Sue and Rich Stetler are busy cleaning, decorating, and upgrading their Shore houses for the holidays. They’re booked.
The couple’s three Ocean City houses, just blocks from the beach, have become popular for renters planning holidays at a place better known for the summer sun than the winter chill. They have spread blankets and comforters in bedrooms, ordered a new sleeper sofa and chair, and modernized gas fireplaces that provide a comfy glow.
These days, the New Jersey Shore is a holiday destination. Visitors can rent Shore houses at off-season prices and enjoy the solitude of deserted beaches and empty boardwalks. And there are plenty of local celebrations like the annual Christmas parade in Ship Bottom. Or take train rides with Mrs. Claus in Cape May, or usher in the new year with live music and entertainment at Ocean City’s First Night.
“Ocean City is just so wonderful, so peaceful,” said Sue Stetler, who spends every other Thanksgiving with her extended family at one of the Shore houses instead of the couple’s Warrington, Bucks County, home. “You don’t have the crowds that are here during the summer.” Two of three houses are already booked for New Year’s. The couple hopes to rent the third as well.
Typically, two families will share the cost of the four-bedroom houses, Stetler said. In the summer, the houses rent for $4,000 a week (about $570 a night). In the winter, the Stetlers charge $250 a night, or $300 a night for the holidays. Ocean City is a dry town that is family friendly and has been pitching fall and winter activities to attract tourists year-round.
“You don’t have to go far to find yourself in a special place,” said Lori A. Pepenella, CEO of the Southern Ocean County Chamber of Commerce, which covers Long Beach Island. “They are making memories and starting new traditions.”
In the last 10 years, Shore rentals for the holidays have been on the rise, Realtors say. While business is certainly not as brisk as in the summer, holidays at the Shore have become so popular that there’s a healthy competition for houses and tickets to events, like Ocean City’s First Night.
On Long Beach Island, there are more winter rentals these days, said Heather Supchak of G. Andersen Agency, and more owners hosting family celebrations in the off-season.
“It’s happening," she said. "It’s a thing.”
For decades, Jim and Mary Kredell hosted their in-laws for the holidays at their Barnegat home. Now their four grown children and three grandchildren join in, and space is tight. Married siblings had been sharing their childhood bedrooms with their spouses and children, and their brother had been sleeping on a couch.
“We wanted a house big enough that everyone had their own bedroom,” said the Kredells' daughter, Caitlin Jensen of Collingswood, who coordinated with her siblings to surprise their parents with the rental house from Dec. 22 through Jan. 3. She started searching for a house in the fall.
“It took a little bit of time, because houses available for the winter were already taken. That surprised me,” said Jensen, who found the six-bedroom house with a first-floor game room and a fireplace in Beach Haven Crest. She also wanted a town where businesses were open but there would be no crowds. There are a supermarket, pizza shop, and liquor store nearby. “We covered all our bases," she said.
Kredell said he and his wife were thrilled with the surprise. It’s the only time of the year when his children – one from San Francisco, another from Chicago, and a third from Detroit – get together.
Another bonus is the elevator that the family’s 92-year-old patriarch can use to get from floor to floor. There is a second-floor deck, and another on the roof with views of the ocean and bay. The landlord even provided a nine-foot Christmas tree.
“If the weather is nice, we’ll have our wine in hand on the rooftop deck and look out toward the bay,” Kredell said. “It’s kind of soothing to watch the sunsets.”
Even in winter, the Shore offers a calming and less stressful environment, said Pepenella, of the Southern Ocean County chamber. They can enjoy waves crashing on quiet beaches and solitary jogs on the boardwalk.
While holiday rentals are more expensive than those booked for other winter weeks, people are are still shopping for last-minute rentals, Realtors say.
Sean McGinnis of Berger Realty of Ocean City said his office handled rentals for more than 20 houses at Thanksgiving and there are 18 (and counting) for Christmas and New Year’s.
Many owners and landlords shutter their houses in the winter and turn off the water to keep the pipes from freezing, he said. That leads to competition for the houses that are available to rent. At times, McGinnis said, he has contacted property owners to see if they would consider making the houses available for those wanting to rent.
Winter rental options range from large beachfront or beach block houses to secluded bungalows — most at rates far lower than in summer. In Avalon, a 2,200-square-foot, four-bedroom house can be had for $340 a night in January. In July, the same house costs $615 a night. In Stone Harbor, a five-bedroom rental billed as a “fab house steps from the beach” is listed for $450 a night in January, about the same as in the summer season.
Michele Gillian, executive director of the Ocean City Regional Chamber of Commerce, said winter holidays at the Shore have drawn increasing numbers of visitors in recent years. By one crude measure, “flushables,” the amount of water used to flush toilets, public works officials report usage more than doubled on Black Friday (4.3 million gallons) this year compared with last year (2.1 million).
Similarly, business picks up at restaurants and supermarkets, and the downtown is thriving, Gillian said. On Black Friday, Ocean City hosts a holiday parade that starts with Santa’s arrival at City Hall. There is a tree lighting, and horse and carriage rides.
“Families are starting new traditions,” she said. If the winter weather is not too cold, kids may go crabbing or fishing with their grandparents.
In Cape May, which attracts tourists throughout the year with tours of Victorian homes and a healthy antiques market, more people are looking for houses to rent this winter as well, said Richard Allamong of Homestead Real Estate.
Local events cater to the budding crowds. On Friday, the Cape May Brew Co. will host an ugly sweater party, and the Carroll Gallery has set up an old-fashioned Christmas exhibit. Perhaps the biggest attraction is Winter Wonderland at the historic Congress Hall, the oldest seaside resort in the country. Families want to take their kids to see Santa, the Christmas tree more than 90 feet tall, and colorful decorative light displays.
The resort compares the holiday atmosphere to a Norman Rockwell painting and and says it’s so festive that it “is glowing with beautifully decorated homes and hotels and plenty of activities to make even the biggest Grinch smile.”
All of this is quite the draw, Allamong said. “I have a family checking in on Christmas Eve.”