Joe Raedle/Getty Images
"The Queen of Versailles"

The hard sell and the “mooches”

Ellen Rolfes Mar 11, 2023
Heard on:
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

“The Queen of Versailles” gives viewers a glimpse into how the family’s patriarch, David Siegel, amassed enough wealth to build one of the biggest homes in the country: his timeshare empire, Westgate Resorts.

We see Westgate salespeople making the “hard sell” to so-called mooches, people who accept flashy incentives — a show on the Las Vegas Strip or Disney World tickets — to hear the pitch, but have no intention of buying into a timeshare. 

What we’re talking about here is a slice of ownership in a specific property or resort network that gives the owner rights to stay there for a certain portion of time. Timeshares offer people who can’t afford a vacation home the chance at something similar. (Note that we aren’t calling timeshares “investments.” Keep reading to find out why.) 

“I often say people wake up every day wanting to go on vacation. They just don’t necessarily know if they want to buy a timeshare,” said Jason Gamel, president and CEO of timeshare trade group American Resort Development Association. As many as 90% of people who attend a sales presentation go in planning to pass on the offer, he said. 

Some of the aggressive marketing techniques that are common practice across the timeshare industry get captured by the documentary cameras. And as we watched the film, the Econ Extra Credit team wondered if buyers actually wanted the timeshare they bought or if the high-pressure environment pushed them into a decision they wouldn’t otherwise make, given more time to weigh the financial consequences.

Whether you’re a “mooch” or timeshare-curious, we’ve compiled some tips below.

What to know about buying a timeshare

It’s hard to shop around. While potential buyers can look at timeshare options online, it’s hard to compare prices without sitting through sales presentations. Despite what salespeople will tell you — “This offer is only good today!” — Gamel recommends looking into multiple options before purchasing anything. 

Timeshares are cheaper than buying a vacation home, but they are still expensive.The average cost of a timeshare was $24,140 in 2021, according to ARDA. Nowadays, many timeshares operate on a points-based system, which means owners aren’t limited to one location but can choose from several locations all owned by the same resort network or developer.

If you are a “last-minute” planner, you might be disappointed. Points-based timeshares typically book up more than a month in advance. So if you don’t like to plan ahead, Gamel said, a timeshare might not be the right fit. 

If you finance, you’ll pay high interest rates. Unless you’ve got the cash, you are likely to take out a loan to buy your timeshare, which typically will come with a 7% to 17% interest rate for a seven-year loan, Gamel said.

They can save you money on vacations … in the long run. Buying a timeshare essentially requires you to prepay for your vacations. You can save money that way, but it typically takes years for the math to work out. Consumer Reports found that it would take about 13 years for a $25,200 timeshare, financed on a seven-year loan with 8% interest, to be cheaper than booking a similar hotel room in the same time period every year. 

Courtesy Consumer Reports

You buy it for life! Unlike most consumer contracts, like a monthly cellphone bill or your internet, a timeshare purchase is typically a noncancelable lifetime obligation. Even after paying it off, owners are still on the hook for maintenance fees in perpetuity. 

The maintenance fees will go up. Almost all timeshares come with annual maintenance fees, which averaged $1,120 per year in 2021, up 2.7% from the year prior.

Reselling a timeshare is not easy. There’s a secondary market for timeshares, but only a small fraction in high-demand areas like Breckenridge, Colorado, retain significant resale value. Poke around online and you’ll find people willing to basically give away their paid-off timeshares just to get out of the maintenance fees. And there are a number of scammy companies that “guarantee” help reselling timeshares and end up swindling owners out of more money. Most timeshare developers and resorts programs will allow people to “exit” their timeshare fee obligations, but Gamel said you’re unlikely to hear about it in a sales pitch. 

How to Watch “The Queen of Versailles”

“The Queen of Versailles” is available to stream on several platforms with a subscription including Kanopy, Hoopla and Prime Video. It’s also available to stream for free with ads on YouTube, Pluto TV and Plex.

It is also available to rent or buy on several platforms.

Check out all our past selected films on our website.  

There’s a lot happening in the world.  Through it all, Marketplace is here for you. 

You rely on Marketplace to break down the world’s events and tell you how it affects you in a fact-based, approachable way. We rely on your financial support to keep making that possible. 

Your donation today powers the independent journalism that you rely on. For just $5/month, you can help sustain Marketplace so we can keep reporting on the things that matter to you.