Voices | Sam Allis

The perfect getaway

Whether you rent or own, finding that special place to vacation can make your summer

By Sam Allis
June 7, 2010

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A bunch of friends of mine have summer places. This is the beginning of the season when, like participants in the Oklahoma Land Rush, they make mad dashes for the good life there. Where do I estivate, you ask? Jamaica Plain, where I also winter.

It’s medically essential to have an escape hatch from the insanity of daily life and gainful employment. It’s nice to own it. No one can take it away from you, and no one can increase your rent. If you can’t afford to use the place all whole, you can rent it out and take what the market will bear. Location, location, location. You can cover a year of college for a week in the right part of the Vineyard.

I know what owners go through to get the place ready for the season, particularly if they plan to rent. There are holes in the screens, and the odd window is rotting out. The shutters are disgraceful and the gutters tragic. Countless marriages have foundered over the installation of wallpaper. Don’t even mention the roof.

Speaking of roofs, my father was delighted in 1954 when Hurricane Carol lifted our barn roof off and set it down gently in the backyard of our place on the Cape. We were playing Crazy Eights en famille in the kitchen and witnessed a huge shadow glide cross the windows like a manta ray. The roof was a wreck before Carol, and my father was dreading replacing it at serious expense. We may have been the only family who made out from Carol. Welcome, Mr. insurance company.

The secret to a successful summer launch in our family was the now-defunct Howard Johnson’s, on Route 28 just outside of Andover. We would repair there after an ulcerous morning spent packing the station wagon with strange summer paraphernalia, one dog and four humans. By lunchtime, no one was speaking to each other. (That’s not counting my conversation with the dog, Blackie.)

This was no ordinary HoJo’s. It had a lounge behind the main room where the ice cream that came in 28 flavors was served. You just didn’t run into many HoJo’s lounges. In plain English, a lounge is where hard booze is served. We would eat there, and my father would knock down a couple of martinis along with his BLT. Only then did he smile, and only then did we know we’d live to fight another day. He’d be pilloried today for drinking and driving, but he always drove like a champ.

There is, of course, the alternative to owning, mentioned above. It’s called renting. It’s got a lot of pluses going for it. You find a house you like and take it every year, forever. The owner gets to know and trust you, as you do him or her. You become friends over the years. This is the gold standard.

My sister rented the same place in Maine each August for 20 years. A sublime arrangement. She never experienced psychotic episodes when the pipes broke at 2 a.m. in January and no one found out until the next day. No ice dams in the gutters to worry about, no leaking roofs. Just drop the keys off at Labor Day and walk away. Is that great or what?

Granted, rent will rise with the passing years, but then you knew that. If owner and renter make a good fit, it’s a win-win. It’s actually a major win for the renter, whose problems are solved with a phone call.

To build a true friendship between owner and renter, said renter must pitch in too. A gesture — maybe helping the owner pay for new screens — is simply common sensical. And breakage — a lamp, say — means you buy two for the owner. He and his wife pick them out and you pay for it.

But to pull this off takes due diligence and luck. We all know about the renters from hell who trash a place and leave, prompting spirited colloquies over the proper disposition of the malefactors’ security deposits. And there are retrograde owners who refuse to return a call about a broken dryer or empty a gamy cesspool.

But if the renter lucks out, summer is dreamy. He experiences the same joy as does someone who sells a house and leaves an escrow account for the new owner to deal with the furnace guy.

Sam Allis can be reached at