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Paying full price isn’t my style, not for clothes, cars or even condo rentals. Condo rentals? You bet. For the past five years my husband, Terry, and I have spent every January luxuriating in a deluxe condo in posh Naples, Fla., for less than half the asking price.

This chic city on Florida’s southwest coast offers miles of unspoiled talcum powder beaches on the aquamarine Gulf of Mexico, dozens of art galleries, designer shops, gourmet restaurants and a worldclass performing arts center- not to mention more golf holes per capita than anywhere else in the United States.

While we love the pluses, we cringe at the prices. It isn’t unusual to find in-season condo rentals advertised for $8,000, $10,000, $15,000 or more per month! Fortunately, we’ve come up with a system to beat the system. And while we traditionally rent in Naples, the same strategy can work in just about any Florida locale- and many other vacation hot spots, as well. So if sun and surf are more appealing to you than sweaters and scarves, check out my bargain-hunting secrets.

It’s a Renters’ Market

You don’t have to be Donald Trump to know that the real estate boom in the North is also taking place in the South. Investment condos are not only being snapped up by aging baby boomers, but also by Brits and Europeans thanks to the weak dollar and strong pound and euro. Even if Europeans are buying Florida condos for their own use, the maximum time they’re allowed to stay in the United States is six months each year and that translates into still more rental months entering the marketplace.

Never, Ever Rent Early

When we first considered renting for one winter month in Naples, friends said we would have to rent for three months, January through March, or we’d get nothing. And if we didn’t rent in the fall for the following winter, they told us, we’d be out of luck. Fortunately, we ignored their advice. The rule of the three- month-only rental is true for some but not all of the thousands of condos on the Florida rental market. And, renting early is absolutely the worst thing to do when bargain hunting. The closer it gets to Jan. 1, the more owners are willing to negotiate.

So come fall, we wait. And wait. And wait some more. Each year I fear our luck has run out, but each year for the past five years we’ve waited a little longer and snagged a better deal on a better condo. But the waiting game is not for the faint of heart. It can be nerve-racking to pack up for a month-long vacation and not know where you’re hanging your hat. Last year we verbally agreed on a three-bedroom, threebath Vanderbilt Beach condo right on the beach between the Ritz-Carlton and La Playa Hotel a few days before we left our home in Annapolis to drive south. There was no time to exchange a signed contract or send a deposit. Original asking price: $8,000 per month. Our price: $3,000. If the unit turned out to be horrible, we had options. En route to Florida a realtor called us with two other low offers from owners willing to negotiate. If those didn’t work out, we planned to check into a hotel till we found something we liked. Fortunately, we didn’t need any backup plans. The condo was outstanding, our best ever. Bright and cheery with an expansive view of the gulf, it was professionally decorated with a wrap-around, screened lanai.

Seduce a Real Estate Agent

While I usually wait until Dec. 26 before making any serious offers, I do call a few realtors in early December to establish a relationship, an essential component of my bargain-hunting system. The rental agent is the vital link between the condo owner and me, and my goal is to get an agent to like me. What the agent says and how hard the agent sells our offer to the owner is crucial to success. I am always honest and upfront. I tell the rental agent what we are looking for- an extremely clean, new or updated two- or three-bedroom condo on the gulf- and what we are willing to pay. I cite our previous rental successes so the agent knows I know the rental game.

At the same time, I check out the available condos on several realtor and owners Web sites, as well as the local newspapers’ online versions. (A list of Web addresses for Naples rentals is at the end of this article.) It helps that we are familiar with Naples and have a favorite area, Vanderbilt Beach. Armed with a map that shows the exact location of each condo in that neighborhood, we can quickly determine if the condo location is appealing. If I am unfamiliar with a building, the first question I ask is, “How old is it?” Old buildings mean old bathrooms, old kitchens and low ceilings. Unless I see photos showing major remodeling, I avoid any building older than 10 years.

