should-i-buy-a-timeshareAs the travel season heats up, many Americans will make their annual trek to the family timeshare, perhaps on a secluded lake or a scenic beach. The American Resort Development Association, a trade organization for the timeshare industry, reports that there are currently more than seven million timeshare owners.

Deciding to buy a timeshare

Whether or not you should buy a timeshare depends on how you like to vacation. Timeshare ownership may appeal to travelers who like to return to the same destination year after year and who want to know where they’re staying.

“There’s a lot of intangible, psychological benefit to having ownership interest,” says Bob Diener, cofounder and president of Getaroom.com and a 30-year veteran of the travel industry. “This way, you’re not paying for the entire property, but you have the use when you want it.” In some cases, you can also join a pool of fellow timeshare owners and swap for weeks at other timeshare properties around the world. This is called a timeshare exchange.

“For some, it’s a very satisfying experience,” says Alexandre Mestdagh, a real estate and business law attorney with Mestdagh & Wall in Florida. “It gives them access to resorts and destinations they might not otherwise be able to afford.”

Timeshares aren’t for everyone

“There are some people who see timeshares as an albatross with strict timelines and restrictions placed on bookings,” Mestdagh says. If you’re the type of traveler who needs flexibility on dates or destinations, you might be better off booking a hotel room or renting a vacation property to avoid a long-term commitment and ongoing costs.

Timeshare ownership can cost several thousand dollars or more up front, plus there may be annual maintenance fees that can increase over time, and it won’t necessarily have a financial payoff. “A lot of people buy a timeshare and think it’s going to be a good investment,” says Pamela J. Sams, president and financial advisor with Jackson Sams Financial Services, a financial planning and wealth management firm outside of Washington, D.C., “but it doesn’t carry a rate of return like a normal investment would.”

(Read more: Four Tips to Avoiding Vacation Rental Scams)

What to remember when buying a timeshare

If exchange rights are important to you, you may want to purchase a timeshare that is available in a popular season and thus more desirable for fellow timeshare owners. You also will want to make sure that the resort is affiliated with an exchange company.

Still, exchanging weeks may not be as simple as it sounds. “Even though you have exchange rights,” Diener cautions, “you may not get what you want. Peak weeks may be tough to get.”

Some states have a mandatory cooling off period, known as a rescission period, during which you can cancel a timeshare contract—even after you’ve signed on the dotted line. In Florida, for instance, that period lasts 10 days. After the rescission period ends, you may be out of luck if you change your mind.

Mestdagh says there’s not much of a secondary market for people to unload a timeshare they no longer want. “There are a lot of scams on the secondary market, a lot of fly-by-night operations,” he says, noting that such fraudsters may charge you upfront for selling your timeshare and then disappear. He adds, “Sometimes you can sell it to someone you know. If that’s not an option, then it’s a matter of negotiating with the resort and having it deeded back through negotiations. Most resorts will not take them back unless they’re pressured to do so.”

Because the contracts are written by the resorts’ lawyers to protect their interests, it’s probably wise to have a lawyer review the contract before you sign or during the rescission period.

Keep in mind that if you purchase a timeshare in a foreign country, U.S. federal or state property laws generally won’t protect you.

While timeshare brochures may promise magnificent views and well-manicured landscapes, it’s important to treat the decision to purchase one as a business transaction and to thoroughly consider the pros and cons. “Don’t be forced into purchasing a timeshare as a result of high-pressure sales tactics,” Sams says. “Just because you listened to a sales presentation and received a free gift doesn’t mean that you are obligated to purchase something.”

Susan Johnston is a Boston-based freelancer who has covered personal finance for numerous publications including Bankrate.com, the Boston Globe, Learnvest.com, Mint.com, and USNews.com. Find out more at www.susan-johnston.com.