The images are hard to resist: ocean breezes whispering across a condo balcony, logs crackling with flames in a mountain retreat.
Lured by such visions, tens of thousands of Americans have paid billions of dollars to buy time shares -- the right to use an apartment at a resort for one or more weeks each year.
For some time-share owners, however, the idyllic vacation dreams have been been tarnished by inept and sometimes criminal resort developers and managers.
Surveys indicate that most timeshare owners are satisfied with their purchases, and the industry's image has improved with the entrance of several big companies, including Hilton, Marriott and Disney. Still, there is a painful hangover from the early 1980s, when much of the industry's growth was the result of developers who converted failed residential projects into time shares.
Those developers used high-pressure, often sleazy sales tactics persuade buyers that time shares were not only a ticket to pleasurable vacations but good investments that would increase value. Many of these projects are now in poor condition, and the maintenance fees paid by unit owners often are misused or stolen by developers or managers.
And time-share owners who want to rid themselves of such problems can't be encouraged by a recent report that says there is a glut of used time shares on the market and that the few that have attracted buyers are selling for a fraction of their original price.
"Vacation ownership must not be viewed as an investment or real estate purchase," said Dick Ragatz, owner of Ragatz Associates, an Oregon-based company hired by timeshare developers to do research. "It is a use product. It is a like a car or a boat. The longer you own it, the less it's worth."
Industry observers say it is more important than ever for prospective buyers and owners of time shares to do their homework and know what they are getting.
One thing that appears to be occurring more frequently is bad management of time-share properties.
Mismanagement "is the single most important problem we face right now," said Phillip Fisher, chief of the North Carolina Real Estate Commission and president of the National Association of Real Estate License Law Officials. "In most cases where there are problems, there are unqualified managers, but there are many, many instances of embezzlement," said Mr. Fisher, who coordinated a meeting recently in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., for regulators from various states to discuss the scope of management problems and possible solutions.
Industry observers say that as many as 40 percent of all time-share resorts in the United States have management problems. "There are an awful lot of resorts doing fine and an awful lot of happy owners, but management problems are mounting fast for a lot more of these properties," said William E. Sanborn, chief of the Florida Bureau of Timeshares.