Author Photo: Pluto Janning on the Puget Sound, August 2019

We are nearing the end of summer, which means vacation season for families is ending. But for sociologists like me who study vacations and tourism in terms of second homes, the fun keeps going on and on.

The family vacation is changing, and companies in the business of housing families who are on vacation are noticing and revising their platforms to suit (and likely impact) the changes. Case in point: VRBO’s new platform allows extended families who are geographically separated – a big portion of their client base – to collaborate via an online shared platform about potential homes for an upcoming vacation stay where they can all be together. Companies that broker private home spaces in a virtual commercial space spend lots of time and money trying to figure out what kind of data may be useful to better meet client needs and to boost profits, and this business is not slowing down anytime soon.

VRBO studied user-interface data to uncover how spread-apart families select homes to share when they’re on vacation together. I collect data about vacation homes, too, but as a social scientist interested in the social construction of the meaning of home, family, and community, I study how the families who own the homes that are sometimes rented out to other families talk about these spaces. I have conducted semi-structured interviews of several dozen vacation homeowners from across the U.S. who represent a fairly wide range of affluence, from those who have a run-down cabin in the woods that is only used in mild weather and doesn’t have modern plumbing, to those who have a multi-million dollar property on a shoreline or in a mountain resort. Some of these property owners use the properties for vacation, some for investment to rent out only to people they do not know, and many are in between these formal categories. I have also conducted a content analysis of lifestyle television shows featuring families searching for vacation homes (and sometimes rental incomes), and field research of burgeoning tourist town meetings filled with heated debates about short-term vacation home rental regulations. In other words, I study the qualitative dimensions of how the meaning of vacation homes varies among homeowners when the properties are used by family members or friends, or by strangers, and I embed the meanings in broader neighborhood and community contexts.

Rather than solely looking at data on reported vacation home values and demographic shifts in the U.S. vacation home market, which are crucial if you want to understand the national picture of reported property statuses or taxes, I ask questions about what people actually do (regardless of what they report) and how they define what their vacation homes mean to them. As a family sociologist who studies material culture and the social construction of spaces and places, I capture meaning by asking about how spaces are defined, how home objects may matter, and how the home is defined in light of the larger community’s classification as a tourist destination or not. After all, formal classifications of second homeowner as fixed categories that require certain taxation rates and time limits for homeowners to reside there are limited in their capacity to capture the reality and dynamism of ownership across time, geographic space, and use.

Most importantly, I assess whether the meaning of vacation homes changes depending on which visitors count as “family.” I came up with this project, by the way, when I visited a relative’s condo that was sometimes used (for a small fee) by relatives of friends and friends of relatives, and I wondered if the homeowners took down the picture of my son before they let others stay there.

My research reveals that the simple classification of second homes into governmental classifications that are based on taxes and time spent there does not show what people actually do with, and believe about, their vacation homes. How the homes are used and framed by homeowners (and the companies they use to advertise) shapes the ebbs and flows of the sharing economy. As my interview responses reveal, sometimes people call a property their primary residence but do not actually live there and instead rent it out for others’ vacations. Sometimes people define a space six hours away as their family vacation home more than someone who has an accessory dwelling unit on their primary residence property that is rented out to tourists (which is, per governmental classifications, not considered a second home). Why? Because in the first instance, the home is never used by strangers, and in the second instance, the home is never used by family members. In both instances, they are defined as family vacation spaces. Maybe the definition of a second or vacation home is more based on who occupies it than where it is, whether it is part of a primary residence, or what its formal governmental classification is.

In addition to complicating formal classifications of properties and homeowners, my preliminary analysis reveals that vacation homeowners downplay the impersonal, selfish, and inauthentic in economic exchange that may occur with vacation homes, such as when a friends of a family member use it and a cleaning fee is required but mentioned only casually and handled informally. At the same time, homeowners emphasize the significance of social connections over economic gain when they talk about the vacation home, regardless of whether they use it or rent it out to other families in a formal exchange. They do this by focusing on cherished objects or spaces as significant for family connectedness in a time when geographic mobility and generational divides are viewed as increasing and the preservation of family “stories” and “values” are framed as threatened. Especially for those who keep the home for use within the family and close friends, this leads not only to nostalgia about past family vacation memories, but what I label as “imagined future nostalgia” for the next generations, who may or may not be interested in keeping or sharing the property with extended family members. For the older homeowners I interviewed in these situations, this is clearly framed as a geographically-situated genealogy project, not as a financial investment. For some of the people in my interview study, however, the desire to keep the family vacation home in the family for generations to come was a desire not shared by their children and grandchildren, who sometimes turned toward the idea of short-term vacation rental as a way to afford to keep the home while still being occasionally available for family that would have less time to spend together as their busy lives and geographic mobility seemed to increase with each generation. In this sense, the sharing economy is framed as an option for those who are not quite ready to get rid of the family vacation home, but can’t quite afford to keep it if it sits empty as their siblings, cousins, and other family members find it harder or less desirable to meet up during the few vacation days they may have each year.

