You're travelling with kids...  You'd like the option to cook and eat-in some of the time to save money or time...  You're staying for a few weeks and a motel room would drive you into claustrophobic fits...  These are some of the reasons why some people have decided to forego the traditional hotel/ motel route and spend their vacation renting a vacation condo or home.  Many are pleased to discover that it is often possible to rent an entire two or three bedroom property for little more than an upscale motel room.

But you've never done it before; there are new questions to confront:  "Is it safe to do this?  How do I go about finding a good place?  What a fair rate is? What are the advantages and disadvantages?"

Finding a Vacation Rental

If you've decided to look for a condo, you are already halfway there to the best source of information- you're on-line!  There are generally four ways you can find condos or homes on the internet: 

1)   There are many vacation rental websites that are available and most handle direct from owner listings exclusively, though some have agency postings as well.  Some of the most popular are:  VRBO (Warning - now charges renters a hidden service fee), GreatRentals, VacationHomes, GulfCoastRentals, CondoRentalHelp, FloridaVacationRentals, CyberRentals and scores of others.  Often a Google search such as "Sanibel Vacation Rentals" or "Captiva owner direct rentals" will get you to these sites. Owner direct rental sites list privately owned properties for vacation.  They are useful to give you  listings of a wide vareity of properties in an area allowing you to get a feel for the price ranges and kinds of rentals available.  Like classified ads - the sites don't manage the properties, just advertise them.  You deal with the owner or their representative to book.  Owners have Terms and Conditions attached to their rentals, which should be carefully reviewed.  Also, be sure you are clear on any damage deposit or other refundable or non-refundable fees attached to a rental.  Some owners take credit cards, most don't.  

2)   Private owner websites are becoming more plentiful on the internet.  Many of these link to vacation rental websites discussed above.  These sites can often give you the most complete on-line information about the exact unit you're considering.  You can find owner websites with a Google search of  " Sanibel Condo for Rent by Owner" or "Sanibel Owner Rentals" or similar query. The selection will be limited to to the unit(s) the private owner actually owns.  Owner-direct rentals often have the best price because the owner can set their price lower than an agency, since they don't have to pay for the variety of services an agency offers.  A private owner can sometimes be more flexible on dates and rates than agencies, which are limited by the requirements of the owners they serve..  

3)   Rental agencies have web sites that list many units.  The selection will be limited to units within their rental pool but most have good inventories and many have excellent photo layouts so you'll see exactly what you're renting.  Rental agencies handle booking and other helpful services such as credit card processing, crib rentals and other conveniences.  If there are problems, they have 24 hours local emergency numbers for help and you can always stop by the office to get assistance or report any problems.  Staffed by local residents, they are usually knowledgeable and can provide lots of useful assistance and contacts for weddings and special events.  There may be fees over and above the rental cost plus taxes* such as booking fees, cleaning fees or other charges.  Terms and Conditions vary, just as they do with owners, so be sure to read them.  Some of the largest Sanibel agencies include Sanibel Vacations, Royal Shell, Cottages to Castles, VIP Vacation Rentals, ResortQuest, Sanibel Holiday and Island Accommodations.  Discounts may be available for online rentals, usually restricted to Saturday-Saturday stays only.  Almost all agencies offer 'walk-up' rates at substantial discounts to folks who arrive on the islands without reservations and wish to stay. This is not recommended during Christmas or Easter Weeks when the Island can be at 100% occupancy.  Most have their offices along Periwinkle Way.

4)  Condo association rentals are also popular on Sanibel.  You'll find a number of condo complexes have their own rental office that operates somewhat like a hotel.  Many of these complexes are even AAA reviewed and rated.  Some units within a complex may opt out and rent directly from the owner or through a traditional agency or not at all.  Examples include Ocean's Reach, Blind Pass, Sanibel Siesta, Sanibel Moorings, Sanibel Arms, Sandalfoot and others.  In other complexes such as Casa Ybel, the owner's associations have web sites with listings of available condos to rent and links to the individual owners. You can Google the complex name or look for a hyperlink to their websites on the Chamber site.  In general, the pricing of these units is very attractive and you do rent specific units as you would with any agency or owner.  Like agencies, condo association rental offices offer discounted 'walk-up' rates. 

Note:  Owners, agencies and associations sometimes have last minutes deals due to cancellations, partial week stays, and just low occupancy periods.  Also, discounts or internet rates can be found on the Chamber of Commerce website under Daily Vacancy.

Vacation Rentals:  How do I Rent and Is It a Safe Transaction?

Vacation rentals, especially through an agency, are very similar to renting a hotel room - with two exceptions: 

  • You pay for all charges up-front.  Usually a deposit of 10-50% is required to hold a unit.  The entire balance is typically due anywhere from 30-90 days prior to arrival. There may be a refundable damage deposit due as well.
  • There is usually no cancellation refund within a certain time before arrival although some owners and agencies will refund most or all of your payment if the unit can be re-rented for the same period and rate. Again, check Terms and Conditions as some owners have an immediate NO REFUND policy on the deposit.  If you cancel and the unit cannot be re-rented, you will likely lose your entire payment.  For this reason you may wish to purchase Trip Cancellation Insurance (see below).

