- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 27, 2002

Rentals at the Maryland and Delaware beaches are still available for the peak summer weeks ahead a rare occurrence any other year although overall business is doing well.

The sluggish economy and worries about job security are causing vacationers to wait until the last minute to book rentals or cancel their plans altogether, real-estate agents say. Property owners are slashing prices to fill the spaces.

"People want to make sure they have a job," said Jim Waggoner, vice president, director of resort rentals for Long & Foster. "We're looking forward to the day that the stock market goes up 1,000 points and everyone has a job again."

Ocean City vacationers are walking into realty offices on Saturdays to rent for that week nearly impossible any other year. They are not only finding properties but also prices lower than in other seasons.

"The rental market is a little softer than we've seen in recent years," said Susan Holt, vice president, regional director of rentals at O'Conor, Piper & Flynn in Ocean City. "We've never had availability in the prime rental season this late [in the summer]."

O'Conor, Piper & Flynn represents about 2,500 properties in Ocean City and Delaware ranging from efficiencies to eight-bedroom, oceanfront houses.

"People are shopping later," Ms. Holt said. "They are a lot more cautious."

In addition to the sluggish economy and the plummeting stock market, agents have much more inventory to sell. The supply has outpaced the demand, which leaves more properties available.

"Up to 2001, we had more vacationers than we did properties," said Mr. Waggoner, whose offices represent 1,200 property owners in Ocean City and Delaware.

Even those owners who bought property when the economy was good are turning them over to rental agents to make some extra money, Ms. Holt said.

Vacationers can get a list of available properties by contacting individual agents. Many people are opting to do just that.

As a result of the unusual availability, property owners are not raising rates and even discounting to attract money-conscious vacationers.

"Our owners due to the overall economy have not raised their rates for the past two years," Mr. Waggoner said. "There are still affordable vacations at the beach."

Not all rental offices at Mid-Atlantic beaches are having trouble filling their properties. The 200 properties in Virginia Beach that Sandbridge Realty represents are booked except for the last week in August.

"We haven't seen a turndown," said Betsy Atkinson, broker and president of Sandbridge Realty.

Overall, beaches are packed this summer.

For example, Ocean City, which has more than 10,000 hotel rooms, is having a good year, despite the recovering economy.

Last-minute vacationers are filling hotel rooms, and calls are coming into the department of tourism from last-minute travelers.

"If things keep up, we'll have a very good season," said Donna Abbott, a spokeswoman for the Ocean City Department of Tourism.

The summer hot spot had one of its best Fourth of July weekends in history, Ms. Abbott said. Since then, the estimated numbers of visitors has been just slightly below last summer.

Real-estate agents say despite the slow start, this season is turning out to be a good year, too, thanks to last-minute planners.

Usually January through March is the busiest time for real-estate agents, but not this year.

"We were worried," said Linda Borror, an agent at Condo Realty Inc. in Ocean City. "But it has panned out to be a good season maybe not a banner season, though."

About 80 percent of Long & Foster's properties at the beaches in Delaware and Maryland are rented for the summer. Usually less than 10 percent would be available during the busy summer weeks, Mr. Waggoner said.

Michael Sarka, executive director of Vacation Rental Managers Association based in California, said the effect of the September 11 terrorist attacks and the downturn of the economy "has had far more of an impact on the East Coast."

"There's a lot of apprehension out there," he said.

But Mr. Sarka said the late bookings means this "summer is going to be all right."

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