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9 Tips for Booking a Vacation Home Rental Amid High Demand

Many are frustrated trying to find an affordable house in a hot travel season

brightly colored beach houses on the outer banks in north carolina

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Outer Banks, North Carolina

En español | Summer bookings started slowly at the 95-unit oceanfront Star of the Sea Condominium in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware. Then in February, after Americans began getting vaccinated against COVID-19, “the phones started ringing off the hook” and online reservations poured in, says rental manager Mary Donahue.

"People have been cooped up. They said, ‘I got my shot and I want to sit on a balcony and look at the ocean,'” she says. By the end of April, only its studio rentals weren’t almost fully booked for June, July and August.

Rentals also are going fast at popular beach destinations from Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts, and the Jersey Shore to North Carolina's Outer Banks, to Wisconsin's Door County and Oregon's Pacific coast. Cape Cod has seen a more than 30 percent increase in demand compared with the pre-pandemic summer of 2019, says online rental giant VRBO.

A recent VRBO search of rentals for the last week in July, for example, finds only 3 percent of properties available in both Traverse City, Michigan, and Cannon Beach, Oregon, and only 1 percent available in the Yellowstone National Park area and Provincetown, Massachusetts.

On Maui, “this is the most incredible rental time we have seen in more than 20 years — it's nuts,” says Cindy Vinson of Eagle Creek, California, who has been letting out her three-bedroom beachfront condo in Kahana for two decades. It costs $680 a night — up $40 from last year — and she is booked through summer 2022. Another of her rentals, on the California side of Lake Tahoe, also is in an area where demand is “totally insane … even in the traditional shoulder seasons,” she says.

Rising prices

Many rental agencies don't raise their rents with demand — what's known as dynamic pricing. Doug Brindley, who runs a rental agency, Brindley Beach Vacations, based in Corolla on the Outer Banks, says their prices have remained the same despite surging demand that's left their homes completely booked through September. But he adds that others in the area have raised rents as much as 10 percent. On Cape Cod, prices are 9 percent higher than last year, according to Annie Blatz, sales manager for three branches of Kinlin Grover Vacation Rentals, the largest rental agency on the cape.

Andrew Torcivia, owner of Lundquist Realty & Vacation Rentals of Door County, says some owners are holding the line on rates for the 105 rental properties his firm represents, but overall, “prices are definitely up. Cottages might cost $100 or so more per week, while large homes can go for a few hundred more.” The trend toward higher pricing started last year, he notes, as renters looked to escape being stuck at home.

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Driving the demand

Eagerness to finally get away from home to relax or work remotely after more than a year of COVID-19 restrictions, owners’ pulling their second homes off the rental market to use themselves (thanks to remote work flexibility), a feeling of freedom among those who've received their COVID-19 vaccinations, uncertainty about overseas travel, the appeal of attractive outdoorsy destinations and a desire to gather with loved ones in secure surroundings have accelerated the pace of summer house and condo rentals.

Family gatherings in vacation destinations appear to be popular this season: From February to March, “we saw a more than 60 percent increase in summer searches for vacations by U.S. guests [age] 60-plus,” says Airbnb spokeswoman Liz DeBold Fusco. An Airbnb survey found that a third of mature travelers were most interested in trips reuniting family members, such as stays in “entire spaces that allow for families to gather safely,” she adds.

Tips for booking

So what should you do to secure a vacation home — besides trying to book ASAP?

1. Don't restrict yourself to set dates. Not confining your stay to certain days nets a larger rental pool. The VRBO site shows whether more options are available within a week before or after a selected rental period. Airbnb has launched a new “flexible dates” feature that allows users to pinpoint properties with openings during a given month for weekend, weeklong or monthly stays.

condos on the beach in cocoa beach florida

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Cocoa Beach, Florida

2. Consider lesser-known areas where there still may be a good selection. Internet searches for dates in July and August turned up appealing rentals in Capitola, California, Port Aransas, Texas, Whidbey Island in Washington state, Anna Maria Island, Florida, and Sheboygan, Wisconsin, on Lake Michigan. Airbnb had a good selection in Lake Powell, Arizona, and Cape San Blas on Florida's Panhandle. VRBO suggests searching in Ogunquit and Old Orchard Beach, Maine, as well as Cocoa Beach, Florida, and Biloxi, Mississippi.

3. Check with local real estate agencies. Rental rates sometimes are less than those of the big-name web rental sites — which can tack on hundreds of dollars in service fees to a weeklong stay. Plus, property managers are at the destination, can offer speedy help during a rental and may be the first to know of cancellations or owners who might rent an unadvertised property. “We don't have service fees. The owners pay us a commission,” which can work out to less than you'd pay on the “big box” rental sites, says Torcivia in Door County. That Wisconsin playground with multiple beach towns is experiencing a “massive boom,” he says, “but we encourage people to check back” for cancellations.

4. Consider using credit card or hotel loyalty points toward rentals. You can use rewards points not only for hotel rooms, but also for home rentals. For instance, Marriott Bonvoy points can be put toward stays at Homes & Villas by Marriott International, says Summer Hull, editorial director at The Points Guy website. Wyndham Rewards can be used at its time-shares. Some credit cards allow you to put points or miles toward Airbnb gift certificates or vacation rentals. Check to see if your loyalty programs or credit cards can shave dollars off your vacation.

5. Deal directly with owners to try for a discount. Some properties advertised on rental websites can be looked up if they have names and their own sites. Avoiding the listing fees owners pay can lower the price. You also can communicate directly with owners on sites such as Airbnb and VRBO. Though prohibited from dealing with you away from the site, they may offer concessions if the property hasn't rented. It's a good idea anyway to communicate about property location, proximity of neighbors, house amenities and rental rules.

6. Cast your net wider by inquiring about rentals on your local listserv. Some in your area may own beach real estate that they do or do not typically rent out and be more likely to lease to someone who lives near them and can be vetted. Some owners also view mature renters as more responsible.

7. Keep checking websites and agencies for openings caused by cancellations. Rental agents say that is more common in today's ever-changing travel landscape.

8. Book off-season, when availability is higher. Rates typically plummet after Labor Day in many beach destinations, and September weather can favor days on less crowded sands. In high-demand areas, such as Cape Cod and Hawaii, consider booking a year out. Some rental companies allow repeat guests first shot at the week they rented the year before and in January release dates not taken.

9. Book your 2022 vacation home rental now. Brindley of the Outer Banks says vacationers are smart to think long term and book their next summer's rental “as early as 51 weeks out. This demand will continue into 2022."

More advice for summer travel planning

Nailing down a beach house or condo isn't enough. Check cancellation policies, which have been more generous in the COVID-19 era. Experts advise buying “cancel for any reason” travel insurance that includes deciding not to travel for pandemic-related reasons (though sometimes you may only get half to three-quarters of your prepaid, nonrefundable payments back). You can buy via individual companies such as Allianz Partners and Travelex Insurance Services or get dozens of quotes from a clearinghouse such as InsureMyTrip. Read policy fine print carefully.

And if you plan to rent a car, book early and be prepared for sticker shock. Car rental companies pared down their fleets and raised rates after travel dipped during the pandemic. Some shipments of new vehicles from overseas have been delayed.

Maui owner Vinson and rental agencies also advise vacationers to make advance reservations for popular restaurants and attractions at your destination to avoid disappointment. Capacity in many cases was cut due to the pandemic, and regulations vary from place to place. Check on any pandemic rules before you start packing.

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