One month before the first day of spring, the Vineyard summer home rental market is sluggish, with many agents saying that advance bookings this year are down between 10 and 15 per cent — at least so far. The news from the Steamship Authority matches the trend, with advance reservations for automobiles down about 12 per cent from this time last year.
But some rental agents believe people are waiting to see what happens with the sagging economy before committing to a vacation rental, and many remain optimistic that there will be a late surge in rentals. Several agents said this week that inquiries about summer rentals remain robust. And supply is up; the ongoing recession means more people than ever are renting out their homes.
“We aren’t in the dumps. Lots of people are asking about rentals and there are more homes on the market,” said Judith Federowicz, a realtor and owner of Coldwell Banker Landmarks Real Estate in Vineyard Haven. “People are just being conservative and waiting to see what happens before they make reservations,” she added.
Mrs. Federowicz said her advance bookings are down slightly from last year, and she said the early surge that usually accompanies the Steamship Authority’s head start automobile reservation program was lacking this year.
Jeff Talmadge, a Wellesley resident who owns the popular Web site WeNeedaVacation.com, which matches vacationers with homeowners, said advance bookings through the first week of February were down from 998 last year to 835 this year — a drop of just over 16 per cent. The average cost of a weekly rental has increased 2.5 per cent, or $79 a week for each home, he said, a much smaller increase than in previous years and an indication of shaky consumer confidence.
“Vineyard people are pricing their properties more cautiously than in previous years, when they were clearly more aggressive. They are worried about setting prices that are too high that might scare off renters,” Mr. Talmadge said.
But there also are some positive indicators, he said — traffic to his Web site is up, while the inventory of homes for rent is about the same.
“Bookings are down, there is no question, but to be honest things aren’t as bad as I would have expected considering everything. People are still making the calls and checking our Web site . . . they are not giving up on the notion of a family vacation. I don’t think that will ever change in this region. The Cape and Islands are so popular, and a bad national economy won’t change that,” Mr. Talmadge said.
Douglas Reece of Re/Max on the Island agreed with the trends: flat advance bookings and anemic interest in ferry reservations. He said it will be difficult to make predictions for the summer for at least a few months.
“I think everything will be late-breaking. Advance bookings may be down, the steamship [bookings] may be down, but things may be different in a few months We just elected a new president, we just passed an economic stimulus package . . . who knows what will happen?” he said.
Steamship Authority general manager Wayne C. Lamson said summer auto reservations opened up over the Internet on Jan. 20, followed by the start of phone reservations on Jan. 27. He said the numbers are down, but part of the decrease is due to fewer advance bookings for commercial vehicles and construction equipment.
“Many truckers I know have cut back on the number of reservations they made earlier in the year, based on last year when they made more reservations but wound up having to cancel them,” Mr. Lamson said.
He agreed that many people may well be waiting to make their vacation plans, and said advance bookings may fail to tell the whole story. He speculated the recession may force people to take vacations closer to home this season, which could have a positive effect on the Vineyard.
“I know there are a lot of people out of work, but the people who are working still want to go on vacation. Maybe people from [Massachusetts] will focus on places within driving distance,” Mr. Lamson said.
Sharon Purdy, owner of Sandpiper Realty and Sandpiper Rentals in Edgartown, estimated that her advance rental bookings are down about two per cent this year over last year. But she too expressed cheerful optimism that it will be a good summer after all.
“There has definitely been a lag time in [advance bookings], which is completely understandable considering what is going on with the economy. I think people think they can get a rental cheaper if they wait, so they’re going to wait. Overall I am confident. We have had slow starts before, and things turn around,” she said, adding:
“So far we’ve gotten a lot of inquiries, but the level of commitment is down . . . but that can change quickly.”