Delaware beach rentals are booking fast — and early. Here's how the 2021 summer may look different
The memory of last summer's ever-changing mask mandates and business restrictions may still haunt the Delaware beach communities, but summer 2021 is bringing glimpses of optimism and hope.
One sign of this? It's not even April yet and many beach rentals are selling out – and not just for the summer, but for the months that bookend the state's favorite season.
Both Airbnb and Vrbo, two major online travel agencies, reported that the Delaware beaches are trending destinations nationwide since the resort towns are near outdoor activities.
It also helps that the beaches are within driving distance of several cities – something that has always driven tourism here but has the potential to boost visitors with many still wary of flying.
With this surge in interest comes new travel trends, too. Beyond some rentals booking up quicker, the COVID-19 pandemic has flipped the idea of beach getaways on its head.
Susan McNally and Kevin McGuire have been renting out their two cottages near downtown Rehoboth Beach for a decade now, but recently have faced some surprising questions.
One in particular: “Where is the work space in the unit?”
As teleworking and remote schooling unleash opportunities for families to move their home offices from the kitchen table to the waterfront porch, property owners and rental agencies have noticed people booking more – and longer – stays outside the typical summer months.
And these trends seem to be here to stay for the rest of 2021.
Booking early and fast
After 26 summers managing rentals in Rehoboth and Dewey Beach, Sheila Davolos said this summer has been “the busiest I’ve ever seen the rental market.”
While she said new listings continue to come in – and her company, Jack Lingo, Realtor, has been booking summer rentals since October – many places are fully booked.
Agents and property owners point to optimism around the vaccine, an end goal circled on some calendars after President Joe Biden suggested families might be able to gather again for Fourth of July celebrations.
To fully understand these fast and furious rental bookings, though, it’s important to look at the effects of summer 2020.
A short-term rental ban that lasted through May was “devastating for the industry,” Davolos said, and many property owners and agencies lost significant cash flow with cancellations.
But, with a strategy that helped cushion that loss, Jack Lingo and many others encouraged guests to leave their deposits with the agency or owner and defer their stay by months, weeks or even a year.
Because of these deferred trips, some of the weeks in 2021 booked up more quickly.
Anne Boyle owns a rental in Dewey Beach, and she said six of the eight people who reached out with concerns about COVID-19 last year decided to reschedule rather than cancel.
As a result, she said this is the first year she wished she had a second rental because many people are inquiring about dates already booked.
Lots of selling, renting
With Sussex County home sales up 24.4% in 2020 compared with 2019, Davolos said she initially worried that the hot housing market may further tighten rental availability.
But, as new homeowners moved in, she found that many of these buyers were still listing the homes as rentals.
That's not to say that the sellers' market won't shake things up. If a property owner sells his or her rental, the new owner can decide whether to keep renting it and transfer the current reservations or cancel them completely, Boyle said.
She said she understands the urge to sell after watching her neighbor's home go for more than $200,000 above what she paid for her similar home in 2015. For now, though, the interest in the rental market and her own attachment to the home has convinced her to stay.
"It’s certainly tempting, but at the same time, we absolutely love the house," she said. "If it was purely rental and we never used it, we would probably be selling right now."
With the flexibility of working from home, people also seem to be booking longer vacations.
Sandy Bieber, a property owner who rents three Rehoboth Beach houses through Jack Lingo, said he saw an uptick in two-week vacations this year. Others said they were surprised and encouraged when requests started coming in for visits as long as one or two months.
“We were just hunkered down, considering not even opening,” said McGuire, one of the owners of 3 Seas Cottages in Rehoboth. “And then it was someone who called and said, ‘We would like to rent a month.’”
This set rentals like McGuire’s rolling.
The trend of taking a "flexcation" – what Vrbo calls a mix of work and vacation – doesn’t seem to be going away either. In a survey of more than 8,000 travelers, 67% of those who worked or attended school while on vacation said they would do it again, according to Vrbo.
As people escape cities for the Delaware coast, some say this could attract a different clientele than the typical vacationers.
Spontaneous, quick visits
Sometimes, though, the desire for a change of scenery has been more of an impulse, especially in the off-season.
Property owners agree that the "shoulder season" reservations are often more spontaneous and just for a few days. Before COVID-19, people were more likely to take long weekends, but McGuire said now he notices more bookings in the middle of the week.
After one family booked a short stay the day before Thanksgiving, McNally guessed that people are looking for quick getaways and a change of scenery.
Between these quicker trips and the monthslong stays, signs are pointing to the Delaware beaches as more of a year-round destination.
Bieber said one of his properties is already booked for almost three-fourths of the year.
He joined other property owners and rental agents who said private rentals often seem like a safer and preferred option for travelers, especially because many of the owners and agencies have adopted intense cleaning protocols as a result of COVID-19.
Emily Lytle covers Sussex County from the inland towns to the beaches. Got a story she should tell? Contact her at email@example.com or 302-332-0370. Follow her on Twitter at @emily3lytle.