We’ll get to today’s version of the Cape Cod vacation rental scene in a moment — to personal concierges and wine refrigerators, to $10,000 weekly rentals that aren’t even waterfront, to streaming TVs in every room, and outdoor living rooms nicer than anything most people dream of indoors. To hot tubs.
But first let’s pause to remember how things were, in some sepia-toned past, when a family vacation on the Cape meant bringing your own linens and no AC, and if you wanted a masseuse to come over — actually forget it, that’s not even something that would have occurred to anyone on the Cape back then.
Not in the 70′s say, when Dennis O’Keefe’s parents packed a family of seven into a two-bedroom cabin where the roof leaked, and the loft where he and a brother slept got so hot that the boys spent many nights on chairs on the porch. “I can still smell the must,” he said wistfully.
Not in the 80′s, when Nicole Sullo and her family were thrilled, on the occasions her dad was lucky enough to win an employee lottery, to spend a week in a one-room cabin with a shared bathroom.
“There were about four ‘fancier’ cottages,“ said Sullo, now a teacher at a Catholic school in Medford, “but they were only fancy because they had separate bedrooms and their own bathrooms.”
The family brought sheets and a gas burner, and, one year, a TV. “We wanted to see Diana and Charles get married,” Sullo said.
That old Cape still exists, said Ryan Castle, chief executive officer of the Cape Cod & Islands Association of Realtors (CCIAOR). “You can go to Dennis Port or other towns and rent that couple- hundred-square-foot cottage. They’re sprinkled throughout the Cape.”
But the days where you could rent a cottage for less than $999 per week in the summer are dwindling. This year there are some 60 homes in that category on WeNeedaVacation.com, a rental site, down from over 200 just a few years back, out of 3,500 listings.
Amid pandemic-fueled demand, the average price for a one-week rental has hit nearly five grand ($4,900), according to Annie Blatz, president of the CCIAOR. That’s up from $4,300 last year, and $3,800 in 2019.
Toss in taxes and fees (for cleaning, booking, linen rental), and tack on an average of $900, Blatz said.
Average prices are lower among the homes for rent on WeNeedaVacation.com. They average $3,577 weekly, before taxes and fees, up from $3,327 last year, according to Jeff Talmadge, CEO and co-founder, and $3,111 in 2019.
High prices come with expectations, and in today’s world — in which vacations photos are part of your own personal marketing campaign—must-haves now include hydrangeas or other vegetation that will pop on Instagram, said Joanne Logie, founder and president of New England Vacation Rentals, a vacation rental and property management company.
“You need nice landscaping,” she said. “Not just pine needles.”
Logie has studied trends from ski resorts and other high-end destinations, and this year paired with a concierge service, Down the Cape Concierge, founded by a concierge whose resume includes Hollywood’s iconic Chateau Marmont.
“They want pre-arrival,” Logie said of her guests. “They don’t want to come and schlepp groceries. They want fridges stocked, canoes and kayaks and bikes brought to the property.”
You know what many don’t want? “Quintessential Cape Cod,” said Blatz. That’s “not adequate anymore.”
Very high levels of service are expected, she said. “Especially from millennials.”
“Some of our rental agents give every guest their personal cellphone number and have been known to go to the property to change propane tanks on the grill,” she said, “or even change lightbulbs.”
The fancy-fication of the Cape has been building for years and has now reached the point where one agent says she has a hard time renting a place without central air.
It’s a far cry from yesteryear, when, as the famed poet Robert Pinsky wrote to the Globe, people took “pride in how minimal, even spartan, the family accommodations might be. “A kind of Yankee … pride in how the whole family crammed into an A-frame, showing the true love of swimming, sailing, fishing, clamming, all of that.”
How did we get here?
Talmadge, of WeNeedaVacation.com, says he’s seeing an influx of younger owners who are less emotionally invested in their homes and instead eager to make updates that will appeal to today’s renters — ”stunning” hardwood floors, propane fire pits, home offices.
Blake Decker, CEO of Pretty Picky Properties — a rental and management firm that prefers homes with a minimum of two master suites, and has a rental for nearly $30,000 per week — says the higher end of the market is growing because people are seeing there is money to be made.
“Once you start telling [home owners] you could gross $150,000 in a summer they start doing some quick math,” he said.
In common memory of the days of yore, the house mattered less than the fact that you were on the Cape.
“Just give me a bed and a shower,” said E.J. Kritz, a customer experience consultant who vacationed in a “super modest” rental in Yarmouth as a child.
But lifestyles have changed, and when Kritz travels now, he and his wife spend time working, making the great indoors as important as the dunes.
He had hoped to vacation on the Cape this summer, “but to get a decent house where you could walk to the beach, that’s insane money — over $10,000 a week,” he said.
“If I’m going to spend that much, I’m going to see palm trees, not pine trees.”