How to Design A Vacation Rental Vs A Private Home

We interviewed design blogger and vacation rental homeowner Courtney Lee on remodeling and interior design tips for vacation rentals — and how to incorporate unique decor and furnishing that will attract more bookings.

Courtney Lee in her newly renovated vacation rental property in Wilmington, North Carolina.

Courtney Lee didn’t go to school for interior design; her journey began in real estate. But she quickly fell in love with staging homes and interior design after years of working for investors who flipped homes and through her own work in real estate. 

Now a homeowner, experienced renovator, interior designer, and vacation rental guest and owner, Lee shares her best advice on how to build and design a vacation home that today’s travelers can’t wait to visit. 

Becoming a vacation rental homeowner and renovator 

TurnKey homeowner, Courtney Lee, grew up in a family of creatives and DIY-ers, and when it came time to invest in her own property, she relied on her experience doing projects around the house to completely renovate her property in Wilmington, North Carolina.

“I went to real estate school and became familiar with the work of floor plans and reworking homes and eventually after working for investors that flipped homes, I began to work on my own projects and home renovations.”

Lee and her fiancé bought their first vacation rental two years ago, a beach house in Ocean Isle Beach. As travelers, they were familiar with staying in vacation rentals all over the world, so they used their experience as well-traveled guests in their journey to build their own vacation rental. 

“We had always preferred staying in vacation rentals over hotels or resorts, so we kind of learned through that experience how we wanted our own vacation rental to operate and look. We understood what real guests needed, and made sure to include elements we felt were missing from some of the rentals we had stayed in.”

Designing a vacation rental vs a private home

According to Lee, functionality is the main consideration when designing a vacation rental versus a private home. For instance, it makes sense to have white sheets that can easily be bleached between guests and to have multi-use decor in a vacation rental, but not necessarily in a home.

“White sheets and towels are a given, but people forget about small things like rugs. I always pick rugs that are indoor-outdoor because they are easy to clean and easy to vacuum.”

Rooms should also be practical for guests. Vacation rental owners should stage the home in functional pieces that are usable, dog and kid-friendly, and easily washable. For instance, instead of hand-woven pillows that you may use in your private home, opt for a few sets of identical and washable pillow covers that can be easily cleaned.

Lee also advises future vacation rental owners to “think outside the box” when decorating their property.

“If you have an area of your (private) home that you don’t use, there may be an opportunity to do something fun with that same area in a vacation rental,” Lee said. 

“As a guest, you want to see something where you think ‘wow that’s really cool,’ something you’ll want to take pictures with.”

For instance, the Midtown Tudor property has two small closets near the entryway where Lee decided to take off one of the doors and place a swing in the newly created room. To create a space that gives guests that “wow” moment in every room, Lee also incorporated a pink painted staircase and two queen-sized hanging beds.

The swing, hanging beds, and pink staircase are all perfect examples of the kind of decor and design that are great for a vacation rental, but not necessarily elements you would include in your private home. 

Decorate with intention

“Start with a vision and a color palette,” explained Lee. “Let’s say you are into a more clean and neutral look; commit to that, and then at the end, you can add something more creative or add new pops of color, without the vision of your home being compromised.”

With the Midtown Tudor, Lee wanted to create a space that felt calm and relaxing, so she painted the walls white with accents of pastel pink and filled the home with vintage wicker baskets and decor to achieve a comfortable and unique space for guests.

Lee’s Wilmington vacation rental finds a delicate balance between comfort and extravagance, where guests have everything they need to feel at home, yet still experience the luxuries of a hotel.

The best ways to achieve this balance?

  • Start with a color palette, then add pops of color and texture at the end
  • Use high-quality bedroom and bath linens
  • Fill the home with unique decor that is consistent with the palette
  • Incorporate thoughtful touches that are location specific 

Sourcing decor

An easy way to add unique touches to your rental is to thrift items at your local vintage stores. “Every time we go out of town I make time to visit the vintage shops in the city and take pieces back with me. Almost all of the decor in the Midtown Tudor was found at vintage or thrift stores over the years.” 