Sell Yourself

I market “us.” What condo owner doesn’t lose sleep over the thought of a renter trashing the place? Visions of slobbering grandkids walking on the furniture shooting paintball guns or sneaking a cat or dog with a bad bladder into a no-pets building is sure to keep a few owners awake at night. My job is to convince the owner that we would be caretakers of his or her property. Here’s a sample of what I e-mail or tell realtors and condo owners: “We are ideal renters. We are two adults, no smoking, no pets, no kids and no grandkids-all our family lives in England. We eat out or use take-out. We are extremely clean, so much so that I leave condos cleaner on departure than I find them on arrival. My husband, an Englishman, is an avid golfer and is on the course most days. I am a writer and spend my time on the beach or in front of my laptop. We’re accustomed to nice things and respect them. We live in a beautiful home in Annapolis, Maryland’s Historic District. We will look after your beautiful condo as if it were our own and be proud caretakers for one glorious month. Please consider our offer of $3,000.” Expect and Accept Rejection I never expect the first condo owner to take our offer. That would be nice but unlikely. Many times I’ll get counteroffers that are still out of our price range or owners who will drop their price by $500. I say, “Thank you” and move on. While I don’t get intimidated by high asking prices or embarrassed by making low offers, I don’t get ridiculous, either. I steer clear of condo units advertised at $15,000 a month or more. My targets are condos advertised at no more than $10,000 a month. If that still sounds way too bold, just keep in mind that without our offer the owner is facing an empty condo with no income at all.

Off-season, the Bargains are Even Better

The idea of vacationing in Florida in August usually provokes giggles or a look of disbelief, but it’s the best-kept summer vacation secret. Last August we brought family from England to the United States for a family beach holiday. While good summer rentals in Rehoboth or Bethany Beach begin around $3,000 a week, in Naples, we rented a 4-year-old professionally decorated three-bedroom, three-bath condo with wrap-around screened-in lanai just two blocks from the beach for $2,000 for the entire month of August! Sure it was hot and sticky, but in August it’s hot and sticky in Maryland, too. In fact, on many days last August it was hotter in Maryland than it was in Florida.

Hidden Costs

You can expect your bottom line to grow by Florida’s hefty state tax of 10 percent. A cleaning fee of approximately $125 is pretty standard and condo associations tack on a condo application fee of around $100. Top that off with the realtor’s processing fee of around $35 and a $3,000 condo rental winds up costing $3,530 plus a $500 security deposit that is returned in 30 days.

The Results

Our first year playing the rental game we found a small but charming one-bedroom unit in Bayfront, a new, large luxury condo complex just two blocks from the fancy Fifth Avenue shops and restaurants and about a 10-block walk to the beach. While the unit was tiny, so was the price. Original asking price: $4,500. Our price: $2,000.

The second year we rented a gorgeous three-bedroom, two-bath condo in Tiburon, the Ritz-Carlton Gulf Resort Community. Regular price: $7,500 a month. Our price: $3,000, plus an additional $1,000 for golf membership and $500 for club privileges. Those extra charges entitled us to unlimited golf and use of all resort amenities, which turned out to be a bargain since Terry played golf on two pricey Greg Norman courses just about five days a week. A year later we followed that deal with a smaller but charming two-bedroom unit on Vanderbilt Beach for an incredibly low price of $2,500 for a waterfront unit. The owner had just purchased the unit in late December and had to rent it quickly. This condo was so close to the gulf that the lapping of the waves lulled us to sleep each night.

We’ve loved all of our rentals for different reasons- proximity to the water or intown location or golf access. Each year we try to rent the previous year’s unit at the same price but each year the owners tell us that the price we paid was special because of a one-time situation- they were leaving town or they just bought it or the original rental deal fell through. No problem, I just start searching for someone else’s “one-time” situation. There are always owners willing to bargain. All I need to do is find them.

Naples Condo Rental Sources
Realtors: Mari Vesci Realtors, http://www.vesci.com or 800-24-VESCI
South Bay Realty, http://www.southbayrealtygroup.com or 877-229-4853
Premier Properties, http://www.premier-properties.com or 239-262-4242

Internet Web sites:
http://www.greatrentals.com
http://www.gulfcoastrentals.com
http://www.cyberrentals.com
http://www.naplesmarco.com
http://www.urbo.com

Naples News newspaper:
http://www.naplesnews.com

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