Has the Earth been thrown off its rotation? Apparently. In a stunning turnaround from recent years, the story with vacation rentals on the Cape this summer is not one of scarcity. It’s no longer, if you haven’t booked a year in advance don’t expect a place with window screens. Rather, it’s a tale of vacancy.
“It’s crickets,” said Sarah Buckwalter, a professional organizer and co-owner of an inherited four-bedroom, two-bath that’s on a tidal pond in North Falmouth, within walking distance of Old Silver Beach, and still has empty weeks this month.
“There’s rosé waiting in the fridge,” said Jessica Halem, who, with her partner, bought a Wellfleet fixer-upper during the pandemic, and recently took to Twitter in search of renters.
“I don’t understand how there are almost no rentals” booked, said Tara Greco, who inherited a waterfront cottage in Cataumet with her brother. It’s a mile from the Shining Sea bike path, she added, baffled. “You can clam right in the harbor.”
The Cape Cod & Islands Association of Realtors is reporting an occupancy rate that’s 20 percent lower this season than last, and everyone’s wondering what’s going on.
Have the giddy price hikes of the past few years become too giddy? After all, the average daily rate hit $619 this year up from $525 last summer, according to the real estate group — or about what it once cost to spend an entire week on the Cape.
Did the sharks and the traffic and Airbnb’s tyrannical departure instructions scare everyone away? Strip the beds, wash the towels, empty the fridge, take the recycling to some distant spot and get out by 10 a.m. — or else.
Has everyone who bought a second home on the Cape during the pandemic decided, en masse, to vacation at more glamorous locales, thereby flooding the market with their fancy rentals?
With chef’s kitchens and hot tubs going unused, one thing is clear. The vacancies can be attributed to dropping demand. Or rising supply. Or both.
Ryan Castle, CEO of the real estate association, is mainly in the “demand” category camp.
He sees three main culprits: a pullback from the “revenge travel” trend that saw surges in spending by people making up for trips lost to the pandemic; a dollar that’s stronger now than pre-pandemic, making Italy more attractive than the Sagamore Bridge; and listings that have finally gotten just too expensive.
“As the owners have pushed prices higher, you are seeing fewer bookings,” Castle said.
And sacrilege as it is to say, perhaps the $45 lobster rolls, the short-staffed restaurants, and the toxic-algae blooms that periodically render some fresh water ponds hazardous to man and dog are starting to cut into the Cape’s idyllic image.
“Maybe a week on Cape Cod is just not as glamorous or comfortable as it used to seem,” said Annie Blatz, a past president of the real estate group and a sales manager with Kinlin Grover Compass.
But Paul Niedzwiecki, CEO of the Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce, said advance hotel bookings are on par with last summer at this time, and he attributes the vacancy rate for rentals to a growing stock.
“Some of the people who purchased second homes during the pandemic aren’t using them perhaps as often as they thought,” he said. Instead, they are offering them for rent.
This past April there were more than 16,000 short-term Cape rentals registered with the state, up from over 12,100 in March of 2021, according to Kristy Senatori, executive director of the Cape Cod Commission, a regional land-use planning, economic development, and regulatory agency.
Some of that increase may come from a growing number of owners simply complying with requirements that they register their properties, she said, or from homes being rented on trackable sites such as Airbnb as opposed to by word-of-mouth.
But Blake Decker, CEO of Pretty Picky Properties, a mid-size management company, said there are so many more properties on the market this year that he added an unprecedented 30 percent to his inventory and eventually had to stop accepting new ones.
“We have to get cleaners and property inspectors and linens,” he said, noting the labor shortage. “We didn’t want to overextend ourselves,” he added, especially with the uncertainty of generating last-minute revenue.
Whatever is behind the vacancies, Joan Talmadge, co-owner of We Need A Vacation, has advice for anxious owners.
“Don’t wait too long to lower your rates if you aren’t getting the bookings you expected,” she wrote in a blog post. “Waiting until the very last minute to do so only lowers your odds of finding renters and increases the need to offer a more drastic discount.”
And for those who are not rental owners, but are instead like the rest of us, dreaming of a weeklong dose of summer, the most urgent question is not why there are vacancies, but rather: Does this mean I can get me a deal?
The short answer is maybe. Some owners have lowered prices, sometimes by as much as 25 percent, according to a property manager, especially on homes that are new to the market or far from the beach.
Others have shortened the minimum stay, from the Saturday-to-Saturday booking handed down from God, to three or four days.
But some owners, perhaps in a game of chicken, are holding strong to their prices, leading to the specter of prospective renters — their suitcases in the trunk, rental apps open on their phones — circling Route 6, scouting for (very) last-minute deals.
Meanwhile, one person who is shedding no tears for second-home owners without renters is Alisa Magnotta, CEO of the Housing Assistance Corporation, based in Hyannis. It’s a nonprofit that helps find affordable housing for its clients — many of whom were displaced during the pandemic by the off-Cape buyers.
“Good,” she blurted out when the subject of vacancies arose, before quickly adding, “I’m just kidding.”