happy renting a house. We ourselves have rented houses on many occasions in the US and in Italy and throughout Europe. One time, we rented a place in Northern California and discovered that the dishes were simply not washed to our standards. What did we do? We washed them ourselves, of course. We didn’t call the manager and get angry about it, or demand that someone come in and do them for us. If you’re not flexible enough to adapt to situations like the ones we’ve just described, then be honest with yourselves: renting isn’t for you, at least not from Vacanza Bella.
In higher-end houses – and in some more reasonably priced houses, too — maid service can be arranged or is included in the rent. Even in high-priced villas, bed linens are not changed daily or even every other day. We change our sheets once a week, and this is the standard in Italy. If you want more frequent changes than that, it can sometimes be arranged, but within reason. We repeat: If you want the services of a high-end hotel, we think you’re better off sticking to that alternative.
If housekeeping is included, it means just that: keeping the house clean. It does not mean making beds or doing your personal laundry and ironing, nor does it mean doing your food shopping, babysitting Junior, or cooking your breakfast. Such services are sometimes available, but not automatically. And you must pay extra for them at rates of between 10 and 50 euros per hour. Hours contracted between the owner of the villa and the housekeeper to clean the house cannot be transformed into hours dedicated to cooking and ironing. The housekeeper is hired by the owner to maintain the house for your and the owner’s benefit. Extra services are between you and the housekeeper and must be paid by you on the spot or deducted from your security deposit.
Cooking? Only truly deluxe villas and a few more reasonable farmhouses come with resident cooks. We can often arrange cooks, but do you really want one? Our experience is that clients who hire cooks actually use them only about 1/3 of the time. People feel too tied down by having to appear for meals at set times. But we’re happy to make the arrangements, if you commit yourself to paying the cook even if you don’t use the services on any particular day. The cook is doing this for a living and cannot depend on last-minute whims.
Can you hire someone from outside to come in and cook for you? Sometimes you can, and we know of such people in certain locations. But the owner must approve. You can’t just invite unknown staff into a luxury villa without the owner’s approval. To them, frankly, it’s an invitation to theft.
In some villas nowadays, there’s the ideal situation in terms of a cook: a person available when you want him or her. Often our housekeepers will cook. You don’t need to hire them every day, just when you want. Inquire about this possibility.
Domestic help in Italy is not cheap. Many of you may have rented houses before in the Caribbean or Mexico. If you have, you know that even a moderately-priced house will come – at a minimum – with a maid, cook, laundress, and gardener. In Italy, this is not the case. Most domestic workers have union contracts which cost an owner a minimum of 30 euros per hour and often more. There is no such thing as “finding” someone locally who has nothing better to do than iron your sheets or cook you pasta. Such people exist, but they know how much their services are prized. The Italy of “non far niente” no longer exists. The standard of living in Northern Italy is now among the highest in Europe, just as high as in Germany and France, far higher generally than in North America. And labor relations are not quite as one-sided as in the North America or even in Britain. Work is paid at a rate which at least bears some minimal relation to its actual value, and domestic workers do not come cheap.
If we do arrange for provisions on your behalf, please pay for them upon your arrival without being asked to do so. Housekeepers are often embarrassed to ask for payment, and you should volunteer. Also, the housekeeper, who can ill afford it, will often have been the one to advance payment for these supplies, and s/he will appreciate prompt reimbursement. (This same comment, by the way, goes for cooking and other “extra” services you might arrange directly with the housekeeper. These should be paid for on a daily or every-other-day basis, and not at the end of your stay when everyone will be rushing around to move on.)
If your stay is for longer than one week, the towels will be changed at the end of each week. You say you’d like to pay for fresh towels daily? Well, it often imply isn’t a question of paying. An Italian washing machine takes a minimum of 2 hours to do a load – it really gets things clean. Italians have no dryers for the most part. So the towels have to dry in the open air. This may take a day or two depending on current meteorological conditions. It’s simply not objectively possible most times for an owner to keep up with demands for towels.
One final consideration: Italians have this stereotype of North Americans as big wasters. No European traveler asks for more towels when traveling than the supply outlined above. To our North American friends: Let’s try to improve our image.
Well, one exception: If you’ve rented a large villa and having guests come and go, it is likely that you’ll have some sort of housekeeping service. In this case, if your guests’ comings and goings don’t coincide with the once-a-week rule, obviously that’s fine, and the linens, both bed and bath linens, are going to be changed for you. But in this event, if the linen changes occur frequently – more frequently than once a week – the owner has a right to monitor the usage, charge you a per-change fee, and have it deducted from your security deposit.
The phone situation has largely been remedied by the existence of the internet. An internet connection has become a virtual must. There is still a significant number of villas without any internet connection, but that number is rapidly diminishing.
Sometimes, the internet connection is wireless. Sometimes it is via satellite. Sometimes via an external USB device (like a dongle). Sometimes it is via ethernet cable. Sometimes the villa will come with its own computer.
If you bring your own portable computer, you will need a plug adapter to plug it into the wall. Most portable computers adapt to either 120v or 240v current, automatically. You can use your computer to place and receive phone calls via a service like Skype and avoid the roaming charges associated with portable phones.
For properties with an internet connection, it’s up to you to have the knowledge and skill to hook your own laptop up. Mostly, it’s extremely straightforward. You turn the computer on and either plug it into the ethernet outlet or switch on your wireless feature. The connection should be automatic. Sometimes, the owner will give you a WEP key code, or a username and password. But the owner, who in most cases is not a computer freak, can’t be expected to do more than this. If you have real trouble connecting, either the owner or caretaker can put you in touch with a computer technician who will, for a fee, come to the house and set you up.