Outfitting a rental with vintage items is a great way to achieve the one-of-a-kind feel guests are looking for when researching vacation rentals. Additionally, the idea is that the better a guest’s first impression, hopefully, the better they will take care of the home. It’s a symbiotic relationship between guest and hosts: the more special your home feels, the more respect guests will have for it.

Lee shared a few of her favorite vintage and online decor shops with us:

In Wilmington, NC


Finding inspiration

Lee likes to find new ideas and inspiration from traveling and researching boutique hotels and hospitality design across the world. 

“I’m obsessed with hospitality design, how they decorate, what they use, what colors they are mixing together,” Lee said. “When we visited Greece, I got so much inspiration from that trip, every view was a color palette.” 

Lee’s best tip? Find inspiration wherever you go. Whether that’s at your local thrift store or in your rewatch of “Eat, Pray, Love”, decor inspiration is everywhere. 

Mix and Match

When designing a vacation rental, Lee recommends establishing a color palette at the beginning, but also mixing and matching textures and designs to make the space come to life. “Be adventurous, try things you might not necessarily try in your private home,” Lee said.

For vacation rentals especially, creating a standout property can be difficult with the hundreds of competing options in your area. Mixing up the styles of each room can elevate the overall design and help make your vacation rental property stand out

“Be adventurous, try things you might not necessarily try in your private home”

That is certainly true of Lee’s Wilmington property, where brown wicker furniture and decor is matched by green velvet pillows and pink painted accents, cabinets, and doors. “I’m loving that people are starting to do whatever they want and embracing an ‘anything goes’ mentality. They are mixing different designs and colors together, adding a lot of texture,” Lee said of current trends in design.

In the living room of the Midtown Tudor, you can see Lee’s design style come to life with its mix of adventure and taste. “I love being creative with rugs, wallpaper, paint, and adding things that are out of the ordinary or vintage items,” Lee said. “Not every room has to be the same style.”

Do a test run at your property

“Make sure you do a test run at the property. Stay in it for at least a few days before you determine it’s ready.” This was one of Lee’s most insightful tips about the renovation process of a vacation rental.

After ‘finishing’ the Midtown Tudor, for example, Lee said they decided to stay at the home for a few days just after painting the floors. “We thought everything was done, but we soon realized that the dishwasher didn’t work and several other things happened that we had to fix.” After bringing in people to do the needed repairs, the freshly painted floors were ruined and had to be painted again, pushing back the opening of the vacation rental. 

“Make sure you do a test run at the property. Stay in it for at least a few days before you determine it’s ready.”

The moral of the story is, you’re not finished until after you’ve lived in your property for at least a few days.

“Just because you stay there one night doesn’t mean everything is ready to go,” Lee said. “We had plumbing issues come up on the third night.”

This brings up her next tip: as with any project, make sure you have reliable contractors and subcontractors to do the work correctly. Find contractors from credible companies or ask friends in the industry for a recommendation. The more research you do at the beginning improves the chance that you won’t have to go back and do more work later.

Add thoughtful touches

Once your home has been renovated, decorated, lived in, and is finally ready to be listed, add some final touches around the home to help guests familiarize themselves with the area. Including a city guide or recommendations in your listing (digitally) and inside the home (a hard copy) is always a helpful addition.

Courtney Lee’s Midtown Tudor is near “Wilmywood,” an area in Wilmington where dozens of major motion pictures and TV shows were filmed, including “A Walk to Remember,” “One Tree Hill,” “Dawson’s Creek,” and “The Black Knight.” People come from all over just to take pics in front of the houses where those were filmedIncluding unique facts about the area, and the specific distance to popular locations can help drive more bookings to your rental. 

To help travelers get more acquainted with the area, The Midtown Tudor listing includes details on where to visit and what’s within walking distance of the home.

If you’re planning on booking Lee’s charming Wilmington vacation rental, here are some of Lee’s favorite things to do when she visits:

  • A stroll on the Riverfront
  • Wrightsville Beach
  • Carolina/Kure Beach
  • Airlie Gardens


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