BRIGANTINE, N.J. - As winter took a last gasp on the cusp of spring with one more round of snow Friday, Sal and Jen Buscaglia would not be deterred from booking their summer getaway to the Jersey Shore.
Like thousands of others before them - as many as a staggering 40 percent more renters in one beach town than this time last year who have already signed on the dotted line - the Buscaglias of Media were ready with checkbook in hand to make a decision on where to spend the first two weeks of August.
So they trudged through the slushy ice and snow in the mostly empty neighborhoods of this casino-bedroom/vacation town looking for the perfect place.
"We need at least two bedrooms, possibly three for extra guests, and as close to the beach as possible in our price range," said Sal Buscaglia, 48, noting that the $1,200-a-week "cute, clean" place two blocks from the beach they rented last year was already fully booked. "So we're on a mission this weekend."
Could winter's cabin fever be fueling an early boom in the summer rental market from Long Beach Island south to Cape May?
Is the economy in this region finally kick-starting itself with a pent-up need to spend lavishly - as much as $18,000 a week for multi-bed and -bath beachfront digs with a pool - with the most expensive of rentals selling out first?
Is there a possible trend toward driving rather than flying to a faraway vacation destination? Or, that renters from the Greater Philadelphia region know they are competing for properties with vacationers from all over the country - and the world - via various booking sites on the Internet like VRBO.com and HomeAway.com?
"I think it is a lot of different things combined," said Bob Sutton, vice president manager/broker at Berkshire Hathaway Home Services in Brigantine. "But the bottom line is that people want to find the perfect rental to suit their needs."
Sutton reports that his confirmed rental bookings are up 40 percent over the same period from last year with the hundreds of properties he has listed. Other agencies at the Shore have noted year-to-date increases between 20 percent and 40 percent over last March.
"It is kind of staggering to see. . . . I really didn't think the percentage would be this high," Sutton said. "A lot of people came down before the last big cold snap we had and locked in. They want to make sure they live that summer dream."
Ann Degener, a rental agent at Jersey Cape Realty in Cape May, where the numbers are up about 20 percent over last year, agrees.
"A lot of people just can't afford to go far away," Degener said. "They know they can come to the Jersey Shore and find all the amenities they're looking for and have an awesome vacation."
Degener says that renters in her office are often so happy with their choice they will book the same property for the following summer even before they have turned the keys back in on their current rental. And, perhaps surprisingly, the most expensive properties - the ones with the pools and the Jacuzzis and that sleep 18 people - are the first ones to be sold out for the summer.
"People really do show up already knowing what they are looking for," said Bill Godfrey, of the Marr Agency in Ocean City. "They've checked it out online and they come prepared with a list of what they want to see. Our job is to point them in the direction of what we know they will like."
Godfrey said that Marr has the keys to about 500 rental properties in Ocean City and that he strives to match renters up with just the right property.
"Everybody who walks through the door has different needs as far as the number of bedrooms, location, all that," Godfrey said. "But what everybody wants is a clean, well-kept property. And those are always the first ones to get booked. The owners that maintain their properties well never have an issue finding renters."
Carol Hopely Russo, a rental agent at Berkshire Hathaway Fox & Roach in Sea Isle City, said that with her hundreds of rental listings, many of the prime weeks - the end of July through the middle of August - were already booked.
"The rentals have been very robust this year and as usual at this point in the year we do have a lot of the prime weeks already taken," Hopely Russo said. "I would tell people that if they haven't booked, they need to get in here soon."
Hopely Russo, like other real estate agents, noted that the woes surrounding the casino closures in Atlantic City haven't adversely affected the rental market.
And some suggested that a record for tourism spending in 2014 - to the tune of $42.1 billion - may bode well for summer 2015.
Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno on March 12 at an annual tourism conference in Atlantic City announced a 3.8 percent increase in tourism spending last year over 2013. She said 20 of the state's 21 counties - all but Atlantic County - saw the increase. In Atlantic County, overall tourism spending was down 3.1 percent in 2014. Revenue from gaming was down 4.5 percent and the number of hotel rooms booked declined nearly 8 percent.
Tourism spending at the Shore accounted for about half the total expenditures in what is the state's second-largest industry.