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Beach rental market strong as people seek a pandemic reprieve

Delaware Public Media

COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations continue to trend down and the state is ramping up vaccine distribution – that combined with loosening pandemic restrictions on businesses, restaurants and indoor gatherings offers hope that there is a light at the end of the COVID tunnel.

And that hope seems to be reflected in summer beach rentals.

Contributor Eileen Dallabrida offers a look at the vacation rental market.

Delaware Public Media's Tom Byrne and contributor Eileen Dallabrida discuss this year's summer beach rental market.

As the second summer of the COVID-19 pandemic approaches, travel-parched consumers are locking down beach rentals and other accommodations a brief car-ride from home.

So far, the volume of rentals at Delaware’s beach communities is running about 50 percent higher than last year’s record pace, with vacationers ensuring a summer get-away long before the first buds of spring.

This year, renters want to stay longer, booking homes for multiple weeks. To that end, they want hi-speed internet connections so they can work remotely, as well as fully equipped kitchens so they can cook more and dine out less.

“People want places to live in, to stay for a while, rather than places to vacation,” says Heather Knowles, rental manager at Vacation Rentals by Re/MAX.

And since families will be away from home longer, they want to bring Fido with them.

“Demand for pet-friendly rentals is off the charts,” Knowles says.

"People want places to live in, to stay for a while, rather than places to vacation."
Heather Knowles, rental manager at Vacation Rentals by Re/MAX.

In response to the pandemic, more property owners have adopted electronic keypads to avoid exchanges of house keys. Cleaners are utilizing disinfecting vaping systems, misting properties between guests.

The guests are very pleased with it and the owners also feel a sense of relief,” she says.

Lora Englehart rented a house in Lewes for a week in June, where she and her husband will celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary and spend time with family members who are in their bubble. They view it as a safer, more laid-back option than a trip abroad.

“We have always enjoyed going to the beach when it is quieter and are hoping our children and grandchildren will be able to visit,” she says.

The Engleharts are spending $600 more this year, compared to a house they rented last September. Agents say there has not been a significant spike in prices, although renters can expect to pay more this year.

“Rentals have gone up slightly, although we aren’t seeing tremendous increases over last year,” Knowles says.

Here’s a snapshot of prices and availability:

  • In Rehoboth Beach, a three-story ocean-block townhome offers six bedrooms, including two master suites, five baths, a chef’s kitchen and a roof-top deck. One week in August is still up for grabs at $6,500 a week. Otherwise, it’s booked solid, June through September.
  • In Fenwick Island, a six-bedroom house a block from the beach has two decks, two outdoor showers and an exercise room, ideal for working off extra pandemic pounds. The third story boasts an open concept living room and kitchen, plus three master suites, all with ocean views. July is booked but several weeks in June and August are open at $9,000 a week.
  • In Bethany, a five-bedroom, four-bath house with two decks is a block from the beach and a short walk to town. No pets allowed. The month of September is available at $4,000 a week.
  • In Dewey, a two-bedroom, one-bath condo with a community pool offers peek-a-boo views of the ocean and bay. It’s available June through September, with prices starting at $1,475 a week or $350 a day.

A few owners are reserving time for themselves and their families, making fewer weeks available for renters. But most are renting out their properties, making the most of the real estate wave.
“They need to take advantage of what will be a really good season for them,” she says. “By the time 2022 rolls around, they will be competing with cruises and people will be back to getting on planes.”

Marsha Mah of North Wilmington has been trying to schedule a cruise for months. A trip to Spain and Portugal, originally scheduled for last June, was canceled. It’s been rescheduled for May, and Mah and her husband, who have both received the COVID vaccine, are eager to get onboard. But she isn’t packing her bags yet.

“I have a feeling it will be rescheduled again,” she says. “So we are thinking of a beach trip, either the Maldives or the Caribbean.”

A number of resorts in Mexico and the Caribbean are offering discounted rates and free, on-site COVID testing to try to lure visitors. Domestic tourist destinations also are challenged to attract guests who are reluctant to fly. Since the lockdown of March 2020, the pandemic has resulted in more than $460 billion in cumulative losses for the U.S. travel economy, according to the U.S. Travel Association.

"People are eager to travel and they have definitely been targeting local destinations since COVID."
Jennifer Boes, Greater Wilmington Convention and Visitors Bureau.

In terms of travel safety, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has issued guidelines reflecting the risks of various modes of transportation. The safest option is staying home and avoiding contact with others. The next safest choice is short trips by car with members of your household, with no stops for food, fuel or bathroom breaks along the way.

Traveling by trains and buses is more problematic because it’s more difficult to maintain a distance of six feet between people who aren’t in your bubble, the CDC says. Air travel is even riskier because travelers must run the gauntlet of security lines at airport terminals. Although planes maintain air filtering and circulation systems that make germs less likely to spread, social distancing can be difficult to achieve on crowded flights.

Day trippers and short-term visitors are creating a travel boomlet in New Castle County, where folks can rediscover interesting places close to home, says Jennifer Boes, director of marketing communications at the Greater Wilmington Convention and Visitors Bureau.

“People are eager to travel and they have definitely been targeting local destinations since COVID,” she says. “We also have a huge drive-through market from New York to Washington, DC.”

Popular destinations include Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, Hagley Museum, and Mount Cuba, recently named the best botanical garden in American by USAToday. Exhibits from the Delaware Natural History Museum have been relocated to nearby Winterthur while the nature museum is being renovated, part of its transformation into the Delaware Nature and Science Museum.

“It’s a rare opportunity to see things from both museums in one place. Now there’s even more to see at Winterthur,” Boes says.

There’s been a significant uptick in traffic from Delaware users on the bureau’s Instagram and Facebook accounts as the locals look for recreation close to home. For the DYI set, there’s a walking tour of Old New Castle that visitors can download on their smartphones. Some of the locals are packing lunches and making the loop of northern New Castle County’s three picturesque covered bridges: Smith’s Bridge over the Brandywine and Ashland Bridge and Wooddale Bridge over Red Clay Creek.

“It’s a nice way for a family to spend an afternoon, with no worries about social distancing,” she says.

Eileen Smith Dallabrida has written for Delaware Public Media since 2010. She's also written for USA Today, National Geographic Traveler, the Christian Science Monitor and many other news outlets.