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Best Little Rental House in Jersey

by Jane Kelly

I am an expert on summer rentals. I have vacationed in rental properties all my life.

I've lived in some pretty good rentals and I've lived in some pretty bad rentals. I've lived alone and I've lived with twelve people. I've lived in rentals for a week and I've lived in rentals for a season. I know rentals. That is why my friends designated me official search agent for a seasonal rental a few years back.

Okay, you may define 'few' slightly differently than I do. Let's just start the story this way: once upon a time, given the escalating rents, I was having difficulty finding an age-appropriate vacation home. My crowd was too old to pile into one of those two-bedroom houses that owners are willing to entrust to forty-five college students and too poor to move into one of those $10,000 a week rentals that we really found appealing. I was having no luck. Then the real estate agent mentioned a property. "I can't imagine . . . I mean it's a nice place . . . It has a washer, dryer, dishwasher . . . but . . .." She paused, apparently to give me time to run away. Finally she spit it out. "It's unfurnished."

The realtor went on to explain that the first floor of the duplex had been a year-round rental. But the family had bought a house. They had two children who were school age . . . " The explanation went on for quite a while and included the information that the owners were not in a position to furnish the house at that time. They did, however, want to convert the property to a seasonal rental. During the explanation I was listening for the only fact I cared about: the price. At last the agent got to the point. "What will you give me for the season?"

I spit out an incredibly low price for a three bedroom apartment. Hard to relate to the dollar figure now because the amount was in Once Upon a Time dollars. The payment was at best 20% of what the property would have brought furnished. I was ecstatic. My co-renters less so. That is when I designed a plan for temporary living that I use to this day.

I can't help you find the rental. And I can't say finding one will be easy. I can pretty much guarantee it won't be. There were years I found it impossible. My goal is to provide advice on living in the rental once you find it. Now, I don't like to brag -- or at least get caught bragging -- but I do consider myself the Martha Stewart of plastic furniture. And like Martha I like to talk about decorating. It's a good thing.

Below are a dozen rental-household hints:

1. If you are lucky the people moving out will leave something behind. But you can't count on anything -- even a refrigerator. Be prepared to buy a small (possibly dorm size) refrigerator. That should be your greatest expense. With careful planning a dorm refrigerator can keep a small group going for under $100. (Don't try a cooler with ice. Eventually, you've spent more on ice than you would on a major appliance. I know. I tried.)

2. Accept that Architectural Digest will not be dropping by during your stay. I know it's hard to believe. I too live as if the domestic paparazzi have been stalking me my entire adult life. It's tempting to get carried away and spend too much money or too much time decorating the space. You're on vacation. You shouldn't be at home that much anyway. Lighten up. At the other extreme, don't get paralyzed and become unable to make a purchase. You will be buying things you never dreamt you'd buy. Face it and move on.

3. Go basic. I can get obsessed with color which is a problem for several reasons. First, the items are unlikely to have any value in another setting. More importantly, you might (I would) be unable to resist the urge to search for the right items and to buy them whenever and wherever you find them. You are on vacation, not a shopping expedition. Keep it simple.

4. There are several items that cannot come cheap. Cheap pillows don't make it. Cheap sheets don't do it. Cheap knives don't cut it. Bring those items from home -- or be prepared to shell out some bucks for the real thing. While you are in the kitchen at home, grab a pot, a pan and a kettle. You probably won't be cooking much anyway. (As an aside to protect your security deposit, bring cutting boards. You can't have too many. Besides, they double as cheeseboards for those gala soirees you'll be holding -- as long as the guests bring their own chairs.)

5. Consider multipurpose seating. The first time I used this approach to decorating, my friends and I sat on our beach chairs pretty much 24/7. (Actually, 18/7; we did sleep.) We each brought a lounge chair with adjustable backs. With these chairs in tow, we were pretty much equipped for the summer. Eat breakfast in your beach chair. Go to the beach -- with your beach chair. Sit in your beach chair. Nap on your beach chair. Come home -- with your beach chair. Have happy hour -- in your beach chair. Eat dinner . . . watch TV . . . read. All in one beach chair. And now you can get comfortable pads for even the cheapest lounges. This approach has a side benefit. Visitors always know where to find you based on whether your furniture is in your living room -- or at the beach.

