Sunday, June 1, 2003

Beach rentals running behind

Late decisions leave openings

By Maureen Milford
Gannett News Service

Alison Weiss of Wilmington, Del., has her family's summer vacation all planned. The family of four will pile into the car the last week in August and head to Bethany Beach, where they will rent a two-bedroom condo for under $1,000. There's only one loose end: She has no reservation.

"No, I'm not worried. It's a buyers' market - there's a glut of places," Weiss said.

Weiss is among the millions of Americans who have realized that it's a great time to rent a beach property. Economic forces from the sagging economy to a boom in second-home construction have softened the vacation rental market nationwide to a degree not seen in generations, property managers said.

"It's a cataclysmic change in the market," said Michael F. Sarka, executive director of the Vacation Rental Managers Association in Santa Cruz, Calif.

The result is that consumers have delayed bookings to the last minute.

Three years ago, the vacation rental market would have been 95 percent booked by now, Sarka said.

But that was when the economy was humming and the world seemed relatively peaceful. After Sept. 11, activity was off during the first several months of the year, the traditional busy period.

The trend extends beyond beach rentals. The Travel Industry Association of America found that 64 percent of last year's leisure travelers - 83 million adults - planned at least one of their trips within two weeks of the vacation. These last-minute trips are most likely done by car. This year, 45 percent of Americans planning to travel this spring or summer had not made plans by late April, the travel association reported.

Cathy Keefe, spokeswoman for the association, said the soft economy is the real culprit: the events of Sept. 11 only intensified it.

"When the economy turns soft, the first things to go are the luxury items," said Lawrence Yun, senior economist with the National Association of Realtors.

Other factors include: the East Coast's snowy winter, which left many parents wondering when the school year would end; and the colder-than-usual spring, said Catrina Meadows, rental manager at Prudential Gallo Realtors.

Finally, families are busier than ever. "It's hard to find a week to get away with the way kids are scheduled these days," said Steven G. Cochrane, senior economist with, an economic research firm in West Chester, Pa.

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