Therefore, if you're not sure you can go, condos and homes may not be the best option. In this case you should wait till the last minute, especially off-season, and then rent when you are sure. 

With all rentals it is of the utmost importance to read the Terms and Conditions portion of the argeement or contract carefully and be sure to fully understand them

Agencies usually post their terms and conditions on their websites, but specific home and condo owners may cause the usual terms to be modified by the agency.  Always read the specific agreement/contact that is sent to you by the owner or agency;  some have very strict limitations on things like how much laundry you can leave or telephone usage.  Also remember, while in a condo you are bound by the association rules.  A copy of these are usually sent with the reservation confirmation; if you don't receive them you should ask for them.   This can be an issue on things like pet policies, pool heat, where certain condo complexes do not turn it on till Dec 15 and turn it off on a fixed date as well, regardless of the weather.  Again, ask the owner or agency.  Happily, the agencies on Sanibel are usually good, but no one should be expected to know all the rules for every condo complex, so be sure and get any assurances important to you in writing. 

If there is a problem, off-season there can be some flexibility in moving to another unit but that can be at the discretion of the agent or owner and they always have the option to just refund your money and leave you to sort it out - though agencies rarely do.  Again, once you commit to a specific property, there are usually penalties if you cancel.   Unlike hotels, condos and home owners can't just fill their units easily.  So be sure to be aware of your penalty dates and if you owe any fees that may be charged for cancellation.  Occasionally things happen and specific units become unavailable for some reason.  Be sure and stay in touch with your agent or owner as your trip draws near.

Booking through an Agency, an Association or an Owner

Agencies are businesses that take the reservations, send out confirmation and when you arrive check you in and give you keys and often manage the property or interface with the property manager to handle any problems.  Should you have a problem with anything in the unit, they are there to fix it or, if necessary, set you up in another unit in their system.  They will also hold damage deposits as well as collect the rental charges. Some, but not all, will take credit card payments.  Why use a reputable agency?  The risk of walking into a condo or house that is a disaster is virtually eliminated.  That is perhaps the single most significant advantage of good agencies along with a wide selection of units to choose from.   Plus most Sanibel agencies are located on the island and you go directly to the office for assistance and advice.

Renting privately through an owner is usually less expensive but potentially riskier.  You are essentially sending a stranger a check and trusting that they will deliver what they promise. There may also be less services available such as 24 hour maintenance or late check in.  By far, most rental owners are legitimate and trustworthy.  But you do have to be careful.  References can be asked for. You can sometimes see how long they have been renting by information noted on their web site such as a copyright. Talk to the owner directly if possible to get a good feel for them.  Your best deal might be here!  Some of the more popular websites include VBRO, GreatRentals, GulfCoastRentals, KingFisher Vacations, BookFloridaRentals and others.  Also look for listings tied to the calendars, with a comments section tied to Rentors.org, the popular calendar site.  The comments there are entered directly by renters and cannot be altered by the owner to 'spin' comments.  Just be aware - as with hotels & motels, not everyone has the same definition of 'perfect' and 'luxury'.

There is also a " Hybrid" option:  Rent directly though an owner that uses an agency to handle the booking process.  This will often save you a percentage of the rental rate but you will have the convenience and security and local service and support that an established rental agency provides. This is done by contacting the owner first and then the owner refers the booking to the agency.  For some, it is the best of both worlds.  The savings will depend on the agreement the owner has with the agency. 

Condo Association Rentals can be direct owner, or as 'condotels', or virtual rental agencies.  Flexibility if there are problems will vary by complex.  Condotels will move you to other units, just as a hotel will allow rooms changes, when possible.  Others are less flexible.  Those that act as a kind of facilitator between owners and renters provide the least in the way of assistance.  Pricing can vary greatly in comparison with owner or regular agency rentals in the same complex.  Most complex specific rental offices can be found on the Chamber of Commerce website.

Whether renting with an owner, an agency, an association, or a "hybrid", the condo itself is privately owned so the updating and decor of the unit is the owners' responsibility.  However the maintenance of the unit - cleaning, fixing or replacing broken items or appliances will depend on the arrangements made between the owner and the rental agency or other maintenance company, if any, that the owner designates.  Once again, it pays to ask and/ or read your contract.

Travel Insurance 

Because of the potential risk for guest with respect to cancellations, especially less than 60 days prior to arrival, many owners and agencies offer or recommend  Trip Cancellation Insurance.  This can be purchased usually for about 10% of the rental rate. Many of the agencies provide this and the policy can reimburse you if you must cancel your trip due to illness, injuries or hurricane or certain travel interruptions.  As with all insurance products, they are not fool-proof and are subject to many exemptions and clauses.    Also, these products will usually not reimburse you for unfortunate events such as red tide or red drift algae blooms or non-hurricane bad weather.  Like your rental contract, read the insurance policy carefully. Also consider making all your payments using a credit card; this often gives you more protection against fraud or disputed charges and other consumer complaints.

