OCEAN CITY, N.J. — From the second-story deck of his aunt's rental property near 20th and Central, real estate agent Bill Godfrey points out the ocean view a block away and the surrounding Gold Coast neighborhood as just two of the unit's special amenities.
But what potential summer renters really want to know about the place is how the flatware looks and what kind of wine glasses are in the cupboard, Godfrey said.
"Oh, and how new the mattresses are," Godfrey notes as among the nitty-gritty details that customers want to know before they are willing to plunk down as much as $4,000 for a week's stay in this unit during the summer's "high season."
And getting precisely what they want when they walk through the door may be what is driving those renters to sign on the dotted line seemingly earlier and earlier each year. Rentals in Ocean City's prime "high season" — from mid-July to mid-August — start at around $1,500 a week for a one-bedroom condo and go as high as $18,000 a week for a seven-bedroom house on the beach.
Marr Agency, where Godfrey works, and other real estate agencies in this Cape May County barrier island resort — and in towns from Long Beach Island south to Cape May — report that the number of signed contracts and deposits on summer rentals by the beginning of February were up by as much as 33 percent over the same time last year.
And while the bottom line on rental profits may ultimately stay mostly stagnant year to year because there are only so many units and so many weeks in the summer, an early rush on rentals may signal a strong 2017 Shore summer season with regard to tourism spending in other sectors, like restaurants, amusements, retail, and activities, according to experts.
Tourism is big business in New Jersey. The state's second-largest industry attracted 95 million people to the Garden State, raked in a whopping $43.4 billion, and accounted for 318,000 jobs in 2015. And those numbers have been on a steady increase over the last decade.
At the larger real estate agencies at the Shore, agents said that last year, the high-season weeks were completely sold out. Figures for the summer of 2016 will be officially released by state tourism officials this spring.
"There are only so many rentals to be had, especially during the prime summer weeks, so clients are getting hip to the idea that they need to get down here and find what they want as early as possible. It's a simple law of supply and demand," said Frank Shoemaker, a real estate broker with Berger Realty in Ocean City, which holds keys — 2,500 or so — to about 25 percent of the resort's rental properties, making it the largest rental agency in the Jersey Shore town that has the most rentals.
Because by the time they get here, real estate experts like Godfrey and Shoemaker say, most of the people shopping in February for a July or August rental have gone online to narrow down a half dozen or so properties that may fit their specific requirements: location, number of bedrooms and bathrooms, and price.
And once clients lock into a rental they like, they often "will just re-up" for the following summer before they've even dropped off the keys on the way out of town when their vacation is over.
"So it really comes down to the details in the unit and how comfortable they think they'll be during their stay," said Godfrey, who tries to educate homeowner/landlords about keeping properties up to date with everything from fresh carpets to new bedspreads.
And knowing what they are looking for — even something as minute as, say, whether the red wine glasses are stemless — has led some to show up at the Shore as early as November and December to find that perfect summer place.
"It used to be Presidents' Day weekend was the traditional time that people really started shopping for a place ... and you kind of knew then what kind of summer it was going to be," Godfrey said. "Now it's kind of crazy -- they start coming in before Thanksgiving."
And that suits Lisa Mussarra, managing broker at Oceanside Realty, in Harvey Cedars, Long Beach Island, just fine.
"We tell our clients `the earlier the better' if they have specific needs for their rental," Mussarra said. "It doesn't add to our bottom line -- each agency really has its own number of units to rent so whether they get rented in January or in April, it's all the same to us. But if our clients want specific dates or specific units, then it's better for them to get here while the selection is good."
Mussarra, whose agency offers about 1,000 rentals, said that after a strong rental season last summer that followed what seemed like an earlier "rental hunting season" just after the holidays last year, this year's summer house search on Long Beach Island has also commenced early.
"There's been a lot of activity this year, early activity," Mussarra said. "I think it's because Long Beach Island has become a place where a lot more homeowners are no longer renting out their properties, so potential renters perceive a need to get here early and decide where they want to spend that one or two weeks' vacation."
Brian Tyrrell, a professor of hospitality and tourism at Stockton University in Galloway Township, said summer home rentals in Cape May County between 2014 and 2015 — the latest statistics available — were up 1.8 percent.
Summer home rentals in Atlantic County remained steady for the period. In Ocean County, rentals were up by as much as 6.1 percent for the same time period, but may be showing such a comparatively high increase because some homes that had been damaged or destroyed during Hurricane Sandy in 2012 were finally brought back into the rental market, Tyrrell said.
Similarly, increases in the amount of tourism tax collected statewide on hotel and motel room rentals in month-over-month comparisons January through November 2015 to the same time period in 2016 show a 3 percent growth in New Jersey, Tyrrell said.
"This is important growth for the state in terms of tourism," Tyrrell said. "And I think what we see in the interest in rentals so far this year portends well for the coming summer season. ... It all means more business for all sectors in the state's important tourism industry."