The summer rental market is on the rise, as pent-up demand grows

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Fueled by pent up demand after a year-long pandemic and tightened by a sizzling real estate market, the Vineyard summer rental market is experiencing an unprecedented boom this year.

Early bookings, longer stays and demand for higher-end properties have realtors around the Island gearing up for potentially one of the busiest summers on record as the fever for short-term lodging started early and has not let up.

Ticket data provided by the Steamship Authority paints a similar picture of a bustling summer ahead, with advance ticket sales in many cases already surpassing those of 2019.

Tina Conroy, an agent at Conroy and Company, a real estate and vacation rental agency based in Chilmark, said seasonal bookings at the agency have doubled this year, with nearly all of the company’s August inventory sold out before advance ferry reservations opened in January. The agency has since booked most of its July inventory and is still fielding calls for rentals from May through September, she said.

“It just went gangbusters,” Ms. Conroy said. “We started booking as soon as summer ended last year and it’s just been full-tilt boogie the whole winter.”

Elizabeth Weedon of We Need a Vacation, a rental agency that manages properties across the Cape and Islands, agreed.

“It’s a unique year. We’re seeing just really unprecedented demand from vacationers in our 23-year history,” said Ms. Weedon, adding that the numbers tell the story. According to a report provided by her, yearly bookings on the Island were up 110 per cent over last year, and 46 per cent over 2019. The increase in summer bookings alone was up 107 per cent over last year, she said.

Steamship advance booking numbers show that on March 14, advance reservations for July had increased by 12 per cent over the same period in 2019, while September sales were up 20 per cent from two years ago. (2020 numbers were not used for comparison.) Reservations for March and April and June this year are also well above 2019 numbers and have continued to rise throughout March, data showed.

The Island’s hot rental market comes on heels of an uneven summer last year, when an early pandemic ban on short-term rentals caused a sharp decline in bookings and a wave of cancellations. When that ban lifted in June, the market exploded with a spate of last-minute bookings, realtors said, bringing in enough business for many agencies to make up their early losses.

“We literally saw almost like a feeding frenzy last year at one point,” said Ms. Weedon, remembering the late rush for August bookings. “It’s been this prolonged wave of super high demand. It just hasn’t shown any signs of weakening.” This year, the frenzy remains. But the fish are hungrier — and bigger. “I think we have a bubble right now from the pandemic for rentals,” said Anne Mayhew owner of Sandpiper, whose vacation rental business manages nearly 700 Island properties. Ms. Mayhew said in her office, bookings for the summer have increased by 25 per cent this year. “I think people again have confidence in coming to the Vineyard because it was successful last year,” she said.

Others attributed the increase in early bookings to renters who postponed visits from last summer or booked for the new season before leaving. With vaccinations moving ahead but uncertainty lingering about the future of the virus, the Island’s status as both a local retreat and vacation destination has also fueled demand, realtors said, noting the Island’s popularity among Massachusetts locals, avid travelers who are unable to go abroad and the usual crowd of die-hard returnees.

Meanwhile, a booming real estate market that has shown no signs of abatement is cutting back on the Island’s rental inventory, as many homeowners opted to sell their homes this year or make use of them themselves.

“[The demand] has been exacerbated or impacted by lower inventory as well,” said Ms. Weedon. “There were so many unknowns…A lot of people just said, I’m not going to rent this year.”

As rentals for the Island’s prime summer weeks in early August have evaporated with record speed, realtors said increased demand has pushed many vacationers to extend their bookings into the shoulder seasons.

At Sandpiper, Ms. Mayhew said bookings before June 12 have increased 30 per cent from previous years, while Ms. Weedon said her spring and fall bookings have increased by 84 per cent and 45 per cent respectively. Vacancy rates for prime summer weeks have also dipped as low as 12 per cent, Ms. Weedon added.

Some said the market for off-season and long-term rentals has also grown this year, bringing unusually high numbers of non-residents to the Island through the winter. At We Need A Vacation, the number of unique vacationers this winter well-surpassed that of past years, with an unusual spike in February. Advanced ferry ticketing for February was also up over 100 per cent this year.

Other rental trends, including longer stays on average, have changed the shape of the market. This season, the average stay has increased from one week to three, with some opting for multi-month rentals. Demand for higher-end homes and more remote properties have also spiked, realtors said.

Many homeowners are taking advantage of the market bubble, raising their rates for the first time since the state instituted a short-term rental tax a few years ago.

“Homeowners have had to tighten their belts for a few years now for different reasons, starting with the lodging tax,” said Ms. Weedon. “This year, we certainly have heard from homeowners that the majority of them have raised their rates and raised them more than they normally do year to year.”

But the Vineyard’s booming short-term and summer rental market has also added pressures to an already challenging seasonal housing market for year-round residents and seasonal workers.

On the other side of the market, hotel managers reported soaring demand, especially for advanced summer bookings.

“It’s a turning point year…There’s no question we see our pace for the season at historic levels,” said Scott Little, general manager at the Harbor View Hotel in Edgartown, who has already seen weekends sold out at the hotel this spring. “The advanced deposits tell the story, the summer season is not waiting.”

Mr. Little said bookings have also been longer on the whole, with some visitors staying up to six days. He attributed the change in part to the tight summer housing market and shortages in rental availability.

As the busy season approaches, however, agents and hotel managers said they planned to keep pandemic protocols in place, including thorough cleaning services and modified cancellation policies. “There are a lot of lessons that we learned from last year, that we’re advising our homeowners if they can, why not keep up with them,” said Ms. Weedon.

But with no clear sense of how long the bubble will last, realtors, agents and hotel managers all agreed, it’s a booming year to be in business.

“I wish I had a crystal ball,” said Ms. Mayhew, reflecting on the market in the years to come. “We’re just trying to capture the moment and provide the best service possible.”

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