OCEAN CITY, N.J. - Despite the snow - or maybe because of it - the number of Jersey Shore vacationers who have locked in their summer rentals may actually be up, say coastal real estate agents.
Lousy weather "inspires more people to think about the summer and get going on finding a rental property for their vacation," theorized Deedra Bowen of Ocean City's Berger Realty, which has the keys to roughly 2,500 units.
The resort has 15,000 rental units, more than any other Shore town. Weekly rates run from $1,500 several blocks from the water to $15,000 for multistory beachfront luxury, Jacuzzi included. The average three- or four-bedroom place a few blocks back is $3,200, said Bowen, who is the rental manager at Berger.
Folks "get finished shoveling that driveway and say to themselves, 'That's it. We're going to the beach this summer,' " she said.
Berger and her colleagues from Long Beach Island to Cape May say that after a slow start made worse by the snowstorm double-whammy before Presidents' Day weekend - the traditional launch of search season - the number of bookings in June, July, and August is up about 10 percent over last year at this time.
"During the blizzard, people might have had their minds on other things. But since then, we've had a lot of traffic," said Dori Adams, a Berger rental agent. "This past weekend was extremely busy."
In Ocean City on Monday, Ginny and Tom Lott of Broomall were definitely thinking warm thoughts.
"We usually come down Presidents' Weekend, but we waited because of the weather," said Ginny Lott, who was shopping for a place in July. "We didn't want to wait too long to get down here because we wanted to be able to have our pick of homes."
Influenced by the bad economy, many held out until the last minute to make plans last year. As a result, some found the property they coveted unavailable.
"This year, people want to make sure they get the rental they want, so I think they're making their plans earlier, especially for the prime weeks in July and August," said Chris Clemans of Chris Clemans Sotheby's International Realty in Cape May.
Clemans said that tradition and the slow-to-improve economy may be driving people to familiar haunts that don't involve expensive travel.
"We have people who rent the same home year after year, who think of a particular property as their summer home even though they don't actually own it," he said. "People get such a connection to a place like Cape May or other Shore towns, and that connection prevails whether the economy is good or not."
In Cape May, rentals range from about $600 a week for a two-bedroom cottage three blocks back to around $10,000 for a newer beachfront getaway. The average is $1,000 to $1,500 for a larger three-bedroom about a block from the water, Clemans said.
At Stevens Real Estate in the Brant Beach section of Long Beach Island, traffic in the office and on the agency's Web site is up compared with this time last year, said owner Rick Stevens.
Vacationers increasingly shop agencies' Internet sites, he said - even for places that cost $20,000 a week. The average beach-block rental on Long Beach Island runs about $1,800, according to local agents.
"Some people don't want to come down here in the winter anymore, or they don't have the time," Stevens said. "I've known people that live a few miles from here that have booked online instead of coming in to look at the property in person. It's just easier."
One such renter, Debbie Moore of Little Egg Harbor Township, said "looking at the pictures online is just fine."
"I've done it for three years now," Moore said. "I know the area, so I know what to expect. . . . Instead of running all over the island, I narrow down to the price range that I want and then compare properties."
Last summer, slow-to-commit renters - plus lots of rain and cool ocean temperatures early in the season - had agents fretting until July or August.
Would they sign more or fewer vacationers to leases than in 2008? Would their clients, the property owners, turn a profit? Ultimately, agents declared the summer a success - though business-owners reported that tourists spent less once they arrived.
"It's all a numbers game," Stevens said.
And when there's nothing else to have angst over, he said, "then we just worry about the weather."