Home & Living

Life is a Beach House

What’s the difference between “oceanfront” and “oceanview”? Will $3 million be enough to buy a house on the water? Why is the place next door renting for $1,500 less per week? Relax! You’re supposed to be on vacation! Here’s our insider’s guide to getting the biggest beach bang for your buck.

In a scant three months, you’ll be lapping up the life dangled in front of you by those tantalizingly colorful beach vacation rental catalogs and websites. Picture it: strolling hand-in-hand with your loved one on the soft white sands of Ocean City, lolling beneath a big blue umbrella along the sun-soaked beach in Rehoboth, or contemplating a crimson-rimmed sunrise from the deck of Fan-Ta-Sea VI, your weekly oceanfront cottage in Bethany Beach. ¶ Or, you could be suffering from dehydration as you haggle with the rental agency over an inoperative air-conditioner, struggling to sleep against the beep-beep-beep of a backhoe rearranging the beach, or straining on tiptoes to peer out the one upper-floor window in your rental house which offers that “unobstructed ocean view” the catalog promised. During two decades of renting at East Coast beaches, these aggravations have actually plagued my friends and me—not to mention a mandatory hurricane evacuation, a perilously tilting toilet, and assorted co-habitations with cockroaches, crickets, and spiders the size of seagulls. ¶ But with careful planning and advice from experts and the experienced, you can help ensure that your beach vacation is everything the catalogs portray so enchantingly—and not the holiday from hell.  ¶ For example, let’s say you’re a couple spending a week in hip Rehoboth Beach with another twosome, and you’re seeking a house with comfort and privacy for everyone. Or perhaps you want to rent a place for you, your spouse, your mother-in-law, and your two kids, but you’re not sure which resort you want: the convenience and kid-pleasing activities of Ocean City, the compactness and quietude of Bethany and its minimalist boardwalk, or the solitude of Fenwick Island’s broad, non-commercialized beach. Feeling overwhelmed yet? Don’t be.

Getting Started

Once upon a time, some of the most welcome arrivals in your mailbox each winter were the catalogs advertising hundreds of rental homes at the beach. You’d pore over them, scrutinizing tiny photos of piling-perched houses with grand picture windows and “extensive decking,” looking for the right configuration of beds, and—most importantly—something in your price range. You’d mark your top choices, cross your fingers, and hope at least one was still available by the time you called the listing agency. 

Although most vacationers still reserve houses by phone, the Internet has changed the resort rental business. “We still see more vacations booked by phone, but the callers have usually researched their choices on our website first,” says Susan Holt, regional vice president for Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage, which handles 4,600 residential properties on the Maryland and Delaware shores. She says callers still like the personal contact and the ability to ask questions the websites don’t address.

The advantages of online researching are numerous: It’s easy to comparison shop among many agencies; the information is there 24/7; most sites allow you to search listings by various criteria, including location, proximity to the beach, rental period, price, and maximum occupancy; some offer separate listings for pet-friendly lodgings; and others allow you to check availability instantly, then make your reservation, and even pay online. And if your preferred decision-making method is still a group huddle, you can request catalogs and brochures as well.

Jim Waggoner, vice president of the Eastern Shore resort rental division of Long & Foster Realtors, believes some vacationers are waiting longer to book houses because they can cyber-monitor their availability. “Some don’t feel the urgency to make reservations,” he says. Until about three years ago, 75 percent of Long & Foster’s Maryland and Delaware bookings were made by April 15. “Now it’s more like 50 percent,” he says of the 1,300 units the agency manages. Holt, too, has noticed the trend toward later bookings (Coldwell Banker once had 85 percent of its units reserved by March), although this year, she says, “people seem to be making reservations earlier to take advantage of the better selection.” 

Repeat guests get first crack at renting the house or condo they had last summer, but generally they must do so before January 1, when it becomes open season for bagging trophy digs. That’s incentive enough for many return customers. “Some of our properties are 70 percent repeats,” Waggoner says.

If our hypothetical two couples and nuclear family haven’t made reservations yet (early April), they needn’t fear ending up in a cramped and mildewed bungalow 18 blocks from the beach. With new houses popping up like sand crabs, there is a large inventory of rentals. However, they’re not likely to get prime oceanfront houses either—at least if they plan to vacation anywhere from mid-July to late August, when housing demand is at its highest (as are prices).

The couples might consider vacationing in June, or September (when kids are back in school), and there is a greater selection of desirable rentals. “The weather is good,” Holt says, “prices are low, and there are many festivals and other events.” And most of Rehoboth Beach’s wealth of fine restaurants remain open at least through October. 

Because our vacationing family consists of five members, they’ll have an easier time locating a three- or four-bedroom house searching now. At this date, an extended family of, say, 10 or 12 is going to be lucky to find sufficient bed space for everyone. 

Location, Location, Location 

Besides price, vacationers seeking a summer house ask about the three B’s: the beach (how close is it?), bedrooms (how many?), and beds (what size and where?). Rental descriptions answer the last two questions pretty clearly, but can be rather perplexing regarding the first.

