HGTV’s Scott McGillivray Shares His Best Tips on Creating a Standout Vacation Rental

Photo credit: HGTV / JOHNNY C.Y. LAM
Photo credit: HGTV / JOHNNY C.Y. LAM

From House Beautiful

Renting out your property to guests is a lot easier said than done. Everything from how your listing is written to your hosting qualities to, of course, your rates will determine your rental’s success. Aspiring renters should look to HGTV’s Vacation House Rules, where Scott McGillivray transforms rundown properties into dreamy escapes. Not only does he give these properties a massive facelift, but he advises owners on how to best market their property to guests.

McGillivray spoke with House Beautiful about all things vacation rentals— from how to calculate your rate to how to enhance your rental both online and in person, as well as his advice on navigating the industry during a pandemic. Whether you’re renting out beachfront homes to guests or you’re hoping to profit from an empty a suite in your home, McGillivray’s tips will help polish your property.

Calculate an accurate rate

First things first: Charge a fair rate. In every episode of Vacation House Rules, McGillivray helps clients calculate a reasonable price per night/week for their property post-renovation.

The main factors that determine rate are whether or not the property is waterfront, its distance to a major city, bedroom total, time of year, and the home’s quality and finishes, McGillivray explains. “Ideally, you’re within two hours of a major city,” and “you have a minimum of three bedrooms, but up to six is fantastic,” he says. Having waterfront access will really allow you to hike up the price, too. But while there’s no exact formula, McGillivray recommends doing your research — that means checking out other listings in the area to see what they’re charging. If you want to make nudge the price a bit higher, his next tip, if carried out well, can really make your property standout amongst similar listings.

Make sure to brand your rental

“The most important factor in getting high demand for your property is branding it,” McGillivray says, adding that most people overlook this feat. By this, he means that renters will neglect “to create a theme or a concept to make [their property] memorable.”

If you’ve read House Beautiful’s coverage on this Hagrid-Inspired Hut available to rent, inspired by the Harry Potter series, or this Golden Girls-inspired rental home, you know all about branding. Not all branding has to be that elaborate, but setting your rental apart can be the difference between making a return on the property.

“I’m working on a property right now that I’m branding as The Hawks Nest,” McGillivray says. He explains that the home has great views, a refreshing breeze, and is equipped with a fire pit area that overlooks the lake and landscape of the cliffs. Just by giving the rental a fun name, he’s already grabbed the attention of future renters who might be curious about what rental is like.

Small tweaks to the property’s name can make all the difference. If your property is near a lake that folks often fish at, consider dubbing it a “fishing lodge” and try to incorporate that theme inside if possible.“Really playing up to your local or specific brand is key to being able to charge a premium,” McGillivray says.

Be honest when writing the listing

Now, while branding is important, you don’t want to embellish your property in the listing. “Whatever you put in your listing, make sure that it’s a true representation of the property and it’s not dishonest,” McGillivray says. Before arriving, guests should have a good understanding of what the kitchen has or doesn’t have, or what the living space is like.

Furthermore, McGillivray notes that if you’ve got a major issue in the house (think: leaky roof or broken appliances), you have to be transparent and upfront about it. “Someone’s going to leave a review and those reviews are gospel for your continued success in this business,” he says.

Make sure to include good photos

“There is no hard, fast rule about the number of pictures,” in a listing, McGillivray reveals, but if he had to put a number to it, he suggests aiming for a dozen.”You want to show your main areas. You want to show the exterior. And again, you want to be honest.”

He gives an example of how photos can be unknowingly deceitful: Suppose, you have a cabin that’s a short walk down a hill from a lake and in your photos, you show an up-close picture of the dock and the property’s interiors. Renters may assume that the lake is directly outside the cabin, but if the lake is actually a bit of downhill trek, this could be an issue for someone with bad knees, he explains.

Help guests pre-plan their vacation

Besides showing guests what the property actually looks like, McGillivray recommends including photos of nearby attractions in the listing or restaurants for them to check out. “You almost can help them preplan their entire vacation if you show them some of the local things you can do,” he says. He notes that some listings even go as far as to include drone footage of their property, which gives guests a birds-eye view of their surroundings and envision the property better.

Offer a guests a “welcome” gift

“If you have a welcoming gift, that goes a long way,” McGillivray explains. It’s a touch he’s been known to incorporate on Vacation House Rules.

If you’re thinking about putting together a basket, he suggests including things that fit the property’s theme. While snacks are a great start, think of items more specific to the activities guests be involved in during their stay. If it’s a waterfront property, consider gifting guests with sunscreen or towels that they can take with them. If you’re near a farmstand, include some local foods.

Supply guests with all the basic necessities

Besides gifting guests with a little surprise upon arrival, going as far as to stock the kitchen with basic condiments and spices that can also earn you some glowing reviews, as you’re saving guests a trip to the supermarket, therefor allowing them more time to enjoy their stay.

When it comes to soaps, shampoos, toothpastes, cleaning products, etc., include those as well. McGillivary notes that a lot of the waterfront vacation homes he’s worked on use septic systems and if you’re trying to preserve your property and its surroundings, you’re going to want your guests to use environmentally-safe products. “It’s a nice gift for the renters, but it’s also a nice way to make sure that the right products are being used in your home.”

Remember: We’re still in a pandemic

Finally, McGillivray sheds a light on how to rent during COVID-19. If possible, he suggests vacation houses transition to monthly rentals, instead of by the week. This will reduce the amount of guest turnover. For those who may rent small spaces in their homes, it gets a bit more tricky and he suggests aiming to transition the space to one with a long-term lease. COVID-compliant practices should be put into place in shared areas. Not to mention, units with separate entrances and natural divisions are more ideal.

He also recommends spacing out guests’ stays, allotting at least 48 hours to clean before checking in the next group, as well as “urging people to bring up their own groceries and everything that they need for the entire duration of their stay.” That keeps guests from venturing out into public places.

For properties that are secluded, he notes that now’s the time for owners to play up that escape factor and social distancing opportunity.

As for Vacation House Rules, which is currently filming for season two, McGillivray notes that the show has been edited to reflect the vacation rental industry during this current climate and “be as compliant as possible and not tone deaf.”

Tune in for more pro tips from Scott McGillivray every Saturday at 8 p.m. ET/PT on HGTV US.

Follow House Beautiful on Instagram.

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