Early predictions after the Oct. 29 storm forecast a summer of migration, as vacationers sought options to towns still devastated in Monmouth and Ocean Counties. That would drive up early demand, prognosticators thought, and possibly prices, which range in high season from $750 a week for a modest apartment to $18,000 a week for an oceanfront abode.
But just four weeks before summer's unofficial start on Memorial Day weekend, Realtors and tourism officials in Cape May and Atlantic Counties say that the Shore rental market is running about average. Prices have, for the most part, remained steady.
And it doesn't appear to be because these potential visitors from Philadelphia, New York, or northern New Jersey have decided to flock even farther south, which was another worry. Despite heavy advertising campaigns that began within weeks after the storm to lure visitors away from Jersey beaches, officials in Rehoboth Beach, Del.; Ocean City, Md.; and North and South Carolina say no one is yelling about the arrival of any Yankees just yet.
"We all thought we were going to get this big influx of people from the northern areas looking for rentals," said Frank Shoemaker, general manager at Berger Realty, which holds the keys to about 3,300 summer rental properties all over Ocean City, N.J. "But it's just not happening."
This year's rental cycle is pretty much on schedule, Shoemaker said.
Just before Presidents' Day weekend, early birds look to get a specific property at a specific time: Berger already has taken 8,000 bookings for this summer.
But then an "easing off" period sets in - usually until the really nice weather breaks - and then last-minute, would-be vacationers decide they better start planning their summer getaway, said Bill Godfrey of the Marr Agency, which concentrates on sales and rentals in the central and southern end of Ocean City.
Last year, nearly 60 million people visited the four Shore counties for sun and sand, according to the New Jersey Division of Travel and Tourism.
"I think a lot of people really are taking that wait-and-see approach this year. . . . They want to know 'their' house is in perfect condition and that their beach is in good shape," said Godfrey, who has taken videos of specific homes and beaches and sent them to clients who couldn't travel down to the Shore to see the places for themselves.
"They see the video and then they can tell everything really is OK here and then they go ahead and rent," Godfrey said. "But I've never seen so much hesitancy before."
The good news for Godfrey, Shoemaker, and others is that their loyal base - the customers who return year after year to the same rental - has helped them keep the usual pace for this time of the year.
Newcomers are another story.
"We've certainly had inquiries and booked some rentals for people from North Jersey and New York who told us they usually go to other places up north, but the house is gone or not available. But we haven't seen the droves of those people we expected," Godfrey said.
"I think people are waiting . . . they want to know that when they plunk down their money, they're going to have the vacation they've been dreaming about all winter, storm or no storm."
In all, Sandy damaged or destroyed 346,000 homes in New Jersey, according to state figures. There is no estimate on how many of those were Shore rentals.
Realtor Tim O'Shea, a rental manager at Birchler Realtors in Ortley Beach, which had some of the worst damage along New Jersey's 127-mile coastline, said his agency was off by as much as 60 percent over last year, with nearly all the properties the agency handled in Ortley Beach unavailable this summer. Birchler also rents in neighboring Lavallette and Toms River.
But many repeat customers are still holding out hope that by some miracle their usual rental will be ready by summer, O'Shea said.
Cathy Moeller, of Sea Breeze Realty in Surf City on Long Beach Island - where the storm devastated some spots, while merely glancing others - said customers there seem to be taking the same approach.
"Eight-five to 95 percent of the island is back to normal, so we are doing pretty well," Moeller said. "We're seeing a lot of loyal people coming back, but if they normally rent over the phone, they are more likely to come down and see for themselves that everything is OK. If it's not ready yet, they are willing to wait."
That's what Maureen Hough, rental manager at Mann & Sons Realtors in Rehoboth Beach said she and other agents have noticed about customers' plans for this coming summer.
"We really thought we were going to see a lot more Jersey and New York people, and even Philly, renting down here this year," Hough said. "But really we haven't seen that."
Diane F. Wieland, director of Cape May County's Department of Tourism, said that while she has from the beginning told businesses and officials not to count on revenue from North Jersey beach refugees, they should be prepared in case an influx occurs.
"The people who always come here emotionally own the Jersey Cape. And those who go elsewhere have that same emotional attachment to wherever they go to the beach," Wieland said. "I think many are holding out hope that their favorite places will be open in time for the summer."
Contact Jacqueline L. Urgo
at 609-652-8382 or email@example.com. Read the Jersey Shore blog "Downashore" at philly.com/downashore.