Before e-searching their choices, our vacationers should learn location lingo. Although individual agencies’ definitions may vary slightly, these terms are commonly used to describe a property’s proximity to the promised sand:

– Primo placement, with no other homes situated between your rental and the ocean, although distance from and view of the water may vary. (With condos, “oceanfront” describes the building, so verify that the unit you’re renting also faces the sea.)

– If just seeing the beach is good enough for you, this is a good way to save a few grand a week, though beware: One person’s “oceanview” is another person’s “sliver of water visible only if you tilt your head way out over the deck.”

“Oceanblock” – Located near the ocean (usually one block or less), but may have another structure or street in between; water view not guaranteed. Similarly, “second block,” “third block,” and so on describe approximate schleps to the beach. 

“Oceanside” – Located on the east side of the major highway (Route 1 in Delaware, Route 528 in Ocean City), but not necessarily within walking distance of the ocean. 

“Bayside” or “westside” – Located on the west side of the major highway, but not necessarily within walking distance of the water.

“Baywater” or “bayside water”
– Located on Assawoman Bay or its canal; distance from and view of the water may vary. 

If you want to know exactly how close you’ll be to the beach or whether that “stunning ocean view” is visible from the lower floor, call and ask. A reputable agent will give you a straight answer. 

The rental unit’s proximity to the beach, the number of bedrooms, and the date of the rental largely determine its price. For example, $2,000 per week in late July or early August will get you a four-bedroom house within two blocks of the ocean in Rehoboth Beach or a three-bedroom oceanblock house in Dewey Beach, says Penny Carlisle, rental coordinator for Long & Foster’s Rehoboth office. Those properties are also among the first to be booked, though. If you’re looking for a condo in Rehoboth, for $1,700 to $2,000 per week, during the same time period you can rent a two-bedroom oceanfront or a two-bedroom oceanblock unit, the latter with access to a swimming pool. 

Our two couples’ collective budget of $3,000 to $3,500 for a weekly rental will enable them to pick the Rehoboth neighborhood they want. The downtown offers both oceanfront and oceanblock high rises, as well as streets lined with older dormered cottages and small houses sporting big porches. Renting in Rehoboth is unique in one respect—parking. “Very, very few houses come with off-street parking,” Carlisle says, and even condo renters are often limited to one parking space. Buying a $30 weekly parking permit will save you from getting ticketed.

Our couples want some privacy, so they’re looking for a house in North Shores (an oceanfront community about a mile from the boardwalk) or The Pines (a popular in-town neighborhood of bungalows close to the ocean but removed from the boardwalk). North Shores’ isolation isn’t everyone’s cup of chai. “A lot of people like North Shores because it’s far from the boardwalk,” says Jo-Ann Bacher, rental manager for Jack Lingo Realtor in Rehoboth. “And a lot of people don’t like North Shores because it’s far from the boardwalk.” The Pines attracts its own set of devotees. “Bookworms like to stay there because it’s wooded and quiet,” Bacher says.

If you require only two bedrooms, $1,500 to $2,000 a week will also get you an oceanfront unit in one of Ocean City’s numerous condominiums. The same size units in the oceanblock can reduce the weekly rate by as much as $500. “Downtown Ocean City is still an attractive option because of the boardwalk and amusements,” according to Holt. “Vacationers also like High-Rise Row because of the oceanfront access,” she says. If you’re bringing your boat, many bayside rentals include dockage. (Oh, and if you’re planning on staying in O.C. the first week of August, book early; the city is packed to the gills for the White Marlin Open.) 

Our vacationing family is looking for a modern three- or four-bedroom rental and is willing to spend up to $4,000 a week. They may still have difficulty finding oceanfront housing in popular Bethany Beach, South Bethany, or North Bethany, where such houses go quickly, even at $4,000 to $8,000 per week (yes, that’s more than $1,000 a day).

If they’re open to other options, they might consider one of the shore’s resort communities, such as Sea Colony in Bethany or Bear Trap Dunes in South Bethany, which offer additional recreational opportunities, among them indoor and outdoor swimming pools, tennis, and golf. In Ocean City, they could check out Sunset Island, a new gated bayside community whose homes are joining the rental market this year. 

Being Comfy

With the proliferation of McMansions along the shore, guests have come to expect rental houses loaded with amenities. “They want the comforts of home,” Holt says, “such as TVs in the bedroom, VCR and DVD players, and fully equipped kitchens.” 

To suit their own lifestyles and to make their homes more attractive to vacationers, homeowners are upgrading their properties to the max, adding hot tubs, whirlpools, wet bars, gas grills, gourmet kitchens, master suites, designer bathrooms, great rooms, game rooms, high-speed Internet connections, digital cable—even fireplaces for “shoulder season” rentals. While these improvements jack up rental prices, they’ve also raised the bar from the days when vacationers were satisfied with reliable air-conditioning, one working TV set, and a rusty barbecue grill. 

