Severe storms spurring some to suggest vacation insurance

Emily Wilkins, a sales associate with Goldcoast Sotheby’s International Realty in Ocean City, shows a beachfront vacation rental on Wesley Avenue in Ocean City. In the wake of recent storms, agents are recommending travel insurance. ‘Last year our market was greatly affected by Hurricane Irene. It was right in the middle of our rental season,’ Wilkins said.

More real estate offices in southern New Jersey will be recommending travel insurance for vacationers after coastal storms prompted evacuations in consecutive years.

Hurricane Irene in August last year forced historic evacuations across southern New Jersey at the peak of the tourism season. But just 14 months later, residents and visitors evacuated their island communities again after Hurricane Sandy took aim at Atlantic City.

Goldcoast Sotheby's International Realty in Ocean City is launching a new program in 2013 called Guest Protect, which provides trip-cancellation insurance. It covers everything from coastal evacuations to simple changes in the family's schedule.

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"Last year our market was greatly affected by Hurricane Irene. It was right in the middle of our rental season," said Emily Wilkins, of Ocean City, who is director of marketing for Goldcoast.

"Refunds were totally up to the owners. A lot of tenants didn't ask for refunds. For those who did, the owners typically worked with them," she said.

In many cases, property owners have a longstanding relationship with the people who rent their homes over the summer, Wilkins said. Some owners were willing to take the loss to encourage these families to return the following season.

While the latest storm occurred in the off-season, it has affected many visitors who were planning to enjoy Ocean City's autumn charm, Wilkins said.

"Unfortunately, there are still people here who don't have utilities or heat or hot water," she said.

Goldcoast's office in Ocean City was awash in more than 2 feet of water as a result of the storm. The staff moved to a temporary office until repairs are complete.

In the meantime, her office and others on the island are working with owners of second homes to encourage them to offer winter rentals to displaced city residents, she said.

Travel insurance costs slightly less than 7 percent of the vacation booking, Wilkins said. So insuring a $2,000 weekly rental would cost about $140.

The policies are common in North Carolina's Outer Banks, which often bears the brunt of coastal storms that normally veer away from New Jersey.

"Definitely during hurricane season from August to October. We've gotten hit by them historically," said Sarah Nye, who works at Hatteras Realty in Avon, N.C.

Travel insurance covers not only weather-related interruptions but also personal ones - a child gets sick, new job demands won't permit days off or any other unexpected changes in plans.

"It's for any cessation of the trip," Nye said. "It's definitely worth it."

Gary Jessel, a broker at Ocean City's Fox Real Estate, said Hurricane Irene prompted agencies in the city to address the possibility of another coastal storm interrupting the tourism season.

"We were worried about more big storms coming in. The big realty companies worked together over the winter and most are going with the same travel-insurance company," he said.

Jessel said he bought travel insurance for a family trip to Orlando, Fla., this month.

"Fortunately, we didn't have to use it. But when you start looking at the wide variety of things covered by it - medical issues, etc. - it makes a lot of sense to get it," he said.

Maria Marinelli, president of the Ocean City Board of Realtors, said real estate offices set their own policies for dealing with refunds for unexpected evacuations. Travel-insurance policies could become more popular on the island.

"It definitely seems to be the way weather patterns are affecting the area. I would consider it," she said.

Inconsistent rental policies were a point of discussion in Cape May County after Hurricane Irene, said Jeff Quintin, a broker with Prudential Fox & Roach in Ocean City.

"It has created a discussion about what's the right thing or the wrong thing to do," he said. "A lot of owners in town were reasonable and offered refunds. Some owners said it's unfortunate the weather was bad, but you paid for it. Some property owners offered partial refunds."

Quintin said the storm played havoc with some fall visitors this month, including a wedding party that was expecting to spend an entire week on the island.

"That property owner did refund the entire amount," he said.

Quintin said the extensive damage caused by Hurricane Sandy is likely to make more visitors consider travel insurance when making future vacation plans.

"Who knows? A hurricane can strike anywhere along the Northeast corridor or the Mid-Atlantic. It's always going to be in the forefront of people's minds, now more than ever," he said.

But not everyone is convinced that monster storms will pose an ongoing threat to South Jersey.

"My experience with summer rentals is most people don't want to book travel insurance," said Nancy Campione, a broker with Weichert Realtors in Brigantine.

"We're rarely hit by storms in July and August. I don't know if it's a reasonable thing for a tenant to do," she said. "I travel a lot and I don't get insurance. It's a personal choice."

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