Why You Should Start Your Summer Vacation Rental Search Now

Expert tips for landing a home away from home during the peak rental season.

U.S. News & World Report

Why You Should Start Your Summer Vacation Rental Search Now

Luxury waterfront villa in Sri Lanka.

Start planning now for your dream vacation later.(Getty Images)

At first, securing a summer vacation rental seems like a cinch: Consult with a reputable real estate company or peruse listings on sites such as Airbnb and HomeAway, grab your checkbook and – voila! – you'll lock in your dream property, right? Not quite. The truth is, even after you've put in the legwork, scoring your ideal vacation oasis can be a daunting task. And with growing competition among rental-seekers raising the price and demand in popular markets, snapping up the perfect vacation home – at the perfect price – will present a challenge for procrastinators this year. For this reason, we caught up with vacation rental experts to bring you four key selling points for getting a head start on the season, with smart, expert-approved tips and tricks to consider before sealing the deal.

The Chase for a Summer Beach House Started Early

"Booking early, especially in popular destinations with limited inventory (like the Hamptons, Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard), is fairly common, and you’ll often find travelers booking not just six months, but sometimes up to a year in advance," says TripAdvisor Vacation Rentals spokesperson Laurel Greatrix. In Nantucket, for example, two-thirds of TripAdvisor's rental inventory is already booked for the Fourth of July, she says, pointing out that there was an uptick in searches for the long weekend starting in spring 2015, likely from repeat visitors who likely wanted to solidify their plans for the following year.

"Summer is high season for most vacation destinations, so naturally the prices will be escalated compared to other times of the year," says Jon Gray, chief revenue officer at HomeAway.com, noting that booking in advance allows for increased inventory at a wide range of price points. "Each rental is unique, so finding a vacation rental that has the correct number of rooms, desired bathrooms and amenities is easier when travelers plan ahead," he adds.

Weather, Terrorism and Other Considerations Have Heightened Competition

"I do think that security is an issue this year," says Andrew Saunders, president of the real estate company Saunders & Associates, which manages $1.7 billion in commercial, land and residential real estate in the Hamptons in New York. There's been a critical mass of commentary and concern about going overseas that's shifted the selling dynamic this year, as an increasing number of travelers stay closer to home rather than choosing to rent overseas, he explains. While in previous years, the search kicked off in January, it began in October this year, he says, noting that renters' anxiety about traveling abroad likely played a key factor for earlier bookings this year. 

While occasionally there are renters who return year after year, Saunders says there weren't a higher percentage of deals available to trigger a spike in bookings for 2016. In fact, according to a December 2015 survey of more than 2,000 participants conducted by the Chief Marketing Officer Council, AIG Travel and the the GeoBranding Center, terrorist activity has heightened traveler apprehension. The study found that 1 in 4 travelers switched travel plans last year because of health and safety threats, and 83 percent reported terrorist activity as a main driver for avoiding certain areas.

Travelers' heightened security concerns affected sales, says Jonathan Davis, a real estate agent at Compass, a popular technology-focused real estate company. He points out that clients who normally would spend time overseas in the summer have rented homes for the whole summer in light of concerns about the latest attacks. Pleasant temperatures have also helped bolster bookings in the Hamptons, Davis says. "Last year, we had a big problem because of the weather," he explains, noting that without inclement conditions, desirable inventory was snatched up quickly this year.

There's Limited Availability

"The supply and demand of economics of hotels and vacation rentals are quite different," Greatrix explains, pointing out the price of a room at a property over a popular holiday weekend might fluctuate based on when you book your stay, which does not always hold true for vacation rentals. But while rental rates don't change as often as hotel prices, it's critical to book early, she says, cautioning that a rental can only accommodate a single guest or group at a time, so it's key to lock in your place before someone else takes your spot. Over the Fourth of July week, from July 2-9, TripAdvisor vacation rental capacity is limited at in-demand markets throughout the Northeast and along the East Coast, she explains. In Martha's Vineyard, there is only a quarter of available inventory; in Nantucket, there's only a third of inventory remaining; and in the Hamptons, the Outer Banks, North Carolina, and Newport, Rhode Island, there's only 40 percent of inventory available. Inventory is especially limited in Chatham, Cape Cod, with only 10 percent of rentals available, she says.

In other words, if you want to snag a vacation rental this summer, act quickly. According to Gray, average rates for weeklong HomeAway vacation rentals is around $1,520 ($217 per night). In Destin, Florida, for example, you can secure a three-bedroom home for an average nightly rate of $273; in the Outer Banks, you can book a three-bedroom home for $189 a night; and in Ocean City, Maryland, you can reserve a three-bedroom home for $312 a night, he says.

And on the West Coast, HomeAway currently shows three-bedroom homes in Beverly Hills, Los Angeles, for less than $150 a night for stays from July 3-9 and three-bedroom homes in Oahu, Hawaii, for an average of $250 per night for the same time period.

Last-Minute Bookings Aren't a Sure Bet

"It's a dangerous game," Saunders says. In a busy market, it's a risky move to be opportunistic and wait for a deal until late in the season in April or May, he explains. "You can get closed out or not have compelling inventory available to you," he adds, cautioning that holding off is "not a prudent strategy."

On the upside, you can snag a deal if you do wait, Greatrix says. "Booking late will limit your options – especially in peak times like summer and late December, early January – but some homeowners reduce prices as an available date approaches to get paying guests in and avoid losing rental income," she explains.

"The booking window for vacation rentals is typically 90 days, so the sooner the better to ensure you have options to perfectly accommodate your family or group," Gray cautions. And while there will likely be more options and availability by booking within this time frame, plus a higher percentage of choice value options for families and large groups, there are always last-minute bargains, he adds.

Gray suggests filtering your search by special offers, or limited-time promotions, if you're searching for a last-minute rental to get a sense of the discounts and rental perks available to you. He also suggests staying flexible in your travel plans and looking for off-the-beaten-path rentals that are removed from popular attractions such as theme parks and the oceanfront. "The farther you are from tourist attractions, the less you can expect to pay," he says. And if your sights aren't set on a popular vacation market, consider an offbeat locale, he says. "They can still be great vacation spots that may cost less because there's less demand."

The Bottom Line

"If you come and you're motivated, there's still time," Davis says, pointing out that if you're prepared, motivated and proactive, there's an opportunity to lock up a bargain in booming destinations such as Montauk, New York. Saunders suggests calling your broker and checking out properties as soon as you can. "Come out, be decisive and understand the market," he says.

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