New York It's the classic American vacation: Rent a house near the water in July or August. Lie in a hammock or beach chair while the children splash or swim. Forget about the office, the bills, the busy schedules.
There's just one stressful aspect to that blissful scene. If you don't have your summer rental reserved by Easter in some parts of the country, you can forget about it. In fact, real estate agents say top rentals for peak weeks like July Fourth are often gone by March.
Take heart, though. If you're flexible about dates and location, plenty of options remain. And if you use the Internet, finding a place is easier than ever.
The first step is deciding where to go. Do you prefer the ocean or lakes? Can you fly, or must you drive to transport bicycles, fishing gear and kayaks? Is there a place that fills you with happy memories of your own childhood summers, where you can bring your own children?
Every region has its treasured summer places. New England offers woodsy lakes, Maine's rocky, evergreen-trimmed coast, and Massachusetts resorts so famous they are known simply as "the Cape" (as in Cod), and "the Vineyard" (as in Martha's).
Water-loving Midwesterners flock to the Brainerd Lakes region of Minnesota, which has nearly 500 lakes within a 30-minute drive. Many New Yorkers swear by the Jersey Shore, while the San Juan Islands in Washington pull visitors from Seattle and California. And on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, generations of family vacationers have climbed the dunes and reveled in the surf.
Start the search
Once you've settled on a region, find that rental. Call the local chamber of commerce for help, contact the Vacation Rental Managers Assn., which represents properties around the country, or search the Internet.
New Yorker Julie Reiss used the Internet to find summer rentals two years in a row on Mount Desert Island in Maine, home to Bar Harbor and most of Acadia National Park. But Reiss admits that renting a house, sight unseen, "was a leap of faith."
"It's always turned out OK, but you have to ask a lot of questions beforehand," she said. "And there's always this moment when you open the door and you say, 'Please don't let it be disgusting!'"
After turning down a house where the owners planned to live in the garage while renting out their home, Reiss learned to ask a few key questions. Among them: What's the privacy factor? How far is the house from a main road? Are there other houses nearby? How many rooms are there? If the local weather has the potential to be chilly, as Maine can often be in late August, is there heat? (In warmer places, ask about air-conditioning.)
Michael Sarka, director of the rental association, recommends setting priorities before you start looking. For example, he said, "If money is more important than location, you won't be on the beach, but you'll save."
Timing is also crucial. The week of July Fourth is typically one of the busiest. In contrast, because schools in some areas start in mid- or late August, there's often far less demand toward summer's end. "Santa Cruz, Calif., Labor Day week -- that's a really slow week," Sarka said. "You can get a much better deal then than in early July."
Sarka also noted that even last-minute vacationers may be able to get a summer rental, as long as they're flexible.
"Easter is not a drop-dead date everywhere," he said. "The better properties do move the fastest, and I'm not appealing to people to procrastinate, but there are opportunities out there."
In case of trouble
|Brainerd Lakes, Minn.: Call (800) 450-2838 or visit the Chamber of Commerce Web site, www.explorebrainerdlakes.com.Cape Cod: Call (888) 33-CAPECOD or contact www.capecodvisit.net.Jersey shore: For a free guide to tourism in New Jersey, call (800) VISITNJ. For information on the Jersey shore, visit www.jerseyseashore.com and www.jerseyshore.com.Mount Desert Island: Visit www.acadiamagic.com/MountDesert.html or call the Maine Office of Tourism at (888) 624-6345.Outer Banks, N.C.: Visit www.outerbankschamber.com/vguide/ or call (252) 441-8144.San Juan Islands, Wash.: Call (360) 378-5240 or visit www.sanjuanisland.org.Vacation Rental Managers Assn.: See www.vrma.com.|
You'll also want to know whom to call if problems arise. How far away do the owners live? If they're next door, you may be under a microscope. But if they're in another state when the 20-year-old refrigerator dies, that's a problem. If you're renting through an agency, ask about cancellation insurance; otherwise, be prepared to forfeit your money if you cancel due to an emergency.
Overall, Sarka said, the rental market looks brisk for the summer. A strong euro and continued concern about global security may contribute to strong demand for domestic vacations. But an uptick in the purchase of second homes has increased the availability of rentals in some areas, where owners are willing to rent their property. Sarka's members reported a 7 percent increase in the number of available properties last year from the year before, and they expect a similar increase this year.
As for price, about two-thirds of the association's agents expect rates to increase 4 percent, while another third will keep rates the same.
But prices and availability vary tremendously. At Brainerd Lakes, rates for waterfront cottages range from an affordable $600 a week to several thousand, depending on the size and grandeur of the house. And with more than 3,000 lodging units, "if your date is flexible, there are last-minute openings all summer long," said Lisa Paxton, CEO of the Brainerd Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce.
Renters in the pristine San Juan Islands, where whale-watching and views of snow-capped mountains are part of the appeal, will pay $950 to $3,000 a week, according to WendyKay Gewiss, a real estate agent for the local Windermere office.
Because none of her clients see the properties beforehand, Gewiss provides "spec sheets" specifying the age of the furniture, distance to local parks, whether there is a dishwasher, and other details. Gewiss reported 30 percent of her summer rentals gone by mid-February.
Anthony Conselice, with the Arthur Rue agency in Seaside Park, N.J., said a nice house (three bedrooms, air-conditioning) that's a short walk from the beach at the Jersey shore typically runs $2,000 to $2,500 a week. Sharing can save money; if four couples rent a large house for $3,800, it's just $950 per couple.
Doug Azarian, a Falmouth, Mass., agent, said an average weekly rental on Cape Cod -- near but not on the water -- was $1,500 to $2,000 a week, increasing to $3,000 or $4,000 weekly for a house with a view of the water.
The Cape's attractions include a pristine natural setting, plus easy access to amenities like good restaurants, video stores and child-friendly activities.
"You have the ocean, the beach and the boats, but the difference on the Cape is you're not that far away from what you're used to," he said. "If you haven't made plans to rent a place by the end of April, it becomes slim pickings."