Season of Uncertainty

Shore landlords fear Sandy will hurt summer, too.

Posted: January 07, 2013

By this point in winter, Sharon Roher would ordinarily be closing in on renting her two Seaside Heights properties for the entire summer.

This year, she has only four weeks booked and is struggling to figure out how many of her customers will return to the Ocean County beach resort, which is among the Jersey Shore towns hit hardest by Hurricane Sandy nearly 21/2 months ago.

Even though Atlantic and Cape May Counties - geographically about half of New Jersey's 127-mile coastline - were left largely unscathed, it's the entire blocks of homes and businesses reduced to rubble in Ocean and Monmouth Counties that are seared into the nation's consciousness.

Sandy's enduring image has been Seaside Heights' roller coaster, which once sat upon a boardwalk made famous by the exploits of Snooki and Pauly D. It remains partially submerged in the Atlantic Ocean.

Those images of devastation, fearful Shore homeowners and businesses say, could ultimately have a negative impact on New Jersey's $38 billion-a-year tourism industry - a trade that depends heavily on the coast for its bottom line.

"The first thought out of everyone's mouth is, 'Are they going to have a summer season?' " said Roher, 60, who lives year-round in Pleasant Valley, Pa.

The answer from municipal officials, businesses, and property owners is loud and clear: Yes, Virginia and Maryland, North Carolina, and Delaware . . . New Jersey will, indeed, have a summer season.

Yes, despite the delay in passage of federal recovery aid and the bevy of beach towns from Delmarva to the Outer Banks that would love to poach - ahem, woo - vacationers with their Southern charms. Marketers in competing coastal states have initiated plans to put the hard sell on target audiences in New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania.

"This is a very critical moment for us in the vacation rental market," said Diane F. Wieland, director of the Cape May County Department of Tourism. "They may not be ready to sign on the dotted line right now, but they are formulating their plans. If we lose the tourists now, they could be gone for good. "

In Cape May County and neighboring Atlantic County, there is a lot to lose.

The region offers visitors the largest number of rental units and rooms - nearly 19,000 in Cape May County alone - along the New Jersey coast. Up and down the Shore, most of the units - single-family houses, duplexes, condos, and apartments - are owned by individuals or mom-and-pop enterprises such as Roher's that depend on the rental income to help pay taxes and defray upkeep.

"It's slower this year. I think people are going to commit later in the season," said Roher, noting that her regulars had been e-mailing and promising to come back.

"They even offered to come down and help out . . . but I haven't had them commit and send deposits," lamented the landlord, whose two Seaside properties, which sit about nine houses from the beach and boardwalk, took on three feet of water during the storm.

On Long Beach Island, which also suffered extensive damage, Realtors predict at least 85 percent of rental properties will be ready by Memorial Day. Still, the storm has delayed bookings.

"We're running about a month behind," said Maggie O'Neill, a sales associate with Mary Allen Realty.

She said that concerns had been raised about the condition of the beaches, which were severely denuded in some areas, and other infrastructure, but that some renters were loyal about where they want to vacation.

"I've heard from many people," O'Neill said. "They want to come back specifically to support us, and that's a good thing."

That may account for the hesitancy among some renters new to Ocean City and points south.

"Everybody has their favorite places they like to go," said William Godfrey, an associate with the Marr Agency in Ocean City. "And everybody wants to know about the damage to the specific home they rent and to the town in general before they commit."

Godfrey said he had been fielding a lot of calls from potential renters who ordinarily go to Long Beach Island, Lavallette, or Belmar who are asking about restaurants, shops, marinas, golfing, and other amenities in Ocean City, which boasts the largest concentration of summer rental units along the entire coast.

Traditionally, many renters simply roll over agreements for properties immediately after their summer vacations end, locking in prices and particular weeks well in advance.

Those in search of another rental may begin as early as late fall.

The real "seek and find" season begins in earnest around Presidents' Day weekend and becomes a do-or-die proposition by Easter, Godfrey said.

He said his rental commitments were running about average for this time of year. And he has seen no change in prices over last year.

In Cape May, however, "it's really different this year," said Dee Lanzalotti, broker/owner of Jersey Cape Realty. Since right after the storm, she said, agents have been fielding inquiries about the region from potential renters in North Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania who used to rent farther up the coast.

Cape May City has about 350 available rentals, so Lanzalotti said her agency had expanded its coverage area this year to include West Cape May, Cape May Point, North Cape May, and other sections of Lower Township to accommodate an expected onslaught.

Allan Deckert, broker and co-owner of Ferguson Deckert Real Estate in Avalon, said his regular customers were concerned about the potential for an inventory shortage as renters from northern locales discover that the properties they had counted on for a specific week this summer might not be ready.

"Reality will start to set in when they realize they need to lock in to something. I'm seeing demand increasing week by week."

Nonetheless, Wieland will exhibit at about 20 travel shows from Pennsylvania to Canada in coming months to spread the word that the Jersey Shore is open for business. She's even invited tourism representatives from Monmouth and Ocean Counties to join her marketing effort at the Philadelphia Flower Show in March.

"After Sandy, there's not a lot of competition among New Jersey Shore towns anymore," Wieland said. "If we lose the tourists, we all lose. We're all in this together."

Contact Jacqueline L. Urgo

at 609-652-8382,, or follow

on Twitter @JacquelineUrgo. Read the Jersey Shore blog, "Downashore," at

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