The Skinny on Summer Rentals

In many desirable areas, prices may well be lower than in seasons past. But you'll have to act quickly to lock in the choicest properties.

Chilly weather got you down? Think summer--and line up a vacation rental. After last year's soft season, Vacation Rental Managers Assn. (VRMA) Executive Director Michael Sarka anticipates a slight uptick in bookings in 2003. That said, about a third of vacation-property managers and real estate agents urged landlords to lower rental prices or keep them on par with last year's, according to the VRMA. Those who are raising prices have held to average 3.5% increases.

Don't wait long to book. By March or April, the most desirable properties are taken. To find what's available, we surveyed six areas that offer a selection of weekly rentals.

-- Cape Cod, Mass., and the Islands: With its quaint historic villages, this Atlantic peninsula epitomizes summer. In Falmouth, the Cape's second-largest town, the most highly prized rentals are Victorian homes close to the water. A large beachfront manse goes for $8,400 a week, while the budget-minded can find an in-town condo for $700. Dennis Murphy, owner of Donahue Real Estate, raised rental prices last summer, and his occupancy rates were up 10% over 2001. But 2003 is looking slightly softer, he says. Other Cape communities to consider are Chatham and Wellfleet.

Prices on islands Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard are higher, says Ken Beaugrand, president of Nantucket Real Estate. He says the average Nantucket renter will shell out $4,000 a week for a three- or four-bedroom house within a short walk or bike ride to the beach. Bargain hunters will find lower prices in the shoulder seasons of June and September. If you're bringing a car, make ferry reservations soon.

-- Hatteras Island, N.C.: Known for its warm waters and 19th century lighthouse, Hatteras is a low-key alternative to the bustling northern Outer Banks, with rentals ranging from $750 to $7,000 per week. This 80-mile barrier island, 70% of which is owned by the National Park Service, has one movie theater, one supermarket, and little nightlife. Says Midgett Realty property manager Beth Midgett: "You can go for a good stretch of time and not see any development."

-- Saugatuck, Mich.: A former artists' colony on Lake Michigan 2 1/2 hours from Chicago, this historic town offers families waterfront art galleries and restaurants. Saugatuck, says Mill Pond Realty property manager Laura Durham, "doesn't like growth or high-rises" and offers summer-stock theater and a chamber music festival. Business is looking good for 2003, with weekly rates from $700 to $2,850. Durham has already booked 70% of her properties, but homes with Lake Michigan beachfront are still available.

-- Breckenridge, Colo.: This Rocky Mountain mining town turned ski village is two hours west of Denver and offers the beauty and diversity of nearby Vail with less glitz and expense. In Breckenridge, a modern, five-bedroom home with mountain views, a hot tub, and a short walk to Main Street goes for $2,300 a week.

Hiking and kayaking are popular, as are riding the ski gondolas and biking down the snowless slopes. "People tend to be outdoorsy here," says Heidi Eilers, an agent at Bighorn Rentals. A 20-minute drive from Breckenridge, Silverthorne is a cheaper alternative, with rents starting at $1,000. n San Juan Islands, Wash.: This chain of 172 islands in Puget Sound is a nature-lover's paradise. Charlene Dunning, co-owner of Windermere Real Estate, manages 65 rentals on three islands--Orcas (the largest and hilliest, with splendid scenery), San Juan (with boutique-lined streets and top restaurants), and Whidbey (where antique shops meet sandy beaches and rhododendron gardens).

Dunning says a trip to the San Juans "is like stepping back in time." And slow demand has forced landlords to lower rents on high-end properties. Dunning's rentals range from a tiny lakeside studio apartment over a garage ($625 a week) to a 70-acre, two-bedroom mountaintop estate that comes with horse stalls, original artwork, a hot tub--and a $3,000-a-week price tag. That's $1,500 less than last summer, when it didn't get rented.

-- Sea Ranch, Calif.: This quiet coastal community about 2 1/2 hours north of San Francisco abides by the philosophy that homes should blend in with their surroundings--a mix of craggy cliffs, grassy meadows, and forests. Judy Barri, co-owner of Rams Head Realty, says cliffside homes overlooking whitewater caps are the most expensive (around $3,000), while cabins in the forested area start at $600. But unlike the San Juans, Sea Ranch is seeing higher-end homes fill up faster than those in the lower range.

How do people entertain themselves here? Besides outdoors pursuits, they can drive north to Mendocino, a town with such East Coast flavor that Hollywood uses it as a stand-in for New England locations. Barri says "the biggest activity is you don't have to do anything." Now that sounds like a summer vacation.

By Julia Cosgrove

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