Today, most rental units offer microwaves, coffeemakers, washer/dryers, dishwashers, multiple TVs, cable connections, VCRs, and often DVD players, in addition to necessities like cookware, dishes, bedspreads, blankets, and pillows. And what isn’t provided, you can rent from local businesses that will deliver and pick up (for an additional fee) linens, baby furniture, TVs, VCRs, and beach equipment, among other items. If our couples need a blender for the week, they can rent one for about $12; if the family wants a big beach umbrella, it will cost about $25.

Most agencies can provide linens and towels. Others offer shopping services that will stock your kitchen with groceries before you even arrive, and a concierge who can arrange everything from dinner reservations to babysitters to charter fishing trips. All, of course, entail extra charges. 

“We’re moving away from a real estate-oriented business to a hospitality-driven business,” explains Long & Foster’s Waggoner. “Our competition is becoming hotels and the cruises out of Baltimore.” 

Comfort can also mean peace of mind. Hurricane-prone states like North Carolina have laws allowing vacationers to recoup money when there are mandatory evacuations for severe weather, but neither Delaware or Maryland afford such protection. Refunds become the homeowner’s discretion and there are no guarantees. Vacationers can purchase optional travel insurance policies, however, that cover trip cancellations, interruptions, or delays resulting from everything from storm evacuations to job loss to emergency hospitalization. Rates are based on the price of the rental, with a policy on a $2,000 per week rental averaging $90 to $100. Waggoner says roughly 20 percent of Long & Foster’s renters buy the optional coverage.

Looking, Booking, and Fine Print

After determining their bed configuration and beach proximity preferences, our vacationers should list the amenities they desire: central air-conditioning, a washer/dryer, multiple TVs, a VCR or DVD player, maybe a screened porch and a hot tub for the couples, and an outside shower and swimming pool privileges for the family. Now the search begins. 

The local Chamber of Commerce or Visitors Bureau (www.ococean.com, www.bethany-fenwick.org, www.ococean.com,) can provide a list of rental agency websites and toll-free numbers, or you can find links at www.beach-net.com. A handful of online rental services allow you to save money by renting directly from homeowners, but there’s a trade-off: They’re often hard to reach when you need to report a beach house malfunction. 

Both vacation groups eventually find what they want: The couples go for a modern four-bedroom house in Rehoboth’s North Shores neighborhood through a rental agency for $3,200, while the family settles on a luxurious four-bedroom lake-view house in Sea Colony for $2,900 (well under their budget) by searching a rent-by-owner site. 

Deposits of up to 50 percent of the rental price will secure their reservations, with the balance due within 30 days of check-in. Beach rentals don’t play by hotel reservation rules; if you have to cancel, you can forfeit as much as one-fifth of the total price even if the unit is re-rented at the full amount. 

If you don’t want surprises once you’ve settled in, it pays to read the fine print on your contract. For example, if your fridge is on the fritz or your A/C is DOA, report the problem immediately. The agency will make every reasonable effort to fix it (they don’t want to lose your future business), and it lets them know you didn’t inflict the damage. However, less vital contraptions (TVs, phones, and microwaves, for example) are sometimes considered “courtesy” items, whose repair or replacement are not guaranteed. We didn’t anticipate finding a monstrous pipeline and a parade of construction equipment between our rental and the beach one year, but careful perusal of the contract might have turned up a caveat like this: “the Town of Sunburn Beach and the Army Corps of Engineers maintain the beach through a replenishment program. Occasional inconveniences may result.” Still, it does pay to complain; we received a 50 percent reduction in our rent for suffering the hulking pipe (through which sand was pumped onto the beach) and the beeping backhoe. 

Being a Good Guest

Finally, learn to be a considerate renter. Otherwise responsible adults can morph into careless cads and juvenile jerks when they’re on holiday. They’ll drag the dining room table onto the deck—and leave it there in the salt air—so they can dine alfresco. They’ll eat their spaghetti dinners on the light-colored couch. They’ll turn on the air-conditioner and then open the windows to hear the surf, all the while running up the owner’s electric bill. 

“They’re on vacation. They’re not very interested in following rules,” says one homeowner, whose framed reminder, “Thank you for not smoking,” was carefully disassembled by waggish vacationers and altered to read, “Thank you for pot smoking.” The next renters were not amused. Neither were the owners, who, after three years of renting to numerous more destructive beach-goers, finally quit in disgust. 

When they’re paying a handsome sum for a vacation, people feel entitled to behave as they please, in ways they never would in their own homes. “Remember that these properties are owned by individuals,” Holt says. Consider how you’d feel in their place—and behave accordingly. 

Keep in mind, too, that although most rental units are cleaned between occupants, crews must ready thousands of them in short order. If you make a big mess, clean it up. Spending 15 minutes tidying the place before you leave is a small gratuity for a week’s worth of fun and sun.

On the Waterfront

Call them second homes, investment properties, or retirement retreats—beach real estate sales are soaring. Buyers wary of investing in stocks are taking advantage of low interest loans and going with a shore thing, building their future where they’ve boogie-boarded in the past. “Our vacationers of today are our purchasers of tomorrow,” says Jim Waggoner, vice president of Long & Foster’s resort rental division in Bethany Beach, Delaware. And if you’re in the market for a seven-figure property, here’s what your millions will get you.