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Caution guidelines for timesharing vacations

By Thomas WattersonStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / November 16, 1984


''Where do we go this year?'' For a growing number of families thinking about vacation plans, that is a question they don't have to ask. They can skip all those brochures and avoid long sessions with travel agents trying to book four discount seats to Florida the week of spring vacation.

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For over half a million Americans, the decision was made last year, or several years ago. That's when they agreed to buy resort timeshares. After plunking down $5,000 to $10,000 for the right to ''own'' a timeshare unit for one week a year, plus $175 to $200 in annual maintenance fees, timeshare owners can ski in Colorado, sail off Newport, R.I., watch leaves change color in Vermont, or surf in Hawaii.

Not having to worry about where to spend a vacation and knowing there is a place waiting when the families get there has helped propel timesharing to a nearly $2 billion industry in just over 15 years. Last year alone, timeshare sales reached $1.2 billion, says Victor S. Parra, executive director of the National Timesharing Council, an industry group. New units are being sold at a rate of 10,000 a year, he adds.

One reason for this kind of success is the United States Postal Service. Millions of Americans receive at least one solicitation in the mail every year urging them to visit a timeshare resort. The resorts are usually within a few hours' drive from their home. In return for the time spent on the visit, the letters usually list a dozen or so prizes that the prospective customer has won - if only he will show up on the appointed day, with his spouse if he is married. Often, the prize turns out to be a small radio, a TV with a mysterious brand, or some other item that is only slightly more valuable than the gasoline burned to drive to the resort and back.

This, Mr. Perra admits, has been one of the problems for his organization: marketing abuses that can come from a business which has grown too fast to be adequately regulated. Over the years, Perra says, he has heard the complaints of cheap promotional gifts, high-pressure sales tactics, and promises of ''swaps,'' or exchanges of timeshare weeks that don't make seasonal sense or can't be kept.

The council, he asserts, is trying to police this adolescent industry, including drafting model legislation to limit abuses. While ''no one state has passed our model bill in toto,'' he says, ''there are 28 states with some sort of timesharing regulation.'' These include the four states with the most timeshare resorts: Florida, California, Colorado, and Hawaii.

Strictly speaking, a timeshare is just that, a share of time that you purchase. The time is almost always measured in weeks and buying a week or two gives you the right to occupy the unit - an apartment, duplex, cottage, or mountain cabin - for that time. You might, for example, ''buy'' a two-bedroom apartment in Florida on the Gulf of Mexico for two weeks every March or April.

The price you pay for that apartment can vary widely, depending on whether it faces the Gulf or the highway, how high in the building it is, and what time of year you want to be there. A week in Florida in July, for example, would probably be cheaper than a week in March.

Still you may want to get away for a week in July, but because you own a Florida timeshare, you can't afford to buy another one for summer.

This is where swapping may be helpful. Many timeshare companies work with one or more exchange groups. Most commonly, the exchange works like this: you buy that week on the Gulf of Mexico for February. But you also buy another week at the same resort for another time, in May, for instance, because you'd like to exchange it for a week of golfing and hiking in the Midwest. But problems can arise when you try to find someone who wants to spend a week in Florida in May and someone else who wants to give up a week in the Midwest that same month.

To help people find swap partners, several exchange networks have been set up. The largest, Resort Condominiums International (9333 N. Meridian Street, Indianapolis, Ind. 46260) has over 750 resorts in its network and claims to be able to satisfy over 90 percent of the exchange requests it receives.

This success rate, however, means that RCI managed to put people in one of eight choices they gave, generally in time periods of equal or lesser popularity.

Unrealistic promises of timeshare swapping have been one of the more frequent complaints about the business, says Dean Fournier, an attorney in the Seattle regional office of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).

''Many timeshares are sold on the basis of the exchange privilege,'' Mr. Fournier said. ''In theory, it works fine, but in practice there are sometimes a lot of limitations. If all you have is a week in a winter month in Boston, you can't trade that for anything anywhere - except maybe a week in Minnesota.''