On an overcast spring morning, Tom Woytowicz of Grace Realty in Ocean City, New Jersey was having a slow day.
“It’s all about the weather,” he said.
The office is open all year, and on this March weekend, someone was waiting at each desk for potential buyers and renters, but during a brief interview, two people came in to talk with Woytowicz. They were expected.
The two women, who did not give their names, were looking for summer rental properties for a family vacation. They usually head to Sea Isle City, but they were interested in giving Ocean City a try, although one woman said her father is a little skeptical because of the resort’s long standing as a “dry” community, meaning there are no bars, and no alcohol served in the restaurants.
Woytowicz handed over a few keys and addresses for them to check out, and sent them on their way. Even though the beaches were empty and puffy coats were the fashion of the day up on the boardwalk, according to Woytowicz, the women were running late to get the best selection of potential properties.
This year, a sunny and unseasonably warm President’s Day weekend meant the town was crowded with visitors from Pennsylvania looking at rental properties, but for Woytowicz, even mid-February was a little late.
“It never hurts to start looking at summer rentals at Christmastime,” he said. Some renters book for the following year as they check out at the end of their vacation, and Woytowicz said the owners love the repeat customers, but he said by December, the rates are set for the following year and there is still a big inventory.
Hotels and condominiums line the Jersey cape, but weekly rentals remain a vital part of the shore’s tourism economy, according to Diane Wieland, the tourism development director for Cape May County. Last year, summer rentals brought $2.06 billion in to Cape May County, which she said was the top in the state. This year could be bigger.
“At a recent meeting in Ocean City, I talked to the realtors. They are confident that it’s going to be a little better than last year, which was a good year,” she said.
According to Deedra Bowen, the chairwoman of the vacation rental committee at the Ocean City Board of Realtors, it looks like the numbers for 2017 are 7 percent to 10 percent above last year.
“It’s been increasing every year. It’s been nice,” she said.
The rambling, sandy beach house with a shelf full of mystery paperbacks and a closet full of board games is not quite a thing of the past yet, according to Bowen.
“They still stock them with books and board games and cards,” for rainy nights if the power goes out, she said. But most potential renters have other priorities. “Right now the question is, is there a TV in every bedroom? And is it a smart TV?”Renters with families want to make sure teens and younger children will be able to play games on the televisions, she said. Once a rarity, WiFi is just assumed to be included, she said. Most rental property owners provide wireless internet access, “but unfortunately a few don’t,” she said.
Weiland described weekly rentals as critically important to the local economy. On the down side, the rental houses have kitchens, which may mean fewer trips out to eat. But she said data show motel and hotel stays are for fewer days than the whole house rentals. Plus, the houses keep getting bigger, which means room for more people at the beach.
“What we look at, they still go outside and spend on food and beverages, entertainment, retail and attractions,” she said. Not including that $2.06 in rentals, tourism is a $6.27 billion industry in Cape May County, far and away the largest segment of the local economy. And by any measure, summer rentals are a significant portion of that.
Weiland’s numbers show 47 percent of the 119,000 properties in Cape May County are second homes. On the barrier islands, that percentage is much higher, and Ocean City has the largest number of non-resident owned properties in the county, followed by the four communities that make up The Wildwoods.Of those, 53 percent are used as summer homes. The rest are investment properties offered as rentals, according to Wieland.
There are about 4,000 rental properties in Ocean City, according to Bowen. She said in an interview in the last week of March that most properties have already been rented for the last week of July and the first week in August, but that there are some still available.
President’s Day was a banner weekend, Weiland confirmed, and a percentage of renters book the next vacation when leaving this one, but she said the patterns are changing. For one thing, a generation of people now starting families have grown up with the internet, and are waiting until much later to book their visits.Back at Grace Realty, Woytowicz said another thing that has changed in recent years is when visitors want to come. Many schools and colleges are starting earlier, which means by Labor Day weekend, many families have other obligations. The last two weeks of July are now the biggest weeks, he said.
The price range can be considerable. Rentals are Saturday to Saturday, and a check of one website for a real estate group listed the cost for the week of July 29 to Aug. 5 showed options from $750 for a one-bedroom efficiency on the bay to $15,000 for a five-bedroom single family on St. James Place near the boardwalk with an ocean view from the deck.
Some large beachfront properties go for $20,000 a week, according to Bowen, who is also the Jersey Shore Rental Manager for Berkshire-Hathaway. She said the average is about $2,800 for a week in-season.
For now, there are properties available even in the prime vacation weeks, Woytowicz said. Spring weather is always volatile at the shore, sometimes swinging from fog and rain to sunshine and back several times a day. But when the sun comes out and the temperatures start to rise in April, visitors will pack the boardwalk looking for the open ice cream and pizza shops, they’ll test the chilly water while barefoot at the beach, and some will check out what properties are available for their summer vacations.