Renters of shore vacation homes who were slow to sign leases at the beginning of the year have been more eager to book in recent weeks, driving demand ahead of last summer for the peak months of July and August, area real estate agents said.

“Right now, (leases are up) anywhere between 9 (percent) and 13 percent above last year,” said Bill Bezaire, an agent with Coldwell Banker Sol Needles Real Estate in Cape May, adding that he is surprised by the upswing.

“There’s a lot more optimism this year,” said Robert Scully, an agent with Ferguson Dechert Real Estate in Avalon. “Some people are still suffering from the economic boondoggle we’ve been in. But this past Memorial Day was gangbusters.”

Scully is responsible for more than 1,000 properties in Avalon and Stone Harbor. He declined to say exactly how many more leases he has this year or to put a dollar amount to them. But he expects “this will be the biggest year we ever had,” he said.

The apprehension of renters to lock in leases early was even more obvious last year, when the recession forced people to hold onto their money longer before committing to a rental, some agents said.

This year, while the peak months are showing strong bookings, agents must still get through June. An extended school year caused by the record snowfall last winter has helped to keep rentals down this month for John Koser, owner of Sunset Harbour Realty in Beach Haven.

“The school year is really affecting us. We have a lot of clientele from North Jersey and New York, and a lot of schools are (in session) up until the 28th,” Koser said. His rentals on Long Beach Island for the end of July and most of August — the height of the season — are still booked solid, he added., a rental-vacation website, said interest for rentals across the Northeast are up this year, including along the New Jersey shore.

Inquiries at the shore increased 10 percent from 2009. Other locales, such as the Hamptons and Nantucket, Mass., saw inquiries rise more than 50 percent.

The idea of renting a vacation home remains more appealing than getting a hotel room, as stated in HomeAway’s latest rental marketplace report. Seventy-seven percent of the nearly 2,000 travelers surveyed said they prefer the vacation rental because of the “home-like experience.”

Price matters

Similar to last year, potential renters still want a deal.

Laura DiStefano, a sales associate with Weichert Brigantine Realty, said maybe a couple hundred dollars can be knocked off, “but nothing ridiculous.”

“I had this one guy who saw a unit for $2,400 a week and he wanted me to call (the property owner) and ask for $1,300,” DiStefano said. “That wasn’t going to happen.”

Koser said negotiations are common with every rental he does. In his experience, property owners will listen.

“This year, they’re willing more to negotiate because they’re worried if (the property is) going to get filled up because of the economy,” Koser said.

James Flynn, of Flynn Real Estate Agency in North Wildwood, said some rental prices are already down from a few years ago, when the value of shore properties were at a peak.

A three-bedroom, two-and-a-half bathroom home on the beach block in North Wildwood can cost about $1,600 per week, whereas it might have gone for $2,100 three years ago, he said.

Al Houston, a high school teacher from Philadelphia, has been renting shore homes in Ocean City for about 10 years. With the help of his rental agency, Goldcoast Sotheby’s International Realty, Houston was able to lease the same Asbury Avenue property this month that he had last year. And best of all: The rent was actually lower by about $200 on a rental costing more than $1,000 for the week, he said.

“It helps,” said Houston, who plans to rent again in Ocean City in October with his sons. “For what I’m spending, I want to be some place that is quality.”

Families teaming up

In Brigantine, higher-end rentals — about $4,000 to $6,500 per week — are in demand, DiStefano said. But those typically four- to five-bedroom beach block houses aren’t for one family.

“You get three families chipping in together,” DiStefano said. “People want new and modern, and they figure if they put their money together, they can get that really nice place on the beach.”

Midge Grunstra, a broker/director of sales at Goldcoast Sotheby’s in Ocean City, said she also has seen more families interested in sharing a rental as well as booking for longer stretches of time.

“I think people are turned off thinking the economy is bad,” she said. “They’re going forward with that rental anyway.”

Christy Miller, of Stratford, Camden County, said she booked two weeks this month with her husband, two children and extended family for a four-bedroom home in Ocean City. And they’re already planning to come back in August.

The family had already booked months in advance instead of waiting until the last minute — which actually helped them lock in better prices early, Christy Miller said.

“I’d love to have a home at the shore one day,” she said. “But this is the next best thing.”

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