Q: Are timeshares a rip off or do are they a good deal if you keep them long enough?  We're trying to decide whether to buy one in Orlando.

A: Timeshares can be a good value if you buy them "used" on the so-called secondary market, but not if you buy them directly from a developer. The rule of thumb is that the minute you walk out of the developer's office your deed loses 50 percent of its value. Timeshares depreciate faster than new cars.

That's because enticements such as "free" vacations and other marketing expenses, including advertising and hefty sales commissions,

can amount to almost half the purchase price of the typical timeshare unit. "The one guy who buys has to pay for everyone else's freebies," says Bill Rogers, founder of the Timeshare Users Group. "The real bargains are in re-sales, but most people don't know they even exist.  It's a matter of education."

So it's best to buy a timeshare from someone whose investment has already taken the depreciation hit.

Where do you find timeshare re-sales? One source is Seattle-based timeshare reseller Holiday Group at 800-930-9717, which gets much of its inventory from developers and financial institutions (read: foreclosures). Re-sales can also be found on auction sites such as Bidshares and ebay. Bidshares charges a flat fee if your bid wins; eBay charges the seller, and lets you search by area, type, week, number of bedrooms, and other criteria. You can see what others have paid for re-sales if you sign in as an eBay member and click on "completed listings."

Re-sales can also be bought directly from owners at a fixed price, either by looking in the classifieds or on the TUG Web site, which also contains helpful reviews of various timeshare resorts around the country, a sales database showing what others have paid for timeshares, and a primer on buying, selling, and renting.

Once you buy a timeshare on the resale market, its real value may not be in vacationing there but in trading it for a stay at someone else's

timeshare by signing up with agencies that help owners swap weeks with each other, such as Resort Condominiums International (800-338-7777.)

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