In a normal year, many of the prime summer beach house rentals at the Jersey shore would be gone already, snapped up by vacationers months in advance.
This is not a normal year, again.
As the second summer season following Superstorm Sandy approaches, shore rentals are still available because of a combination of factors keeping many renters from making up their minds as quickly as they had in years past. That's good news for vacationers, who could have more options than usual, but not-so-great news for shore towns counting on this summer to be noticeably better than last year's.
Cyndy Yates, of Valley Forge, Pa., is one of the late bookers. She decided last week on a place in Avalon because her usual rental is being renovated.
"We would make our decisions definitely by January at the very latest," she said. "A lot of times, between November and the end of the year, we would know where we were going to rent."
A big factor in the late-developing market, particularly in Ocean County, is the ongoing project to rebuild Route 35. That is the second-busiest highway at the shore, a crucial north-south route winding through beach towns that were among the hardest hit by the Oct. 29, 2012, storm. Lane closures, stop-and-go traffic and heavy equipment tearing up pavement have led to massive backups during the winter.
Another factor is uncertainty over which beaches will be open for the 2014 season as repairs continue in the worst-hit shore towns.
And a seemingly never-ending series of winter storms and frigid temperatures has kept people huddled inside instead of driving to the shore to check out potential vacation spots.
"Right now, traditionally, people from up north drive down and look at rentals," said Lee Childers, a real estate agent who handles properties in some of the hardest-hit areas of Ocean County, between Point Pleasant Beach and Seaside Heights. "To tell it like it is, our challenges are still daunting. A prudent renter may be saying, 'I'm going to go there in June and see what the beach and Route 35 look like.'"
Childers said the pace of rental activity in his region so far is about the same as it was a year ago, when parts of the shore still sat in ruins, but he expects it to pick up soon.
That's good news for New Jersey tourism officials, who are still working on the successor to last year's "Stronger Than The Storm" campaign to entice vacationers back to the shore. Business and local tourism leaders had complained that last year's ads, which didn't start until Memorial Day weekend, came much too late to salvage the season, and called for the 2014 campaign to begin in early January. Virginia Pellerin, a spokeswoman for the state Economic Development Authority, said no launch date has yet been set for this year's ads.
Some parts of the shore are recovering quicker than others. Lavallette, for instance, has rebounded so well that many property owners have stopped offering the price breaks they had to give last year to attract renters.
Steve Krug, the rentals manager for an agency that rents 300 properties in Lavallette and the Ortley Beach section of Toms River, said the two neighboring towns suffered vastly different levels of damage. Ortley Beach was so devastated by the storm that his agency only managed two rentals there all summer — for a bayside house with a pool.
This year, rental activity is starting to pick up in Ortley Beach, with bargain hunters realizing they can get a house across from the ocean at a 20 percent discount — if they're willing to risk having to listen to hammers and saws during their summer vacation as the neighborhood rebuilds.
Krug said an announcement this month that Toms River plans to have all its beaches open this summer will go a long way toward helping rentals. He said many potential renters were holding off making a commitment until they knew which beaches they could use.
"When I started here in 2001, there was a trend of people booking earlier and earlier," Krug said. "They would say Presidents Day was the signal for people to come down and start making plans. Then it got to be New Year's Day, and finally, it moved to November and even October. It had been falling backward, but it sprang forward last year. This year you're going to see the same thing. All these things are pointing toward a late rush."
An unusually harsh winter has also hurt the rental market so far.
"We see an actual spike in bookings when the snow is gone and the temperature moderates," said Michael Loundy, a Seaside Heights real estate agent who rents properties including the beachfront house that served as home base for MTV's "Jersey Shore" reality series. "We have seen that in the past week with people getting spring fever."
He said the pace of rentals has been about the same as last year's.
"But this is a completely different story in two weeks, as long as we don't have another blizzard," he said. "I think you'll see things get very active."
Ann Delaney, a real estate agent in Avalon, says bookings in her area are up about 10 percent over this point last year. She has noticed a trend over the last six years, since the Great Recession hit, of people being less willing to commit to rentals far in advance.
"People aren't as willing to put down $4,000 in October for a rental they're not using till the following July," she said. "But now when it gets to be April and May, we don't get nervous because we know it will happen."