advertisement

In the few months that Nick and Jesse Henderson have rented a room in their southeast Portland home on Airbnb (www.airbnb.com), they've hosted a family in town for a wedding, a couple of ice cream entrepreneurs -- and the crew from the TV show Portlandia.

"They turned our house into a brothel," says Nick Henderson, adding that the crew put the house back exactly as they found it after they left.

Summer is the heart of home rental season, particularly for beach communities on both coasts. Websites such as HomeAway (www.homeaway.com) and VRBO (www.vrbo.com) allow owners to rent out their vacation or second homes, while Airbnb and CouchSurfing (www.couchsurfing.org) take a more social media-influenced method toward matching travelers with a spare bedroom or sleeping space.

As with any situation involving strangers, though, safety precautions should be taken. Whether you're renting out your cabin on the lake for a week or allowing someone to stay on your sofa for a night, here are some tips to protect yourself and your property.

Don't rush. Unlike hotel booking engines, home-rental sites don't immediately release rooms. Depending on the service, homeowners can ask their potential guests for more information through profiles, e-mail, or even phone conversations.

In the tips that it gives to prospective homeowners, HomeAway encourages owners to make that phone call before taking a booking. "It's amazing how much information you can glean about a person from a short phone conversation," their recommendations say.

At Airbnb, homeowners are restricted from talking on the phone until after the booking has been made. But people are still advised to swap e-mails with potential guests before giving the final OK.

"Chemistry is a big part of the relationship with your guest," says Emily Joffrion of Airbnb. "Whether booking out a shared living space or your second home, take your time and get to know the person."

Ask questions. Good questions can uncover red flags, say representatives at both HomeAway and Airbnb. A few to consider: What's the purpose of your trip? Have you stayed in a vacation rental before? How many adults and how many children will be staying? What attractions are you looking to take in?

On CouchSurfing, travelers looking for a place to stay are expected to write detailed requests instead of generic "can I crash with you?" e-mails. "Look for messages that use your name and make it clear that the member has read your profile," their guidelines state.

Do some cybersleuthing. Both Airbnb and HomeAway suggest adding renters as limited access Facebook friends so homeowners can check out their profile for incriminating information. "If you see a group of people chugging beers and drinking out of a giant funnel, these might not be the best renters for your home," HomeAway says in their tips.

Other research possibilities include area code look-ups, WhitePages (www.whitepages.com) and -- of course -- the everybody-does-it Google search. Don't forget Twitter (www.twitter.com), either. If you're an owner, you don't want to be the last to find out about the party being held at your house while you're gone.

Set policies upfront. In their listing, the Hendersons make it clear that they are a family -- and that quiet hours start at 9pm on weekdays. "That weeds out a lot of people right there," says Nick Henderson.

That being said, the Hendersons learn something new from each rental. "Every time we have someone, we adjust the rules a little bit," says Henderson, who recently noticed some silver coins were missing from his collection. It's now stored safely away from temptation.

Other protections to consider include establishing a security deposit or cleaning fee, making sure you have comprehensive homeowners' or renters' insurance, and drawing up a comprehensive list of what items in your house the renters can and cannot use.

Trust your gut. Unlike major hotel chains, homeowners on almost all rental property sites have the option of turning down renters who set off alarm bells. "Pretty much every owner we've talked to who has endured major property damage by a renter had a bad feeling about the guest before he/she took the booking," HomeAway says in its tips.

The bottom line: No amount of rental income is worth compromising the safety of your family and your property. "If it's not right for you, it's OK to walk away," says Airbnb's Joffrion.

Travel journalist Chris Gray Faust dishes up travel tips on her award-winning blog, Chris Around The World. She's also the author of the Philadelphia Essential Guide, an app for iPhone and iPad.