The Cottage ATM

Ruth Brandau opens her family's cherished vacation beach home to renters each summer, though she'd rather be there herself.

"When I talk about it, I want to be there," she said. Ruth and her husband Louis bought the home on Lake Michigan in Glen Arbor in 1971, when they lived in suburban Detroit. Now, they live in Raleigh, N.C. and rarely make it to the cottage.

Yet opening it to vacationers every July and August allows them to keep up with the property taxes. That way, they can more easily hang onto it for children and their families, who live there in June and help get it ready for renters.

The Brandaus contract with Leelanau Vacation Rentals, one of several businesses that help people rent out their vacation properties. The business takes care of marketing, screening guests, booking, cleaning and collecting the fees.

The business' four year-round employees have plenty to do throughout the winter with taking reservations, scheduling spring cleanings, marketing and maintaining the web site.

While some vacation rental firms contract out the cleaning, LVR does its own, including laundry. That swells their summer payroll to 75 employees, said manager Ranae Ihme.

It just keeps getting busier.

"The last two years have been fantastic," she said, crediting the economy and ABC's Good Morning America naming the Sleeping Bear Dunes the most beautiful place in the nation.

Private homes are an increasingly popular lodging option because of the privacy and charm factors.

The sector has also fared well in hard times and rode out the recession just fine.

"If anything, we saw a few more people who couldn't afford to buy a cottage so they were just renting," Ihme said. "Some people buy a place up here and don't necessarily like the busy time of year."

While the bulk of the business is still in the summer, spring and fall are also picking up steam with the help of weddings.

The company lists homes all over the county and by this time of year, most have been rented out. Still, people continue to call through the spring deciding to put their own properties up for rent.

The hottest areas are along Lake Michigan and on Glen Lake, where Ihme said rents average $2,500 to $4,500 per week.

There are properties listed in the area for $1,000 per week or less, and some advertise nightly rates. They include lakefront cottages, condominiums a short walk from downtown and quiet places surrounded by woods.

The vacation rental businesses take a percentage out of what the visitor pays, which falls between 25 and 40 percent, depending on the company.

The Brandaus are fairly typical in that the home they rent out is their second home. It's rare for people to rent out their primary residences, property managers say.

"For one thing, a lot of people don't want strangers having access to all of their personal belongings," said Ken Weaver of C21 Vacation Rentals. "They also don't want the hassle of locking up all their possessions in storage and emptying everything out for a couple weeks a year."

Leelanau Vacation Rentals also stipulates that all closets, refrigerators and dressers be emptied, just like a hotel room.

"Nobody's going to want to see old food and ketchup in there," Ihme said.

Many homeowners list their properties on web sites like the international (Vacation Rentals By Owner), and C21's Still, a lot of the phone numbers on the sites go to management companies.

The city of Traverse City doesn't allow renting of homes by the week, except for homes in certain commercial zones. Those tend to be on the main thoroughfares, like Garfield Avenue and Eighth, 14th, Front, and Division streets.

Most homes in the city have to be rented out for at least a month at a time, and all such properties are subject to county codes before they can be rented, city planner Russ Soyring said.

Weaver said he sees more people buying a second home, intending right from the start to rent it out as a way to afford it.

"They realize they could not own a second home without doing this," he said.

Still, some may find they are strapped with two homes and begin to see their cottages as a source of revenue.

"It's a comfort for people to know they can always rent it," she said. "There's always a market for rentals."