A timeshare is a property with a particular form of ownership or use rights. These properties are typically resort condominium units, in which multiple parties hold rights to use the property, and each sharer is allotted a period of time (typically one week, and almost always the same time every year) in which they may use the property. Units may be on a partial ownership, lease, or “right to use” basis, in which the sharer holds no claim to ownership of the property.
Two basic vacation ownership options are available: timeshares and vacation interval plans. The value of these options is in their use as vacation destinations, not as investments. Because so many timeshares and vacation interval plans are available, the resale value of yours is likely to be a good deal lower than what you paid. Both a timeshare and a vacation interval plan require you to pay an initial purchase price and periodic maintenance fees. The initial purchase price may be paid all at once or over time; periodic maintenance fees are likely to increase every year.
Deeded Timeshare Ownership. In a timeshare, you either own your vacation unit for the rest of your life, for the number of years spelled out in your purchase contract, or until you sell it. Your interest is legally considered real property. You buy the right to use a specific unit at a specific time every year, and you may rent, sell, exchange, or bequeath your specific timeshare unit. You and the other timeshare owners collectively own the resort property.
Unless you’ve bought the timeshare outright for cash, you are responsible for paying the monthly mortgage. Regardless of how you bought the timeshare, you also are responsible for paying an annual maintenance fee; property taxes may be extra. Owners share in the use and upkeep of the units and of the common grounds of the resort property. A homeowners’ association usually handles management of the resort. Timeshare owners elect officers and control the expenses, the upkeep of the resort property, and the selection of the resort management company.
“Right to Use” Vacation Interval Option. In this option, a developer owns the resort, which is made up of condominiums or units. Each condo or unit is divided into “intervals” – either by weeks or the equivalent in points. You purchase the right to use an interval at the resort for a specific number of years – typically between 10 and 50 years. The interest you own is legally considered personal property. The specific unit you use at the resort may not be the same each year. In addition to the price for the right to use an interval, you pay an annual maintenance fee that is likely to increase each year.
Within the “right to use” option, several plans can affect your ability to use a unit:
-Fixed or Floating Time. In a fixed time option, you buy the unit for use during a specific week of the year. In a floating time option, you use the unit within a certain season of the year, reserving the time you want in advance; confirmation typically is provided on a first-come, first-served basis.
-Fractional Ownership. Rather than an annual week, you buy a large share of vacation ownership time, usually up to 26 weeks.
-Biennial Ownership. You use a resort unit every other year.
-Lockoff or Lockout. You occupy a portion of the unit and offer the remaining space for rental or exchange. These units typically have two to three bedrooms and baths.
-Points-Based Vacation Plans. You buy a certain number of points, and exchange them for the right to use an interval at one or more resorts. In a points-based vacation plan (sometimes called a vacation club), the number of points you need to use an interval varies according to the length of the stay, size of the unit, location of the resort, and when you want to use it.
In calculating the total cost of a timeshare or vacation plan, include mortgage payments and expenses, like travel costs, annual maintenance fees and taxes, closing costs, broker commissions, and finance charges. Maintenance fees can rise at rates that equal or exceed inflation, so ask whether your plan has a fee cap. You must pay fees and taxes, regardless of whether you use the unit.
To help evaluate the purchase, compare these costs with the cost of renting similar accommodations with similar amenities in the same location for the same time period. If you find that buying a timeshare or vacation plan makes sense, comparison shopping is your next step.
Evaluate the location and quality of the resort, as well as the availability of units. Visit the facilities and talk to current timeshare or vacation plan owners about their experiences. Local real estate agents also can be good sources of information. Check for complaints about the resort developer and management company with the state Attorney General and local consumer protection officials.
Research the track record of the seller, developer, and management company before you buy. Ask for a copy of the current maintenance budget for the property. Investigate the policies on management, repair, and replacement furnishings, and timetables for promised services. You also can search online for complaints.
Get a handle on all the obligations and benefits of the timeshare or vacation plan purchase. Is everything the salesperson promises written into the contract? If not, walk away from the sale.
Don’t act on impulse or under pressure. Purchase incentives may be offered while you are touring or staying at a resort. While these bonuses may present a good value, the timing of a purchase is your decision. You have the right to get all promises and representations in writing, as well as a public offering statement and other relevant documents.
Study the paperwork outside of the presentation environment and, if possible, ask someone who is knowledgeable about contracts and real estate to review it before you make a decision.
Get the name and phone number of someone at the company who can answer your questions – before, during, and after the sales presentation, and after your purchase.
Ask about your ability to cancel the contract, sometimes referred to as a “right of rescission.” Many states – and maybe your contract – give you a right of rescission, but the amount of time you have to cancel may vary. State law or your contract also may specify a “cooling-off period” – that is, how long you have to cancel the deal once you’ve signed the papers. If a right of rescission or a cooling-off period isn’t required by law, ask that it be included in your contract.
If, for some reason, you decide to cancel the purchase – either through your contract or state law – do it in writing. Send your letter by certified mail, and ask for a return receipt so you can document what the seller received. Keep copies of your letter and any enclosures. You should receive a prompt refund of any money you paid, as provided by law.
Use an escrow account if you’re buying an undeveloped property, and get a written commitment from the seller that the facilities will be finished as promised. That’s one way to help protect your contract rights if the developer defaults. Make sure your contract includes clauses for “non-disturbance” and “non-performance.” A non-disturbance clause ensures that you’ll be able to use your unit or interval if the developer or management firm goes bankrupt or defaults. A non-performance clause lets you keep your rights, even if your contract is bought by a third party. You may want to contact an attorney who can provide you with more information about these provisions.
Be wary of offers to buy timeshares or vacation plans in foreign countries. If you sign a contract outside the U.S. for a timeshare or vacation plan in another country, you are not protected by U.S. laws.