Renting a villa is a great way to travel. But to pick the right one means asking the right questions.
Renting a villa is a great way to travel. You feel more immersed in the culture and connected to a community, get to meet local merchants, and learn about foods and wines of the region. But picking the right one requires that you think like a detective. There are lots of questions to ask the owner or agent before making the final decision. Unfortunately, it’s the questions you don’t ask, the things you assume and for which you think you surely know the answers, which can get you into trouble.
I’ve rented a number of villas and I’m always amazed, sometimes amused, at what can go wrong. Not major problems, mind you, more like minor annoyances. For example, we rented a three bedroom villa outside of Sorrento last October. It seemed perfect — beautiful décor, spacious, central air conditioning, and a magnificent terrace overlooking the Mediterranean with breathtaking views of Capri. To top it off, there was a spa on the terrace, which in my mind would be a great way to relax before dinner. Before we arrived, all I could think about was that spa, sipping a cocktail, looking at the view. Note that I called it a spa — that’s how it was described, but I just assumed it was a hot tub, and I’m a sucker for a hot tub. However, there was nothing hot about it. Who would think to ask whether what appears to be a hot tub is actually heated? I went in it once, because I’ll be damned if I not getting my hot tub, but after about five minutes I realized that sitting in this thing in October was really just a good way to spite myself.
There were a few other minor twitches. The villa had central air conditioning, but apparently the unit has to be switched from heat to air conditioning. So we had to spend the first night with the windows open, and because there were no screens on the windows, we had to spend the next day chasing flies and mosquitoes. Then there was the coffee maker, but more on that later.
We’ve had lots of experiences like that. One bedroom in a 15th century villa near Rome was originally a reception hall for dignitaries, so it was quite spacious. However, because it wasn’t designed to be a bedroom, there were no closets, and the owner didn’t think to put them in, or to put in an armoire or two so you wouldn’t have to live out of a suitcase. Who would ask if the bedrooms have places for clothes?
Doing it flawlessly, or with as few flaws as possible, requires a lot of research, and a lot of vigilance. Here are some steps to follow that can make the process go smoothly. I usually begin by going to websites that I know are reputable. I’ve always had good experiences with luxuryretreats.com, villainitalia.com, homeinitaly.com, villasofdistinction.com, romesweethome.com, and rentvillas.com. But I’ll also plug in the search term “rent luxury villas in Italy” just to see if any new sites have emerged — note that “luxury” helps to weed out those sites that are more budget driven. I highly recommend you use a rental agency rather than rent directly from the owner. Agents tend to be more responsive to your needs and will work with you to solve the problems you will face. I have had problems with direct from owner sites, some of which were pretty serious and would have completely ruined our trip.
As you go through the list, select the ones that match your broad criteria, such as number of bedrooms, location, décor, and price range. I typically end up with about 6-7 properties which I will then focus on in detail. Keep in mind that price matters — the higher the price, the more the luxury and amenities. If the price seems too good to be true, it probably is. You might be lucky and find some deals, but if a particular villa is much less expensive than others of the same size and location, you’re likely to find they offer less than you hoped for. Prices can range dramatically, from about $2,500 per week to over $20,000 for a 5-6 bedroom villa. I generally stick to the $6,000 – $8,000 range and have found these to be a good balance between luxury and value for a villa of that size.
Once you’ve narrowed it down to a select few, it’s time to dive into the details. I usually start by going on Google maps, plugging in the villa’s address and using the little yellow man to walk the streets that surround the villa. You might find that the backyard is perfect, but right in front of the villa the town decided was a good place to put a dumpster. Or you might select a villa because of its magnificent views, only to find the ride down the drive-way to be very much like Disney’s Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride. Great views go hand in hand with living on a mountainside. That’s not always a reason to discard a villa, but you should be prepared for that truly hair-raising experience because you’ll be doing it every time you go out. Note that sometimes the villa’s address is not provided in the description, so contact the listing agent and make sure you check the area before signing the lease.
If you’re renting a car, find out whether the villa has private parking. If not, things can get interesting, especially if your villa is located within a town center. Parking on the streets in many parts of Italy can be ridiculous, if not outright hazardous. But even if private parking is available, make sure it can accommodate your vehicle. While this might seem silly, think about the size of the cars over there vs. the ones we drive. I often rent large villas to accommodate 5 – 6 couples. So we rent larger vehicles and more than one, and sometimes the math doesn’t work. I’ve had comments thrown at me like, “You know, in Italy, we drive much smaller cars.” To which I am tempted to respond, “Yes, but you’re not traveling with four people and two weeks of luggage.”, but I don’t, because that leads to a conversation about over-packing, which I am totally guilty of.
