Anyone who has had even a small taste of the sweet life in France or Italy has probably fantasized about renting a restored farmhouse in Provence, an estate in Tuscany, or a château in the Loire Valley. Indeed, no hotel stay can compare to having a grand European home of ones own and filling it with family and friends. Finding an available home is simple, but choosing the right one with the best value takes some serious planning. Here are a few of the top rental agencies, as well as some insider tips on costs, services, and the best villas for value.Cottages to Castles is a 25-year-old British agency offering 35 moderately priced villas throughout Italy that could be classified as comfortable rather than luxe. In Le Marche separated by the Apennine Mountains from Umbria in Italy Cottages to Castles rents the four-bedroom Casale Olicchia, with a pool, for $2,696 a week in high season. The villa sports rustic furnishings and grants endless views across fields and vineyards. The Adriatic coast is just over 30 minutes away by car. $1,200$6,000/week; cottagestocastles.com
Just France has a large portfolio of mostly modestly priced villas throughout France. The company caters to those seeking a great house but not extra handholding. $1,200$15,000/week; justfrance.com
Suzanne B. Cohen & Associates Inc. lists a small number of large houses in Italy and the United Kingdom; many can accommodate 16 to 20 guests. $1,200$15,000/week; villaeurope.com
Homebase Abroad focuses on 100 or so handpicked villas in Tuscany, Umbria, Amalfi, and the Lake Como area. The agency can arrange transportation and activities like wine tasting and cooking classes. $3,500$15,000/week; homebaseabroad.com
Abercrombie & Kent Villas lists 135 homes in France, Italy, Greece, Spain, and Portugal. The multifaceted travel company can plan an entire trip including the rental of a villa. For a fee, guests can use the services of a local A&K host. A&Ks host program goes for at least $1,500 a week. Recently the company absorbed the equally high-end Sanctuary Villas. $3,500$15,000+/week; akvillas.com
Wimco may be best-known to Americans as a longtime leader in deluxe Caribbean villa rentals, but it also maintains a portfolio of luxurious houses and villas in France, Italy, and the United Kingdom. $3,500$15,000+; wimco.com
El Sol Villas rents blue-chip villas and châteaus in France, Italy, and Spain. For a fee, the company will provide a personal concierge. $6,000$15,000+/week; elsolvillas.com
Hosted Villas (formerly HomesAway) was originally part of luxe outfitter Butterfield & Robinson and rents just under 100 houses in Italy, France, Spain, Croatia, and Scotland. The agency assigns a complimentary concierge to help visitors at each of their leased propertiessomeone who greets the rental party on arrival and can do anything from organizing a sightseeing excursion to setting up a cooking class in the villa. For a local chef to prepare an evening meal, Hosted Villas typically charges $69 to $90 a person, including the food costs. In Todi, Italy, Hosted Villas will lease Casa Grazia, a five-bedroom refurbished stone convent with beamed ceilings and a pool, for $9,650 to $11,450 a week, depending on the season. In Tuscany that sum would rent a Hosted Villas property only half that size. $6,000$15,000+/week; hostedvillas.com
Another option is to rent directly from homeowners through the websites of companies such as Vacation Rentals by Owner (vrbo.com) and HomeAway (homeaway.com). While the resulting selection can be potluck, potential renters can find gems, such as Villa Casabianca, a six-bedroom 15th-century house near Cortona in Tuscany with three living rooms and a pool. Its listed on Vacation Rentals by Owner and available for about $2,615 to $3,854 a week, depending on the season.
From the Spring 2010 issue of Shermans Travel magazine.