Here are 11 questions to ask before booking a vacation home for the family.

By Anya Hoffman
November 12, 2015
airbnb rental
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Every year since our first child was born, my husband and I have rented a house on Cape Cod for family vacation. We usually stay for two weeks, a lovely stretch that gives us a chance to settle in and get comfortable in the space before packing up to leave. Since we live too far away to check out the houses before we put down a deposit, we’ve gotten pretty good at sorting through listings and reading between the lines to identify both potential issues and promising attributes.

We’ve found that some listings that claim to welcome children aren’t actually all that welcoming. And then there are the wonderful houses whose owners—likely parents themselves—anticipate your every need, from an extra pack-n-play in the hall closet to a basement full of enticing toys. The trick is in distinguishing between the two, which isn’t always obvious. Here’s a list of questions to help you determine if that Airbnb listing you’re considering truly is family-friendly:

Is there onsite laundry?

The first year we went to the Cape, our daughter was seven months old. The trip was born out of an idyllic fantasy of summertime family life—collecting seashells on the beach! eating ice cream cones in town! sparklers!—a Platonic ideal based in some part on our own childhood vacations, but which really stemmed from our fervent but unarticulated hopes that vacation-parenting would be simple and blissful; as full of s’mores and uninterrupted sleep as real-life parenting was of break-of-dawn coffee runs and arguments about laundry.

That first family vacation, as it turned out, was pretty blissful. There were still some break-of-dawn coffee runs, but they took place at the beach, where we watched the tide go out while sipping from to-go cups. And arguments about laundry were mitigated by the presence of an in-house washer and dryer, a luxury we lacked at home in our small city apartment. If you’re staying somewhere with children for longer than three days, access to a washer and dryer will go a long way towards familial happiness. (Note: Don’t assume that every freestanding property has its own laundry facilities; we made this mistake once, and it was not fun.)

Are there stairs, and can they be blocked off, if need be?

Stairs were my nemesis when the kids were very little. One house we rented had an open staircase that led down to the finished basement smack in the middle of the living room. It was carpeted, but there was no door and it was difficult to gate off. Every time my kids toddled by that opening took a month off my life. No one needs extra stress on vacation: if you have young children, find out the staircase situation and bring or request safety gates as needed.

Does the house have a bathtub?

Some children are okay with, or even prefer, taking showers; our kids are not among them. When my older daughter was a toddler, we rented a house that didn’t have a tub, figuring that she would get used to the shower. She did not. She was scared of it, and every post-beach rinse-off was a struggle. We never did that again.

Are there ever any problems with noise?

Unless you’re in the middle of nowhere, a little noise from neighbors is inevitable, but it’s a good idea to make sure there aren’t any hidden issues that could ruin your trip. During one vacation, loud music from a bar down the road kept us up every single night. If you’re sensitive to noise, ask if there’s ever a problem with loud neighbors, nearby businesses, or traffic sounds. If you’re not sensitive to noise, I salute you.

Is the property close to a busy road?

It’s nice to be able to give your kids a bit of freedom during vacation, but that can be difficult if you’re near a busy road. If your children are young and/or prone to running off without warning, this is something to ask about.

Does the house contain a lot of breakable stuff?

While you’re on vacation, the last thing you want is to have to constantly nag your kids about being careful with someone else’s stuff. If a house seems somewhat cluttered, or is decorated with tons of knickknacks or pottery, I move on. For me, it’s not worth the hassle.

Are linens included? If not, what size are the beds?

One year we arrived at our rental after a long, hard day of traveling with a carsick preschooler and a screaming infant only to find that we had packed queen-size sheets for a king-sized bed. (Our bad: we hadn’t checked. Now we always do.) Also, make sure you know ahead of time whether the house’s owners provide linens and towels or not. Many owners provide bath towels but not beach towels, so it’s good to ask about this as well.

How is the house laid out?

When traveling with babies who don’t yet sleep through the night, staying in a house with bedrooms on different floors can make nighttime wakings even more trying. (When the kids are older, however, that set-up could be ideal.)

Is the house equipped with a highchair or a portable crib?

These are two bulky baby items that can be a pain to schlep. Lots of smart rental owners stash a portable crib and/or a highchair in a closet in case it’s needed. Also, if you have young children who are used to sleeping on a low toddler bed and might roll off the bed, check to see if there are any hideaway bed rails on hand. (If not: pad the floor with extra pillows and hope for the best.)

Does the house have any toys?

Bored kids make for a lot more whining and a lot less early-morning sleep for their parents. Houses that come with a variety of toys, no matter how well used, will contribute to a happier trip all round.

What sort of beach equipment do the owners provide for summer visits?

Not having to cram beach chairs into the back of the car can make packing for a trip infinitely easier. Before leaving, find out exactly which beach accessories the house comes with; some rentals are stocked with everything from umbrellas and chairs to boogie boards and sand toys. And if they have one of those beach carts that hold all your stuff and roll across the sand, book that house immediately.