Look at the photos on the website very carefully. Make sure you like the décor and it’s furnished comfortably and adequately. Check out the grounds and the terraces for their furniture and views, make sure the bed configuration is what you want, and there are adequate bathrooms for the number of guests. I only consider villas that offer en suite bathrooms, because I really don’t want to run into someone who’s not my wife in the middle of the night, nor do I want to navigate around other people’s stuff on the counter or hanging in the shower. If you see mosquito nets over the beds, they’re there for a reason, and I’ve never found sleeping under one to be a pleasant experience.
Read the villa description thoroughly. If, for example, they mention a pool and describe that as shared, that means there’s at least one other villa on the estate and you are sharing the pool with those occupants. That’s not so bad if you’d like to make new friends, but not so good if privacy is what you are seeking. Other things to look out for: if a washing machine is mentioned but not a dryer, that’s not an oversight. You will be hanging wet laundry outside or throughout the villa. And keep in mind that operating these appliances can be tricky, since they’re different from those in the U.S. and the instructions are in Italian. It’s best to have the agent walk you through the process before they leave… and take notes: at our age, we might not remember there’s a washing machine, let alone how to use it.
Check out the size of the villa. It’s usually presented in square meters. As a general rule, I multiply by 10, so 300 Sq. m. is approximately 3000 sq. ft., which is something I can understand. If it’s not in the listing, ask the agent for it, so that you’re not surprised when you get there. Let’s say you’re a group of 5 couples, and the villa claims to have 5 bedrooms and 5 bathrooms, but its only 150 sq. m., or 1500 sq. ft. You will either have very little living space outside of your bedroom or the bedrooms will be the size of closets. For my needs, I look for villas that are about 2,000 sq. ft. if there are 2-3 bedrooms, and at least 3,000 sq. ft. if I’m going for 5-6 bedrooms.
Once I get down to 2-3 villas, I have another conversation with the listing agent. Most learn pretty quickly what I’m looking for in a villa, but if not, I give them a brief synopsis — I want well-decorated, high quality, luxury, clean, and beautiful surroundings, or something like that. Then I ask, of the villas I’m considering, which should I go with? Then I ask, do you have something better than these? I do this just want to make sure I haven’t missed or misinterpreted anything. They’re usually helpful and will give a recommendation, although you will feel as though they’re whispering in case the owner of the discarded villa is listening.
When you first arrive, you will be given a walk through, by the agent or owner. This can be overwhelming because, well, you’re excited to be there and everything looks so beautiful. But now you have to keep your head and focus on the things that are important for daily living. Find out where the thermostat is and how to use it, where the circuit breakers are (we spent one night in the dark after a thunderstorm because we didn’t know how to turn the power back on.), make sure the internet is working, and most importantly, how to make coffee. I always run into problems with coffee makers in Italy.
Italians experience coffee differently from Americans — it is espresso and that’s about it. So while you will find 3-4 espresso pots, all in fine working order, their American-style coffee maker can be suspect. If having coffee like you do at home is important to you, I suggest that you actually make a pot while the owner or agent is still with you. That way you won’t be grumbling to yourself, as I have done at 5am, about how the hell do I use this thing?
Most villas, especially those in Tuscany, are located in the countryside, and that means you can be miles away from grocery stores and supermarkets, or appliance stores. Typically villa descriptions provide distances from towns and such, but even if they do, I suggest you still ask the agent for the best restaurants and the best places to buy food, or maybe a new coffee maker.
Most villas can set you up with meals catered by local restaurants or have a chef come to the villa, all for about the cost of dining out. We usually bring in a chef at least once a trip, especially when we have a large group, since sitting 10 or 12 people in a restaurant can be challenging. It’s a great way to relax, and maybe do your own wine and cheese tasting while somebody else cooks dinner. These usually have to be arranged for in advance, but it’s worth the effort and you’re likely to find it to be one of the highlights of your trip.
Note that there might be some extra charges, such as for additional housekeeping, heating in the house or pool (but not the hot tub), or burning wood in the fireplace. While I have never found these charges to amount to much, very often they have to paid in cash, and you will also need to put down a refundable security deposit when you arrive that can range from 500 – 1000 Euro. Keep this in mind when you figure out how many Euros you should have in hand.
So, to summarize, don’t assume anything: ask questions before you go and after you arrive, so you know exactly what you’re getting. Do the bathrooms have shower installations, or are you supposed to take a bath? How do I turn on the TV and access the internet, and how do I reboot when the internet goes down (which it will)? How many other villas are on this property? Am I the villa’s only occupant? Is there private parking and will my vehicle fit in the parking area? How is phone reception? Where can I buy an electric coffee maker? Of course, if you’re like me, there will be questions you won’t think of, and there will be some surprises, but dealing with as many as you can up front will make the experience more enjoyable.
Oh, and one more thing, if there’s mosquito nets, I wouldn’t open the window. There can be some pretty interesting things out there that want to live with you. And that’s especially true if you’re in an area like Tuscany where they do a lot of organic farming and avoid using pesticides.
If we’ve made you a little gun-shy about doing this on your own, we’re happy to help. Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org