Pricing 

Prices on both homes and condos vary greatly based on many factors, including what the owner believes as 'fair market value' of their rentals.  Some very high end condos and homes are exponentially more expensive than properties just slightly less upscale.  In general, newly remodeled units in the same complex will command a higher price.  Location, especially Gulf front as opposed to Gulf view, gets the highest price and 'garden view' units in a Gulf front complex often represent the best value.  If the complex is not Gulf Front, or buildings are scattered on both sides of a road, the units that are across the street are less expensive than the 'garden view' units on the Gulf front property.  Unit size for a 2 bedroom/2 bath condo also is a factor.  Square footage ranges from a compact 900 square feet to a sprawling 2,000+.  The screened lanais, a big draw when Gulf front, can be 16 feet to 50 feet long.  As a comparison, a typical hotel room is about 260 sq. ft to a more comfortable 400 sq. ft., suites 600-900 sq. ft..  Furnishings too vary tremendously from IKEA to custom one of a kind decorator pieces and 19" TV's to big screen entertainment units and tiny baths to big marble and glass ones.  The vast majority are middle of the range units.  One bedrooms on Gulf can range from $500 to $1,000 per week off-season.  Two bedroom/2 bath $700-$1600 and three bedrooms about $2000-$3000/week off season.  Last minute discounts can be substantial.  Ultra-luxe units are substantially higher.  These prices just general guidelines as so many factors, including taxes and association fees, impact condo pricing.  NOTE: If you require and elevator, be sure to ask.  Not all properties have them. 

Homes on Sanibel can be an excellent buy if you have the time.  The minimum rental period of 28 days usually ends up meaning a very attractive nightly rate.  Most homes are NOT Gulf front but many have deeded Gulf access or public access in walking distance.  Pricing, as with condos, ranges widely.  Houses with pools and water views command higher prices than golf course or 'garden view' homes.  Many have 3 or more bedrooms.  Some are in communities with additional activities.  Homes on Captiva have 7 day minimums in most cases and a number of Gulf front homes are available for rent.  Captiva has many large homes that can handles groups of 10 to 16 people and some allow weddings and receptions for guests for an additional fee.  Properties range from very small cottages to mansions on the Gulf or bay.  Some also have docks so you can arrive by boat or have your rental boat conveniently parked at your own dock.

Pros & Cons

Change your mind a lot? Need to be flexible and want to be able to make changes in where, when and how long you stay?  Need hotel or resort business services?  Want room service or maid service?  Enjoy having everything done for you?  Want all the resort facilities right there?  Well, condo or house renting probably isn't for you.  

Staying in a nice a condo will give you more space, personal privacy, a "home away form home" feel, extras such as games, videos or beach toys, and the surprising convenience of eating in for a change...  When you consider how much time it takes to get everyone ready.. drive to a restaurant.. wait to be seated.. wait for the meal.. eat.. wait for the check... and drive home two or three times a day, having some convenience food available to make in your own space saves you hours a day that you can then spend on the beach!  Add to the private bedrooms usually with multiple TV's so everyone can have their own private mini-vacations. Plus most condos have 2 bathrooms which can be handy and in-unit laundry facilities which can limit your packing needs, dry out wet bathing suits and let you return home without a huge laundry to do on day one. 

The negatives and risks are as outlined above:  prepayment and cancellation penalties and no changing your mind once you're there.   You're subject to the decorative tastes and maintenance standards of the owners, so it pays to look at lots of photos of the unit and property and verify how recent they are. 

With a little research, careful questioning and due diligence,  a condo or private home can be a very enjoyable way to settle into your stay on the beautiful islands of Sanibel and Captiva.

Notes 

The City of Sanibel has a minimum rental time on homes of 28 days. Some owners will rent for less and prorate it, but not all and they must leave the house vacant for the unused days in some fashion.  Condos have minimum rentals set by the association.  One week in season is typical, but some have 2 week or 1 month minimums set by the association.  Recently, some 2 week minimum condos allow 1 weeks stays in off-season months.  Homes on Captiva have 1 week minimums in most cases and will allow less off-season.  The condos mostly have 1 week as well.  Owners and agencies can be flexible when occupancy is low.

Important note: South Seas Island Resort and to a lesser extent Sundial Beach Resort have unique restrictions on who can utilize all their amenities, including pools and restaurants, to guests booked primarily through their own booking agency, so be certain what you will have access to if renting there through anyone other than the resort itself.   South Seas Resort does have a notice about limitations on their website, but it's now buried in the text areas.  As guests are mostly going out to dine or shop in Captiva Village the real impact will be felt once the upgrades are complete and all facilities operational.  Sundial has far very few restrictions, but there are some, so check.

* Taxes.   All accommodations on Sanibel, Captiva or anywhere else in Lee County that are rented for less than 6 months are subject to State and County taxes. All properties rented privately or through agencies are subject to sales tax (6%) and room tax (5%) for a total of 11%. It would be wise to factor that into your budget planning.  It is the responsibility of the owner or agent to collect and submit all occupancy taxes.