By Jacqueline L. Urgo, Inquirer Staff Writer
Bob Lawrence has no choice but to put behind him the memory of Hurricane Sandy ripping apart the deck and outdoor shower of his summer rental home.
“In this game you have to keep moving forward. . . . You can’t look back. You have to come back stronger and better from something like that,” said Lawrence, 57, who replaced much of the old wooden structure with fiberglass components to help attract renters to the three-bedroom bay-front Longport home that he privately rents for as much as $6,000 a week.
This four-bedroom Ventnor house rents for the summer season for up to $100,000. In some areas, bookings are up 25 percent over last year. (MICHAEL S. WIRTZ / Staff Photographer)
Homeowners such as Lawrence and real estate brokers and rental agents up and down the coast – except in areas of Monmouth and Ocean Counties where Sandy in October 2012 created so much destruction that many property owners are still rebuilding – contend that bookings for this summer are way up over last year at this time.
Business officials closely monitor such numbers because tourism is a $40.4 billion-a-year industry that directly supports 320,000 jobs in the Garden State. Findings of a new study released last week by the New Jersey Department of State indicate that if tourism in the state were a company, its sales would rank 70th on the nationwide Fortune 500 list – ranking higher than Sears, DuPont, or Hess Corp.
Despite the ravages of Sandy and a revenue decline in Atlantic City casinos of 5.9 percent in 2013, the state-commissioned study by the Oxford University-affiliated consulting firm Tourism Economics, found that visitor spending, capital investment, and government support in the state increased by 1.3 percent in 2013. The number of visitors to New Jersey also increased to 87.2 million last year, a 5.7 percent rise over 2012.
The outlook for this summer is also optimistic, according to state officials at a tourism conference in Atlantic City last week. Projections indicate a 2.2 percent increase in the number of tourists visiting the state in 2014.
Lawrence, an avid boater who stays on his 42-foot Sea Ray when his house is occupied by renters, said that in the wake of Sandy last year, he spent more summertime weeks on land at his Longport house than ever before. By contrast, this year his home is already booked for the prime season in July and August.
“Even though this part of the Shore didn’t have that much damage compared to other places up north, people still seemed leery about renting here last year,” Lawrence said. “But this year, it’s the opposite. They’re anxious.”
In Atlantic and Cape May Counties – and even sections of southern Ocean County on Long Beach Island – the number of signed leases is up by as much as 25 percent over last year at this time, according to Realtors.
“People do seem anxious to make their plans this year. And the best properties, in any price category, always go quickly, and that’s what we’ve been seeing this year,” said DJ Gluck, owner/broker of Soleil Sotheby’s International Realty in Margate, whose agency specializes in high-end properties in the Shore’s Downbeach area of Ventnor, Margate, and Longport. The 100 or so homes on Gluck’s sales roster sell for millions and rent for as much as $120,000 for the season.
Gluck insists Sandy is no longer a factor – except in the buyer’s market where concerns center on height restrictions and other post-storm regulations – to most vacationers seeking sun and sand this summer.
“People just want to forget all about this harsh winter and get down here,” said Gluck, whose agency recently launched a marketing program designed to reach a global audience of luxury consumers through a new iPad app and other digital format presentations.
Such digital communication – especially during a particularly stormy winter like the one that just past – is what is fueling much of the early renting this year, says Michael Mavromates, broker/manager at the Long & Foster Agency in Avalon.
With bookings running about 18 percent ahead in his office, Mavromates said the cold weather and snow spurred a lot of activity on his agency’s website, which offers Shore rental listings that range from a $600-a-week two-bedroom, one-bath condo in Wildwood to a six-bedroom, $18,000-a-week beachfront abode in Avalon.
“Nobody is talking about Sandy whatsoever,” Mavromates said. “They just want to talk about sun and sand and where they are going to be spending their vacation this summer.”
Carol Menz, broker/owner of Coastline Realty in Cape May, said the rental season so far had brought “stunning volume” to her agency. Knowing that Cape May suffered almost no damage from Sandy, many potential renters came back this year to book properties they stayed in last summer.
“Clients are saying they are so dismayed by such a harsh winter this year, they are really, really looking forward to summer,” said Menz, noting that volume in her agency had been pushed as much as 25 percent over last year at this time.
Even on Long Beach Island, where cleanup from Sandy’s wrath bore a lackluster season last summer, real estate agents say business has been brisk this year.
“We are doing great,” said Michele Timlin, a sales associate at the G. Anderson Agency in Beach Haven. “People are much less hesitant to rent this year than they were last year.”
Timlin says the agency has the keys to about 1,000 rental properties on the island and nearly half are already spoken for. Rentals on Long Beach Island vary from as low as $2,000 for a two-bedroom condo to as much as $20,000 a week for a beachfront home that sleeps 14.
And at the Fox Agency in Ocean City – a geographic locale that may be the Mecca of Jersey Shore summer rentals by sheer volume – things are looking up this year, too. Ocean City offers more rental units – as many as 10,000 by some estimates – than any other Shore town.
“My projection is that this is going to be a very good summer,” said Clay Rossiter, rental manager at Fox, where rentals are up 23 percent over last year at this time on the 4,000 properties the agency brokers for rent. “Between getting over Sandy and surviving this past winter, vacationers are really thinking about getting on that beach and enjoying themselves.”