Before you call about properties, figure out what's important to you. Do you want to be in town, within walking distance of the basics? Do you prefer a more pastoral setting? Is a view of the mountains important? What about lawn furniture?
If you're a parent, think of what will make a vacation easier. If you have small children, consider a fenced-in yard or bedrooms on the same floor. If you have teen-agers, you might want to be close to places they can go on their own. You'll probably want a washer-dryer, and, of course, it's fun to watch TV in a foreign country (Darkwing Duck in French!).
Usually, the owner or caretaker of a property rented through a U.S. agency will speak at least some English, but ask ahead of time if you're worried about communicating. The owner may also help you find an English-speaking baby-sitter; Hideaways International's catalogue lists such information in their brochure.
Agencies will provide interior and exterior photographs of properties, sometimes color glossies, sometimes black-and-white photocopies. But don't rely on photos alone: It's a good idea to speak directly with an agency staffer who has actually seen the property. The agency will provide you with detailed information, from how many beds are in each bedroom to whether there's a swing set in the back yard. If you want something that's not listed, such as a crib, ask.
One particularly intriguing program involves renting a gite . Popular among the French themselves, the network offers inexpensive (about $300-$600 a week) country houses that meet standards set by the government-run Gites Ruraux de France. They tend to be several miles outside town, are more simply furnished than agency properties and usually don't have a pool (a popular amenity that drives up rates).
French vacationers pick up catalogues listing the properties in detail, then simply call the owners and arrange a rental. Americans can do the same, but obtaining the catalogues in the U.S. can be difficult, and non-French speakers are at a disadvantage. I found it easier to use the program's U.S. representative, the French Experience (370 Lexington Ave., Suite 812, New York, N.Y. 10017; tel. 212-986-1115). They charge $20 to find a gite that meets your needs. (One drawback: They don't provide photographs.)
A rental car is essential for most home rentals. If you're staying in France three weeks or longer, it's often cheaper to lease a new car from a manufacturer such as Renault. The French Government Tourist Office (9454 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 715, Beverly Hills 90212, tel. 900-990-0040 (50 a minute) can provide a list of sources.