Ask the Experts: Bringing a Bit of Home to a Summer Rental

“I’m a nester,” part-time Island resident Catherine Urban admits as she walks through the cozy three-bedroom West Chop cape that she and her family rented for the first time last summer. Pointing out artwork, vases brimming with freshly picked hydrangeas, framed family photographs, and the occasional piece of furniture, Catherine says these items helped her transform the clean but impersonal vacation home into a comforting haven practically overnight.

She warmed up her surroundings with objects from three sources: inexpensive purchases from the Martha’s Vineyard Community Services’ Thrift Shop in Vineyard Haven; personal belongings from her New Canaan, Connecticut, town house; and surplus decorative accessories from the basement of her own nearby historic Main Street home, which she maintains, for the moment, primarily as an income property.

“The owners of this [rental] house live elsewhere on the Island,” Catherine explains. “I don’t think they ever lived here, so the house doesn’t have that family feeling. There’s nothing wrong with it,” she hastens to add. “It’s well equipped and ideal for us, but I wanted to make it feel homier for our nine-week stay.”

Visitors are now greeted at the front door by a welcome mat, a quaint wooden “Welcome Friends” plaque, and potted flowers from Stop & Shop. “The entrance creates your first impression,” Catherine says. “It makes me feel good about coming home and invites my guests to come on in.”

Inside, Catherine rearranged artwork on the walls, moving some of the owners’ prints upstairs to bedrooms or downstairs to the living areas. She also substituted several “Vineyardy” prints from the Thrift Shop and vintage mirrors from her Vineyard Haven house, a former inn. “We have lots of stuff in the basement that we inherited when we bought it,” she explains.

A wooden fruit crate near the front door serves as a handy bin for shoes and a wicker basket captures incoming mail. Scented candles, a needlepoint pillow, old-fashioned lanterns, favorite cookbooks, promising beach reads, and a well-used backgammon game provide familiar touches throughout the living areas and kitchen. On the back deck, tomato plants from seedlings sprout in containers bought at Shirley’s Hardware. With any luck, they’ll bear fruit for the table before the family’s pre–Labor Day departure.

A sturdy antique pine chest (purchased by Catherine for fifty dollars) proves the perfect replacement for the living room’s rickety coffee table, now temporarily banished to the basement. A new wooden clock from Midnight Farm graces the wall in the dining room, a gift Catherine bought for the homeowners. “I consider staying here a privilege,” she says, “so this is my present to the house and its owners.”

With nary a new hole hammered and a budget of less than a hundred dollars, Catherine created a home away from home. “I’ve tricked myself into thinking that I’m in my own space,” she says. “And I’m happy to leave anything that might make the next guests feel more comfortable.”

Before she left, Catherine returned the owners’ artwork to the original locations but left in place many of the decorative accessories she had contributed. She reports that the owners were pleased with the changes she made and welcome her – and her decorating flair – back this June.

Vineyard Haven interior designer Julie Robinson seconds Catherine’s suggestion that summer tenants bring items from home to make their rentals feel more comfortable, inside and out. “Bring your own bicycles or volleyball net – anything for outdoor activities that you might enjoy at home and can transport.”

Mary Rentschler, another Vineyard Haven designer, lends a cautionary note about rental rearranging from personal experience. “I remember when my mother rented her house to a ballerina. When the lease was up, my mother came back and the woman had moved all her furniture so she could turn the living room into a dance space. My mother was not happy.” Instead, Mary suggests bringing moveable and non-permanent decorative items. “It’s like staging a house,” she observes, “to personalize a rental and give it a fresh summer look.” To make the kitchen work more efficiently, she even recommends bringing counter-top appliances from home. But don’t, she reinforces, nail into walls or rearrange large piece of furniture that might damage walls or floors.

Rental property specialist Anne Mayhew, manager at Sandpiper Rentals in Edgartown, and her staff represent more than five hundred vacation properties on the Island. While she advises homeowners to leave clean, uncluttered space for tenants to bring their own items, she offers this tip to renters: “Take photographs or video to record the rooms before you make any personal changes. Then it’s much easier to return the house to its owner in the exact condition you found it.”