In terms of lifestyle television depictions of families seeking vacation homes, I found both similarities and differences between homeowners who talked about their prospective vacation homes as family-only versus those who talked about them as simultaneous family vacation homes and investment properties. Those who wanted to use the vacation homes for investment purposes and not just as family-only spaces tended to focus on spaces and objects that would yield more guests and higher fees, whereas those who wanted to use the homes for their own families and nobody else tended to focus their comments on whether they could imagine family and friends enjoying themselves in the spaces. Those who mentioned investment opportunity included more frequent and explicit reference to money, whereas vacation-only families more frequently mentioned personal emotional connections to the spaces.  Finally, proximity to amenities and the owners’ primary residences mattered: for those using it only for family vacations, it was important to have access to the property be easy (in other words, not too far away from their primary residence). For those treating the vacation property as primarily an investment, proximity to amenities was highlighted as mattering more than proximity to the owner’s primary residence. After all, travel is becoming increasingly about experiences rather than just places.

Of course, regardless of homeowner type, the television representation of all vacation home searches had a lot in common: similar predictable plot formulas, a focus on renovation potential, and a desire for escape and leisure and increased closeness for whichever family occupied the space. And, despite the vacation home rental industry being available only to those families affluent enough to afford the fees, the produced message of these shows was to suggest that people from varying demographic backgrounds can access these homes (hence, the title Beachfront Bargain Hunt). Finally, with few exceptions, there was a striking absence of reference to the role of insiders and outsiders in terms of who counts as a local, as well as any community-level impacts such as housing affordability, tourism labor, and environmental degradation. In this sense, despite the visual and rhetorical focus on neighborhood and community, the aim of the shows is to emphasize these as sites for amenities and experiences, and to individualize family space use as private decisions that are removed from any responsibility for the communities in which the families may reside.

Today, private home spaces are increasingly public parts of the sharing economy. Of course, affluent members of society renting out vacation homes is not new in U.S. society (just watch season 2 of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel for a pop culture reference to this phenomenon; or just watch Dirty Dancing). Renting out parts of properties in order to make ends meet has also been part of the history of those who are less affluent. What I study is whether the new norms of families meeting up for vacations in rented-out private spaces that belong to private homeowners (as opposed to a set of cabins in the Catskills or a boarding house in Chicago), and the increase in entrepreneurialism via the sharing economy, have shaped the meaning of vacation homes differently than decades ago.

My research, which is ongoing, touches on important fields of study, including how homes are defined as “priceless” places despite their presence in capitalist exchanges, how success in the sharing economy may be a new marker of privilege based on meritocratic efforts in entrepreneurialism, race and class inequalities and the “politics of exclusion” in housing affordability  and gentrification in tourist and other areas, and the social psychological and cultural impacts of the “vacation self” as we social scientists witness and study the changes in travel and mobility patterns across generations.

I wrote this post during the last weekend of summer, perched on the deck of my in-laws’ vacation home overlooking a calm piece of the Puget Sound, where it’s difficult to tell by looking at the water whether the tide is coming in or going out.  My family schedules a getaway a week or two before school starts if we can, because it allows us to elongate the summer, at least as we define it. Otherwise, when August 1st rolls around, I will start thinking summer is over and start fine-tuning my syllabi, and all of us will transition into school and work mode and forget that we also like to play games and splash in some water.

Four doors down from our extended family’s vacation home is a property that is listed on a short-term rental site. Nobody here has really talked about what that may mean, or whether they find this to be interesting, helpful, or troubling – except for the occasional murmur of “those people do not understand how to be on a beach filled with clams, tiny crabs, and oysters.” When neighbors have family members visit, everyone is excited to meet them. The couple next door, for example, knows my name (and, as of this trip, now knows my dog’s name). People make an effort to get to know each other along the shore, except at the place that is rented out to strangers. Those people are met with a friendly yet distant vibe. They are not locals, even as people like my in-laws who are only there part-time are not quite locals either.

I continue to ponder all of these preliminary findings and ongoing questions, and I wonder: when are these family members planning to display a picture of my son for all of the family-only visitors to admire? And what will happen to the picture if they decide to rent out the vacation home someday to people we don’t know?

Michelle Janning is the Raymond and Elsie Gipson DeBurgh Chair of Social Sciences and Professor of Sociology at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington. Her research focuses on the intersection of spaces, material culture, and interpersonal roles and relationships. She is expanding her focus to include the constructed meaning of neighborhood and community, especially as it relates to any dwelling homeowners consider to be a “second home.” Her work is featured at