6. Lounges with adjustable backs are okay for napping but not for sleeping. You will have to consider some sort of bedding. Futons are great. The good ones are both too heavy and too expensive. You only need it for three months. Go cheap. Or if you must have a bed, go to one of those mattress and furniture discounters near the shore. Tell them you are looking to furnish a guest room. You'll be shocked at what your hosts have been doing to you for years. The salesman might well lead you to a secret back room where the store keeps the cheap stuff. Keep reminding yourself that you only need a bed for three months. Lower your standards -- temporarily.

7. These days tables are simple. You can get the five-dollar plastic side tables at any store and folding TV trays for about three dollars more. If you want a dining table, or a desk if you're the zealous type, consider camping tables. Easy to transport, they are available for about $30. Put two together and you can feed eight. When the season is over, roll them up and throw them in the trunk of your car. You'll be ready for your next temporary home. (You can get matching chairs. I find them a bit hard to get in and out of but they are certainly a viable choice.)

8. While we're talking tables, you'll need something to put on them. Lamps in the living room; dishes in the kitchen. Hope for overhead lighting and live with the glare. If you need mood lighting, consider night-lights. As far as dishes are concerned, you could go plastic or paper but nothing works as well as china. I'm not calling for twelve place settings of Royal Crown Derby. I'm thinking maybe a trip to the local K-Mart, Wal-Mart or any local-Mart. You might not think you need sixteen of anything but if you go for the big boxed sets of dishes and glassware, your cost drops drastically. The good thing about glasses of this quality is that they also work well outside. They are generally so thick and heavy that a tornado wouldn't knock them over. If you want to get fancy, you don't want to eat with your hands. Have everyone bring a camping set; supplement those utensils with plastic. And if you aspire to a more formal lifestyle, placemats should be available for 99 cents.

9. As the summer goes on, you might find yourself accumulating books, brochures, magazines etc. You'll need somewhere to keep them -- as well as any electronics you bring along. I've deluded myself into believing that I've built attractive wall units (not to mention entertainment centers . . . okay, TV stands) out of rubber mesh shelving that most people put in their garage (and you can too when the season is over). The individual pieces snap together to form a variety of handy tables and shelves that seldom need dusting -- certainly not within a three month period.

10. Floor covering. I'd say do without. The first time I tried this approach, the mother of one of my housemates donated a rug. She'd brought it at a house sale and apparently never unfolded it. We were the only summer house with an oriental runner across the linoleum living room floor. Elegant but useless. If you stay through cold weather, that's a different story. But in summer? Carpets are only a liability -- and a sand trap.

11. Storage. I actually have a collection of plastic drawers from Staples that I have the audacity to refer to as my bedroom set. I bought several widths with different size drawers and built bureaus and lowboys. I selected the clear drawers with the black tops. When I discovered a less expensive variety in solid black, I fretted over whether mixing and matching would be too flashy. I didn't want my bedroom suite to look like one of those overwrought sets of furniture shown on the back of the Sunday supplement. My fears were unfounded. The solid blended very well. I even bought artwork to match the furniture. Which bring us to decorator touches.

12. You're only in the rental for three months. You don't want to lose your security deposit over nail holes in the plaster (or whatever). I would suggest learning to live with blank walls. However, there might be a time that you will need to cover existing holes -- of a variety of sizes. Think back to the posters you had in college -- but remember the damage that scotch tape can do to paint. If you must frame (and I must), keep in mind that some discount stores offer frames with mats in sizes as large as 20 by 16 -- for under $10 during sales. I like to frame postcards and notes that people send me. Take a look at last year's calendars. Like any pictures? Use them.

Sound like a lot of work? Take what you spend and deduct the total from what you saved in rent. Then add up the hours needed to find the items to furnish your summer rental. Divide the hours spent into the money saved. Decide for yourself if this was a good investment. The way I've calculated the time, my hourly rate corresponds to a seven digit income.

Keep that figure in mind if you decide to follow this plan. When the person ahead of you at the cash register wants to verify a price or write a check without ID, keep in mind what you're making per hour. Relax and enjoy your vacation.

Jane Kelly is the author of three mysteries with a humorous twist set at the Jersey shore.

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