At some point, four people sharing two double beds and one bathroom gets old. The maid service doesn't compensate for the stale muffins in the lobby and coffee you have to make on the desk. It's time to look into renting a house or condo at the beach.
"Having a house makes all the difference," says Samuel Penn, a retired executive from Pikesville who rents a house in Rehoboth Beach, Del., for two weeks each year. "It's a home, as opposed to a room."
Most vacation rentals require reservations for a full week, but they may cost less per night than a hotel room. Having a kitchen enables vacationers to make (at least some of) their own meals. And the additional space allows friends and family to vacation together.
Penn and his wife invite their two sons and their families to join them over the two weeks.
"It's a tradition," says Penn, who has been renting beach houses for more than 15 years and who — like many renters — usually reserves the same house each year.
Those without a favorite spot will find a vast selection of rental houses and condos in Ocean City, Dewey, Bethany and Rehoboth beaches.
Bayside with a boat slip? Ocean-block with extra parking? Ocean-front with a pool? Balcony or deck?
"That's the beauty of Ocean City," says Donna Abbott, the town's tourism and promotions director. "There's something for everyone."
But sifting through tens of thousands of rental listings may be daunting. How do you chose?
We've consulted with real estate and tourism experts, property owners and renters from Ocean City to Rehoboth Beach for tips to help navigate the listings.
Start the process immediately. Reservations for this summer's rentals were taken starting in October, says Jo-Ann Bacher, rental manager and agent at Jack Lingo Realtor in Rehoboth Beach.
"For some families, it's a tradition to rent the same house the same week every year," she says.
But all is not lost for last-minute vacationers.
There are also occasionally houses that are new to the rental market. And if a house hasn't been rented two weeks before the date, property owners may allow guests to rent a partial week. "If you can wait until two weeks before your vacation week, there's a possibility," Bacher says.
There are more openings this year in June, because many schools have extended classes to compensate for the excessive number of snow days, Bacher says.
And because colleges and some schools begin classes in mid-August, weeks later in August are also sometimes available.
Location, location, location
If you aren't intimately familiar with the area, get very specific information about the surroundings. Is the house on a busy street? Is the cottage next to a bar? Is the condo in walking distance to the beach?
Research addresses carefully, says Bacher. In Rehoboth, for example, there is a Rodney Street, a Rodney Avenue and a Rodney Road. And there's a Rodney Street in Dewey Beach, known for its party scene.
Decide what's important
Each beach has its own "flavor," says Linda Parkowski, director of tourism for the State of Delaware.
Lewes, Del., is historic, with more upscale shops in a quaint town. Rehoboth is family friendly with a boardwalk and lots of restaurants. Dewey is known for its nightlife. Bethany, a classic beach resort town with a small boardwalk and large homes, attracts families with multiple generations vacationing together.
"Where you stay depends on what you want and who you're traveling with," Parkowski says.
In general, from Ocean City to Rehoboth, the closer to the ocean, the more popular and more expensive. "Some people like not having to move the car all week," Bacher says.
But rentals farther away from the beach may have more amenities, such as pools and playgrounds, says Bacher.
One person's dream vacation might include golf every morning and fishing every evening, while another family might want to spend all their days on the beach and their evenings on their screened-in porch.
Real estate agent or not?
Real estate agents like to point out that they can help vacationers find the best match based on needs and interests. If you type in "three-bedroom" into most vacation rental websites, you'll get back thousands of results.
"It's a jab in the dark, otherwise." Bacher says. "And pictures can be deceiving."
Penn credits his Jack Lingo realtor with finding his family's perfect vacation home, about two blocks from the beach in a community with a swim club and beach parking. "They narrow the choices," he says. "It makes life a lot easier."
In Ocean City, there are about 28,000 condo units— a sizable percentage are rentals, says Abbott.
Most vacation rental companies will also have a 24-hour on-call agent to handle problems such as broken appliances or getting locked out. (There may be a fee for the latter.)
Homeowners who rent their beach homes directly using websites such as VRBO sometimes hire property managers to help with such matters. Others manage their homes from afar.
Michael Cassidy, an Arnold business owner, owns a condo near the Ocean City convention center that he advertises through VRBO and other websites, but he contracts a rental agent to help manage the details. "They provide the customer service," says Cassidy, who also has rented vacation homes for his own trips.
"Generally, all the information you need is in the first paragraph," Cassidy says. "When you're searching, you can narrow the search. … It's very easy."
