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You might be surprised to hear this, but if you want to maximize the benefits of a vacation and minimize your costs, you ought to give a top real estate agent in the area a quick call.

Top real estate agents, as local experts, can show you a place the way only longtime residents can see it. They make insightful tour guides because they spend every waking moment trying to convince people to move into the neighborhood.

Not only that, but if you end up loving your trip so much you want to live there forever, it doesn’t hurt to have a contact on the inside. Good agents can help you crunch the numbers and figure out whether it’s financially viable to own a vacation house in your lovable getaway place. (Here’s how to calculate how much house you can really afford.)

Ask any agent who knows what they’re doing and they’ll talk your ear off about how they can help you on your travels, but we thought to boil it down to the five ways they can save you money in the long run.

1. They Can Be Your 15-Minute Tour Guide (Just Ask Politely)

If you’re vacationing, chances are the hip urban vibe or tranquil oceanscape will spark a sense of wanderlust. The problem is that there are too many special boards out there advertising “$15 Cruise on The Bay!” at Fisherman’s Wharf or “Scenic Waterfall Hike!” on the big island of Hawaii. Who goes to a place just to see the same stuff they get at home?

No one knows the local landscape better than a good real estate agent. They have to — without extensive knowledge of local schools, eats and local things to see and do, they would have nothing to show potential buyers.

For example, real estate agent Dan Ihara, who happens to be in the top 1% of sellers in Hawaii, knows the waves in Honolulu unlike anyone else.

He knows most of the people buying homes in Honolulu are headed there for the surf culture. And he’s got the inside scoop on great surf spots you’ll never find in a guidebook.

Any real estate agent will be happy to spend 15 minutes chatting with you, especially if there’s potential for you to become a client later on.

Here’s how to use that short introductory call to your advantage:

1. Get “what it’s like to live there” recommendations for local sights, eats and things to do to get a feel for what the city is all about. These places are guaranteed to be cheaper — and better quality — than tourist sites that attempt to squeeze as much money out of you as possible.

2. Get recommendations for areas in your price range.

3. Make plans to see the highest performing rental areas.

The best part about using an agent as a tour guide is that you’ll build a positive relationship if you decide to buy a property in that location down the road.

2. They’ll Be Straight With You

Owning a vacation home cuts the cost of lodging and food when you travel, as you’ll have a full kitchen to store and prep meals. Plus, in some markets, you can make enough renting out the home when you don’t use it to cover the cost of the second mortgage.

On the other hand, you should be careful when you consider buying a vacation home.

As Wall Street Journal reporter Jeff Brown writes, “Among the common rookie mistakes are focusing on purchase price, rental rates and recent market trends and counting on more renters than are likely.””

A local agent can give you insights about buying in the area.

The next time you visit your favorite destination — perhaps in the Cayman Islands, the South of France or the Gold Coast of Australia — a top real estate agent can sit down and help you understand what you can reasonably afford.

We put together several questions to ask in a meeting with a real estate agent to better your understanding of owning a vacation rental. Your ultimate goal is to learn if you can make money or break even on your vacation home, or if you’ll need to pay for a second mortgage.

1. How is the vacation rental market in this area? Do vacation homeowners usually get strong occupancy rates? What is the average vacation rental occupancy rate in this area?

2. How much do you think I can afford in a vacation home? How much do homes usually rent for per week in this area?

3. Do you have a relationship with any vacation rental companies that could care for or rent out the property for me? How much would that cost?

4. Do you think I will make money, break even or lose money on this vacation home?

5. What is peak season for vacation rentals in this area?

3. They Can Provide the Latest & Greatest on Trendy Neighborhoods

Real estate agents also know what’s going on in the local market, what homes move the fastest and what vacation areas are ripe for investment. For example, in Las Vegas, top 1% agent Jeff Galindo can anticipate the trends of his area better than any travel agency.

“When things started changing about a year ago, or 18 months ago, give or take, those homes are the ones that started getting swallowed up,” he said. “Those are the ones that people took out of the market and started buying and flipping and rehabbing. So it’s really difficult for anyone to find anything under $100,000 today in our market, which is unusual.”

These neighborhoods are not only good places to invest in, but they’re the areas you should see on vacation. The faster homes start to move, the more interest there is in a particular area, which means locals can’t get enough of it.

Take San Francisco. Visit the city and you might get stuck at Fisherman’s Wharf, on a cable car in Union Square or licking ice cream off your fingers in Ghirardelli Square. The true expression of San Francisco culture, though, is in the Mission District, or the Hayes Valley neighborhood, or in the Castro. These places also have rising home prices.

4. They Can Help You Get More for Your Money

If you are in the market for a vacation home, one strategy to maximize the house you’ll get for your money is to buy a home you can fix up.

Real estate agents will know about properties like these in your vacation destination that are most likely in your price range. If you’ve dreamt about owning a treehouse in Kauai, talking to an agent before you fly over to the island could give you the confidence you need to start looking.

(Don’t forget to check your credit before you start shopping around. You can view two of your credit scores for free on Credit.com.)

5. They Can Help You Pick Your New Perfect Neighborhood

A real estate agent is the person best equipped to match you to neighborhoods she thinks will become your favorite. In addition to roaming the streets to find your favorite new bistro, you’ll get acquainted with areas you could see yourself — and your family — living in.

As Mynor Herrera, top 1% real estate agent in the Washington, Virginia and Maryland areas told us, “There’s so much that a local agent can bring to the table just by institutional knowledge of that marketplace.”

The real estate agent will know the best neighborhoods and get a feel for how people actually live life in your destination.

Ultimately, meeting with a real estate agent on your vacation can give you a new perspective on the area and what it’s like to live there. You may even get inspired to finally buy the beachfront hideaway you’ve always wanted.

Image: Petar Chernaev

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