A vacation home sounds so “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous,” doesn’t it? But for my family, it turned out to be one of the best investments we ever made. For roughly the cost of a monthly car payment (a pretty nice car, but still…) we were able to enjoy the most luxurious of all luxuries … time together. By going in with three other families, we could afford a vacation home that we used to reconnect as a family each month.

While we had a good experience, we worked hard to make it happen. Here are five secrets that led to our success.

CHOOSE YOUR PARTNERS CAREFULLY

You may think sharing a vacation home is something you do with close friends. But there’s absolutely no reason to do that, unless you have visions of being at the cabin all together. And even then … why? The cabin is where you can take your friends who don’t own a vacation house of their own.

More important than being buddies with your house-share partners is ensuring your group is comprised of reasonable people, with whom you will feel comfortable working through issues and airing grievances — which are almost assured.

MAKE CLEAR RULES

Solid rules are the foundation of a happy partnership. While what happens at the cabin stays at the cabin — for the most part — you still need to agree on some basic ground rules. Here are five that were important to us:

  • Pets. In our case, we were all dog owners, so we allowed them. But if pets begin to damage the house, you may need to rethink the rule.

  • Cleaning. We insisted on a cleaning service because no one wants to arrive at 10 p.m. to a mess. And truthfully, it made the whole visit more fun not having to launch into cleaning mode on the way out. If you elect for self-service, consider a checklist for owners to follow so everyone cleans to the same standards.

  • When something breaks. You also don’t want to arrive at 10 p.m. to a fridge on the fritz and a co-cabin owner who says they forgot to call the repair person. We decided that if something broke on your watch, it was your job to replace or repair it. If there wasn’t time, then you were to let the next visitor know and do what you could to rectify the situation.

  • Maintenance. Shared ownership equals shared responsibility, so everyone pitches in. Consider making a checklist of tasks like changing filters, shining windows and deep cleaning the fridge. Then, have everyone pick a couple to accomplish each quarter.

  • Renting out the cabin. Agree on whether it’s allowed. If it is, who gets the money; i.e. do I keep the money if my friend rents my week, or does it go into a pool? We elected not to rent the house. We found that the weeks people would have rented it were the same weeks we wanted to use it. On the rare occasion we did rent the house, we put the money into our joint fund to handle a big expense, like a roof repair.

PLAN AN EXIT STRATEGY

If one of your partners wants out, what happens? Do they offer first right of refusal to the other owners in case they want to buy another share? If not, who is responsible for finding a replacement family? What sort of approval do you have? Depending on how long you own the house, your plans may change, so it’s smart to think about a succession plan.

DIVVY UP THE TIME

Let’s face it: Everyone wants the week between Christmas and New Year’s. Or spring break. Or Labor Day. But you have to divide these prime gets equally. There are many ways to divide up the weeks, but we did a “serpentine draft,” which means that we went in a 1-2-3-4-4-3-2-1 pattern — the family who got fourth pick got two in a row. We kept picking until all the holidays were gone and we had divvied up the summer, and then we would just assign the random weeks so that each family had one week a month. Then throughout the year, we made sure to let the co-owners know if we wouldn’t be using a given week so someone else could trade or use an extra week.

BUDGET FOR COMMON EXPENSES

First, of course, you’ll want to figure out your fixed monthly expenses, including the mortgage payment with property taxes and insurance, plus homeowners’ insurance and HOA dues, if any. Then determine what your monthly utilities are likely to run so you have a figure that each owner must deposit at a set time each month. In our case, we added in $30 per family per month to build an emergency fund.

We set up a joint bank account which made it easy for these consistent bills to be paid seamlessly.

And don’t forget furnishing the place if it comes unfurnished. This area needs some definite ground rules; some people might have Champagne taste and go on a crazy shopping spree and then stick their three fellow owners with three-quarters of the bill, while others might be happy to outfit the place with cast-offs from their own house or garage sale finds. Create a list of needs and budget accordingly. It could be that you’ll need to work with what you have now, with an eye toward upgrading in the future.

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