Summer Rental Market Booms Unexpectedly; Brokers Scramble

By MAX HART

Blame it on the economy, blame it on the Republicans, or blame it on that tried and true scapegoat - the weather. Whatever the reason - and no one knows for sure - Island real estate brokers report that the demand for summer rentals has suddenly exploded.

"We passed through the new year and all of a sudden it was crazy," said Rebecca Conroy of Conroy and Co. Real Estate in Chilmark. "In the last several weeks we have received a ton of inquiries - much, much more than where we were last year at this time. Looking at my files I would say we are close to what we did all of last year."

"It's really booming again," agreed Suzanne Lanzone of Hob Knob Realty in Edgartown. "It's been telephone rage around here."

"We are up 62 per cent over this time last year, and that is only homes that have been booked," said Sharon Purdy, who owns Sandpiper Realty in Edgartown. "Not only are the number of leases up but the number of inquiries as well, so we have really seen a huge uptick."

The early surge in interest comes after several years of an up-and-down summer rental market, where inventory generally outpaced demand. Bucking a trend of holding out for last-minute bargains, summer visitors this year appear to be booking their vacation homes early, leaving brokers speculating on the reasons.

"There is more of an extended rental market than there used to be, and there are lots of factors that coincide with that," said Judith Federowicz, the owner of Coldwell Banker Landmarks Realty. "Weddings, longer seasons - they all play a role."

Many brokers said business is so brisk these days, they have had to expand their rental departments to accommodate the demand.

"That is always a good sign," Mrs. Federowicz said.

There is also some indication that the demand for summer rentals on the Vineyard does not extend to the rest of the region.

Jeff Talmadge, who owns and operates www.weneedavacation.com, an on-line business based in Wellesley that matches vacationers with rental properties on the Cape and Islands, reports a boost in activity for the Vineyard, but he cautioned against drawing any conclusions.

"There has been an undeniable drain in interest in the Vineyard in recent years, and signs of a recovery for the Vineyard exist," Mr. Talmadge said. "But it's too early to tell if early enthusiasm marks a profound change in demand for the high-end Vineyard vacation rentals or simply illustrates a shift in the timing of normal demand."

Mr. Talmadge has compiled over five years of information for the rental market on the Cape and Islands. According to his data, searches for Vineyard properties through the first two months are up 22 per cent from 2005. Most of the increase was in January, with Katama being the strongest area of inquiry. By comparison, inquiries about Nantucket properties are down 33 per cent from last year. The entire Cape and Islands are up only five per cent, according to Mr. Talmadge's data.

"We saw a subtle move away from the Islands to the outer Cape in recent years, so this should be very encouraging to the Island," Mr. Talmadge said.

Bookings on the Vineyard through Mr. Talmadge's web site are also up significantly.

On the Island, brokers are noticing several trends, including a strong demand for high-end rental properties. Ms. Lanzone said her early numbers point to one of the strongest markets for luxury rentals in years. She said one property situated on Oyster Pond that her company rents for $40,000 a week was snatched up right after the first of the year, with others in the queue.

"And we could have rented it 10 times over with the amount of calls we received," she said. "Likewise, many waterfront properties that were vacant last summer will be full this season."

Mr. Talmadge's data supports the same trend. Searches for the more expensive homes on the Vineyard - those that cost over $4,000 per week - are up three per cent from last year to a total of 19 per cent of all searches. Interest in homes costing $1,500 or less per week represented 22 per cent of searches in 2005, but only 17 per cent in the first two months of 2006.

Homes that rent for between $1,500 and $4,000 show little or no change from 2005 and 2006.

Speculating on the reasons for the surge, brokers pointed to several common themes, namely this winter's warmer weather, a stronger economy and a resurgence of confidence following the terrorist attacks of 2001.

"I hate to keep going back to 9/11, but I really believe that people are a little more relaxed in making that commitment," said Carol Shore, the rental manager for Landmarks Realty. "I can really tell that people are more at ease."

Mrs. Federowicz added her own views. "There are also far more properties to rent now than in years past, and people are renting earlier and later in the season than before," she said. "It is a much more varied market than it used to be."

Brokers noted several other trends.

"The hot commodity this year seems to be pools," Ms. Lanzone said. "That is one of the first questions they ask."

She also said that unlike previous years, many of the luxury properties are renting out for shorter periods of time.

"Two weeks, two weeks, two weeks - it used to be a month or maybe the whole season," she said. "We're finding that most of our inquiries are by younger executive types that want the flexibility to be able to diversify their vacations a bit."

Mrs. Purdy said it all points to good things for the Vineyard economy. "The rental market is a really good early indicator of what to expect for the summer, and I think that really bodes well for a strong season," she said.