My in-laws have had a timeshare for nearly 20 years. They bought it from a large, reputable timeshare company, paying just over $7,000 cash for it. Since that time, they have used it to take fabulous vacations all over the world by participating in the company’s exchange system. They have even used their exchange points to secure lodging for our various family vacations for ridiculously low weekly amounts. Clearly, our whole family has benefited from using their timeshare.
But, now they’re no longer physically fit enough to travel the way they used to. In addition, the timeshare is actually costing them a significant amount of money: the yearly maintenance fees have risen to over $1,000—regardless of whether the unit is used. Unfortunately, nobody in the family wants to take it on, so they’re beginning to think about selling the timeshare. But, they’ve heard the scam warnings and seen the low resale offers and are unsure of which way to turn.
Yet, according to the State of the Vacation Timeshare Industry: United States Study 2015 Edition released by the American Resort Development Association (ARDA), sales volume in the U.S. timeshare industry has increased by almost 25% since 2010, despite those scam warnings and resale problems.
If you find yourself wondering about getting into a timeshare—or getting out of one—here’s what you need to know to get started.
Getting Into a Timeshare
As visions of exotic locations, palm trees or Mickey Mouse dance in your head, remember that owning a timeshare is not the same as owning property. A timeshare is not a real estate investment. Instead, its value is derived from its status as a desirable vacation destination that you can use for a specified time period each year. (Many timeshares also come with an exchange program that includes other properties located all over the world. This allows its members to travel elsewhere or travel more, as my in-laws did.)
All timeshares charge an initial purchase price (the average timeshare sales price for 2013 was $20,460, according to the ARDA) and a yearly or monthly maintenance fee that may be uncapped and often increases substantially every year. Property taxes may or may not be included in that maintenance fee. You may also be responsible for broker commissions, closing costs, insurance and, additionally, loan payments and interest if you borrow money to purchase your timeshare.
As with real property, if you don’t pay the maintenance fees or property taxes, the development company can foreclose on you.
When evaluating the cost of a particular timeshare, consider this rule of thumb: Compare your anticipated timeshare ownership costs to your anticipated hotel expenses; since the timeshare comes with a kitchen and living area, treat it as a suite or two rooms. If you’re not breaking even within 10 years on your timeshare, it may be priced too high.
If you’re considering the purchase of a timeshare, The FTC suggests that you answer these questions regarding the timeshare development and management company:
What is the track record of the parties involved in the sale (e.g., developer, management company, seller)? Ask for a copy of the timeshare’s current maintenance budget, as well as its stated policies on management, repair, and replacement furnishings. Review the timetables for services. Search for every company or person involved online, and include words such as “timeshare complaints” in your search.
Will everything be put in writing? Whatever sales promises are made, check that they are all included in writing in the contract. If not, the FTC recommends that you bow out gracefully.
Will they allow you enough time to examine the contract? Timeshare sellers are known for their high-pressure tactics. For example, they might tell you that the deal is only good for one day. Don’t let yourself succumb to the pressure. You have the right to examine the contract. Show it to a lawyer or a real estate professional who can help you determine what to add to the contract to protect yourself in case the property remains undeveloped or management defaults.
Is there a “right of rescission” in the contract? This is the “cooling-off period” in which you can cancel the contract after you’ve signed the documents. Some states require it and some states don’t. Either way, ask for it to be included in your contract. If the seller won’t insert this clause, walk away from the negotiating table, advises the FTC.
What do current timeshare owners at this destination say? Visit the location to see for yourself how the units and grounds are kept. Ask current owners about their experiences (including their complaints). Find out how the exchange system for travelling elsewhere works and whether they’re satisfied with it. Because the location of your timeshare will affect your future resale value, speak to a local real estate agent to determine the desirability of the locale.
Before committing to a new timeshare, look into resales; you could find a much better deal. You might even want to try out a few destinations by renting a timeshare through a legitimate local real estate agent or online re-seller such as Timeshare Users Group (TUG) or Redweek.com.
Getting Out of a Timeshare
According to the FTC, because there are so many timeshare plans on the market, the resale value of a timeshare plan that you buy new will likely be a lot lower than what you paid for it. A quick search on eBay shows many timeshares for sale for just $1, an indication of how desperate those trying to get out of a timeshare are.
If you’re interested in getting rid of your timeshare (but you’d rather not sell it on eBay), find out from your developer whether they offer a resale or buyback program, or are associated or affiliated with a broker who handles resales. A good way to determine a legitimate resale value for your timeshare is to use a timeshare appraisal service with a licensed appraiser in your timeshare’s state.
If you find that you can’t use your unit or time and that you can’t sell right now either, consider renting out your timeshare through a legitimate online timeshare rental service such as Timeshare Users Group (TUG) or Redweek.com so that you can recoup some of your costs.
Avoiding Timeshare Scams
Whether you are selling or renting a timeshare, watch out because you could be the target of any number of timeshare scams.
If you’re renting, scammers may try to convince you to pay (perhaps through a wire transfer) before you’ve signed a lease or even met. The FTC advises never sending money if you can’t meet in person or haven’t seen the unit or signed the lease. If the rental is overseas or way out of town, paying with a credit card or through a reputable vacation rental website with a verified payment system (e.g., TUG, Redweek.com, VRBO.com or airbnb.com) are your safest bets.
If you’re desperate to sell your timeshare, that’s when scammers are likely to prey on you the hardest. According to a recent California Department of Real Estate timeshare resale scam warning, scammers often target timeshare owners (many of whom are retirees), claiming that they or an “agent” have found a buyer for their timeshare and need money right away to process the paperwork and complete the sale.
According to a timeshare resale scam warning from the Arizona Attorney General, once the money is transferred, the scammers can never again be reached and the duped owners find that they still own the timeshare, too.
To avoid being scammed, do not make any payments upfront (especially if the “agent” asks for cash, a money order, a wire transfer or a cashier’s check). Instead, request a copy of the re-seller agent’s written contract, which contains a written disclosure of all fees and costs. (In a legitimate sale, this is what you would be required to sign.) Check all license numbers against your state’s real estate licensing agency or look for the supposed broker through the Licensed Timeshare Resale Brokers Association. And be wary of anyone promising to buy your timeshare for cash.
Passing on Your Timeshare to Your Kids
A timeshare is not a piece of property deeded to you. Instead, you receive a deed for your percentage of the total property, or your share. Depending on state law, this typically means that you can rent, sell or exchange your share, as well as pass it on to family members in your will.
Before deciding whether to pass on your timeshare to your heirs, meet with an estate planning attorney to discuss the pros and cons of doing so, as well as your options for avoiding probate. There are many options available, such as adding adult children to the title or creating a trust, and each may appeal to different family members.
Another good idea is to hold a family meeting to determine which family members want to use the timeshare and whether they can afford to pay the yearly maintenance fees.
Keep Reading: 5 Questions to Ask Before You Buy a Vacation Home