Vacanza Bella cannot be held responsible for such breakdowns. And we will not give you a refund for the lack of such a connection. There are public internet points in even the smallest Italian village, and while we understand it’s extremely inconvenient to do so, this may be the only solution in such cases. Also, your iPhone or Blackberry or similar device may well continue to function at the villa regardless of the internet connection within the villa itself.
Most, but not all, accommodations in Italy have washing machines. A washing machine cycle takes up to 2 hours. So don’t fiddle with it because you think it’s taking too long. Once the cycle is complete, you most often have to push the power button to “off” and then WAIT FOR UP TO 5 MINUTES BEFORE OPENING THE WASHING MACHINE’S DOOR If you force the door, the machine will need repair at your cost.
We know 2 or 3 mostly American-owned properties in Italy with dryers. Italians don’t believe in them, preferring to hang clothes out in the open air or, in inclement weather, on drying racks inside.
Most places have them; others don’t.
If the prior renters haven’t stolen it/them, the likelihood is that you’re going to find a hair dryer in each bathroom, or at least one in the accommodation as a whole. We ask all of our owners to provide them. But we have to tell you the reality: Some owners are so exasperated by client theft of hairdryers that they will not furnish them any longer. And if the same thing continues with irons, it’s going to be the same story.
Iron and Ironing Board
Yes (but see final comment re hairdryer).
Ask us if it’s important to you, and we’ll find out.
American/English-style coffee maker
You’re going to Italy to drink Maxwell House? We have to tell you: We’ve been in this business for over 25 years, and this is without any doubt the most requested single item of equipment asked about, even more than hairdryers. So we’ve asked every single one of our owners to furnish an American-style drip coffeemaker (and a small supply of filters) in all our rentals.
Baby’s crib/cot and/or highchair
Very often a baby’s crib or cot is available. Most often it is provided for free; sometimes there is a modest supplementary charge. We don’t have photographs or measurements of such beds for children. And we decline all responsibility if it does not meet your country’s safety standards or your own. If you feel you need a particular dimension, kind, spacing of bars, etc., etc., please bring your own portable child’s bed. High chairs are almost always available.
Heating in Italy is nearly always charged as an extra, either as a flat rate per diem or metered by consumption. It can be very expensive. We had renters one recent Christmas in an Umbrian villa where the heating charges – metered, so accurate – ran approximately 100 euros per day. We ourselves just rented a 50-square-meter Rome flat for the winter, and our gas bill for 2 months was 400 euros. We were flabbergasted.
The countryside means real country: not a condominium built around a golf course.
The Tuscan and Umbrian countrysides have been largely kept free of pollution and pesticides. Thus, the natural environment is populated by insects and lizards which are natural and necessary for a balanced ecosystem. Their presence has nothing to do with lack of cleanliness. If you can’t deal with the possibility of finding a spider in your bathroom, ask yourself if the countryside (or renting) is what you really want.
Wheat and other grain harvesting occurs throughout the year in the Italian countryside, and this creates dust, often invisible to the naked eye, sometimes considerable dust. This creates real problems for people with pollen or other such allergies. If you have such an allergy, you must consider whether a vacation in a real country setting is right for you.
Water is at a premium in the countryside, and water conservation is a must. If a party of 8 people insists on all taking half-hour showers each day in August and the same precise moment, water will run low and may run out. You will not be happy campers. The Queen of the Netherlands sits in her country house in Tuscany with the same water limitations as everyone else. If you can’t do the same as the Queen of the Netherlands, then you should be in a hotel in Vegas.
The same story goes for electric power. It comes as a surprise to some guests that an Italian castle, for example, was not originally constructed to house North American tourists on holiday. The Italian government deliberately limits the amount of electricity supplied to the countryside. Interruptions do occur, particularly in the height of the season, and especially when more than one major appliance is used at once. Turning the dishwasher and a hairdryer on at once can result in electricity cut-off. You must be prepared to adapt to such occurrences with a sense of humor. If you know you are the type who won’t adapt, we will respect you far more if you choose to go to hotel than if you insist on going forward with something you’re inevitably not going to be happy with.
Italians cannot accept the concept of window screens. They argue that it makes them feel claustrophobic. Or that the house would feel too “closed in”. On the other hand, if you’ve ever walked down a street in Rome, say, in the heat of the summer, you can tell where the foreigners live because they’re the only ones with their windows open. All the other windows (and shutters) are closed tight. So much for feeling too “closed in”. Go figure.
A bigger problem in a country villa is that the windows do not conform to any standard size, as the building was often constructed centuries earlier. Installing screens would mean special-ordering each and every item.
Again, things are changing. If it’s a big deal to you, ask us, as we know what the story is in each case. We try to keep our written descriptions up to date in this regard, but it’s worth asking anyway.
In summary: it is our firm belief that owner presence on the estate or very close by is actually a huge advantage to you.
In reality, the feedback we get over and over again is that people actually prefer estates of this type. Families with children, in particular, welcome knowing other families, especially foreigners. Just as long as you can get away to your own truly private space and meet up with others at places like the pool.
This issue has always mystified us. If you go to a hotel, there might literally be hundreds of other people occupying the same structure, people you run into in the lobby, hallway, restaurant, bar, etc., etc. What’s the objection to a similar situation in the Italian countryside?
We have two policies:
If a villa is occupied by guests, it cannot be pre-viewed, outside or in. There is no such thing as just “driving by” a villa occupied by guests.
We will arrange a visit of up to a maximum of 3 villas for a fee of 500 euros. If you decide to rent one of the villas, the 500 euros is applied to the rent. Otherwise, we’re sorry to say that there’s no refund.