When the COVID-19 pandemic hit Massachusetts, the cancellation requests started streaming in for Jackie Ashe’s summer rental home in Edgartown.
Within weeks, half of the reservations for the three-bedroom house this summer were gone. Late June and July were essentially wide open. She was worried the August guests would soon follow.
“I thought the whole summer was going to be a washout,” Ashe said.
Then Governor Charlie Baker announced the start of Phase 2 in reopening the state’s economy on June 8, allowing hotels and short-term rentals to host leisure travelers after being closed to most business for much of the spring. And in a heartbeat, Ashe had the Edgartown home booked right back up.
The pandemic has brought a boom for short-term rentals on Cape Cod and the Islands as vacationers rush to book a cure for their cabin fever. In an unexpected twist for homeowners and agents who had braced for a bust, summer 2020 is turning out to be even stronger than previous years that did not have public health concerns or a recession hanging over the rental market.
According to WeNeedAVacation.com, a local website that markets short-term rentals on the Cape and Islands, total bookings so far are 24 percent above last year. Vacancy rates are at or below 5 percent for most of the summer, well below levels of last summer.
Julie Jason, co-owner of Waterfront Rentals in West Yarmouth, said half of the 160 rental contracts her agency lined up earlier this year were canceled at one point; now, nearly every single week is booked again.
“The market right now, it just exploded,” Jason said. “I’ve been doing this for over 20 years, and I’ve never experienced the volume of inquiries and bookings for such a short period of time.”
Hotels on the Cape are also enjoying a modest boost after a tough spring, though nothing like short-term rentals. Wendy Northcross, chief executive of the Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce, said the occupancy rate for Cape Cod hotels peaked at 91 percent on Saturday, July 4. However, hotel room prices are much lower than last summer, while rates for short-term rentals have remained relatively steady.
Northcross said many business owners feel the numbers are better than they feared, especially with fireworks and other big events canceled. Beaches are open, and many restaurants offer outdoor dining.
“Other parts of the country were not as fortunate as we’ve been,” Northcross said. “Knock on wood, our business is still OK. But it’s very uncertain.”
Homeowners and real estate agents say rental homes give vacationers more flexibility for social distancing than hotels and motels. Michele Noonan said that was a definite selling point for her three-house compound in Dennis Port that she rents for $12,000 a week. She initially faced a slew of cancellations, but those weeks were quickly filled after Baker reopened short-term rentals.
“I’m still getting e-mails … more than one a day sometimes” from would-be vacationers in New England, Noonan said. “I think everybody is afraid to fly. Two people who booked with me had international trips … but they shifted their funds to stay local.”
Some renters aren’t even technically on vacation and instead are using a Cape rental as a satellite work-from-home base. “A consistent question I get is, ‘How good is your WiFi?’” said Margie Nilson, a partner at Marietta Realty in Harwich.
David Southworth, co-owner of the Willowbend development in Mashpee, said remote-work urbanites from metro Boston and New York are looking for a change of scenery. The ownership rules at Willowbend require stays of at least one month for renters. But this is a high-end market: Rents are running as high as $50,000 a month, and that doesn’t include the extra fee for access to the golf course and other country club amenities.
“If a house has four bedrooms and a pool, you can pretty much get whatever you ask,” Southworth said.
Kiersten Kaye and her husband rented a three-bedroom house near Craigville Beach in Barnstable for two weeks in August. They are working both weeks, though will take some time off during the day to relax.
“Going into this, we did not have the point of view of vacationing,” said Kaye, a Waltham resident who works at engineering software firm Dassault Systemes. “We absolutely had the point of view of [needing] a change of scenery.”
Kaye is staying at a house owned by Anne Mayo, who said she first started advertising the place for $2,500 a week at the beginning of June. It’s now booked through Labor Day, and Mayo is still getting inquiries.
“I was shocked at the surge,” Mayo said. “People are scrambling.”
But the summer of 2020 has not been without its complications. Homeowners have had to adopt more stringent cleaning regimens, for example, as well as new protocols for bed linens. And face masks are now as common as beach chairs.
“There are definitely twists on it, but it’s still your Cape Cod vacation,” Nilson said. “People were just so stir crazy, being at home during the quarantine. They really needed a beach on Cape Cod.”