Watch out for scams
Still, renters need to be vigilant about scams. Every year, beach town police departments get calls from victims of rental fraud.
"If they're advertising a $500 a week, beach-front rental, that should be a red flag. Even $1,000 a week is unheard of," says Lt. William L. Sullivan, public information officer for the Rehoboth Beach Police Department. "If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is."
Other clues that should arise suspicions: vague addresses, such as 21st and Wilmington, poor grammar and spelling in correspondence, or never being able to talk to an actual person, Sullivan says.
Often, the victims lose deposits. After the payment is wired, the correspondence stops, Sullivan says. But there have been vacationers who show up to a rental property only to find it's a private house with a person living there, or that it's already been rented to someone else.
"It's very, very unfortunate," Sullivan says.
Websites such as VRBO offer insurance protection, but it's still important to be on guard.
When you do find something you like, stick with it, the experts say. Often first choice is given to the renter who had it the previous year.
"Make your reservation by Thanksgiving," Penn says. "The good stuff gets rented fast."
Laura Cech owns a beach rental property herself — a three-bedroom cottage in Ocean Pines
Tips for renters
I've spent hours looking for a missing bedskirt. I've dispatched an exterminator to evict a bee family from an outdoor grill. And I've woken up sleeping relatives to escort the cable repair guy into their bedroom. My family owns a three-bedroom cottage in Ocean Pines, outside Ocean City. To cut down on costs, I manage the property. My husband and I have rented houses for vacations for more than a decade, so I thought I knew what to expect. After all, we were familiar with the glitches of renting a house, from ant colonies to lost keys. In Bethany Beach, we once rented a house we couldn't find for several hours. As it turns out, there is a seemingly endless variety of complications anytime you own a house. So here are some tips from my experiences as both renter and landlord:
Have an in-case-of-emergency number. Whether it's the real estate agent's after-hours phone service or the cellphone of the homeowner, it's important to be able to reach someone, especially when you check-in. If you'll be arriving late, it's helpful to let the agent or homeowner know. There may be an after-hours lock box for late arrivals.
Get specific directions. Sure, you have the address and Google maps, but it's nice to know if you're looking for a house with green shutters, or that a local road might be closed. Our house is in Ocean Pines, but some GPS systems only recognize it as Berlin.
Be upfront about what's important. I've had guests ask about everything from the number of extra blankets to whether the clothes dryer is slow. If your mother-in-law needs to take an important call for work, you'll want to know if cellphone coverage is spotty. If your family plans to cook every meal, make sure the kitchen is fully stocked.
Know what's included. While you can count on your hotel bed being made with fresh sheets, linens are often not included in vacation rentals. Some properties will offer linen rentals for guests who don't want to bring their own. Some courtesy items such as bikes and beach chairs may be listed, but often go missing after multiple guests. Most properties allow guests to control the temperature on the thermostat, but occasionally an owner will participate in a utility company's energy-savings program, which may automatically turn off air-conditioning in peak hours. If that's going to be a problem for your family, check with the owner.
Minimize the number of emails and calls. While it's absolutely fine to ask about the parking and the availability of ESPN, try to put as many questions into one email as possible. The agent or homeowner shouldn't mind responding to questions, but he or she may start to resent calls every other day.
Pack smartly. I've had to waste enough sticks of butter and jars of jelly to pack some staples when I can. I understand why most cleaning services empty the refrigerator after each guest. Who wants to open the fridge and find 42 expired salad dressings? Some resort town grocery stores will sell small bottles of dishwasher soap, etc., but if you can bring some of these items with you, you'll save some money. (And a friend of mine always stops by the local firehouse on the way of town to donate unopened sodas and ice cream bars.)
Ask to bend the rules. Like most beach homeowners, we try to rent by the week in the peak weeks of the summer. But in early June and September, we absolutely will make exceptions to rent for long-weekends. (And so will other homeowners.) Send an email or call and acknowledge that you see the preference for weeklong listings, but ask if the property can be rented for shorter amounts of time for specific dates. And if you see a house that you love is not available, ask to be put on the waiting list. It's a long shot, but there are occasionally cancellations.
Give feedback. Was everything perfect except for clogged drain in the master bath? Did you find yourself wishing there was a Keurig coffee maker? Did you find it vexing that there was no colander in the kitchen? Let the real estate agent or owner know. And if you loved something? (I looked everywhere for those cute window valences and extra comfy Adirondack chairs.) Well, I'd love to hear it.