Southampton - Twenty years ago, the roads of the Hamptons in winter were rolled up, and everything seem to shut down. Many restaurants were closed and the only saving grace was that the movie theaters stayed open.
Then, the Hamptons Film Festival came along to help enliven the beautiful fall here. After the horrendous 9/11 disaster in 2001, people began moving out here in the winter to feel safer.
Today, the Hamptons are vibrant in the winter, with more restaurants open, a lively arts scene active year-round, and, thanks to global warming, the weather is moderate often through December.
And so the Hamptons have become a great destination in the winter, and that means opportunities for winter rentals.
"The Hamptons seem to be becoming a winter destination as well as a summer destination," said Matthew Breitenbach, associate broker for the Corcoran Group. "Christmas and holiday times are a draw, the restaurants have great prix fixes. It's a lot of fun out here in the winter and it's good for people to get away."
Winter rentals in the Hamptons range from $1,500 to $5,000 a month for a moderately-sized house with three bedrooms and two baths, he said. "You get more for your money in the winter," he added.
Robert Westfall, of East Hampton, is marketing his two-bedroom, one-bath house overlooking Three Mile Harbor as a winter getaway. The winter price, from now through April is $1,600 a month. "It's really the type of place where one would come and be alone and have a knockout view any time. You can see land, bluffs, water, rare birds, deer. It's like an ever-changing landscape in the winter. When you come here it almost like taking a pill, you just go 'ahhh'."
Westfall said he hasn't done anything special to the house to make it winter-ready. "I didn't have to do anything. As soon as you enter the house, it just feels warm. It has a new heating system, new roof, new paint and carpeting. This house would be an ideal winter spot for a writer. Last year, I rented it to an artist - a painter." The house, at the end of Harborview Lane, off Three-Mile Harbor Road, is listed on hamptonsrentals.com, and the identification number is 295.
The most popular winter rentals are on the water, according to Tom MacNiven, senior managing director of sales, East Hampton Prudential Douglas Elliman Real Estate. "The second [most popular] would be village 'walk to everything' homes," he said. The attraction of winter rentals are the peace and quiet of the Hamptons in the winter. Though there are many things to do, the roads are quieter and the crowds in town minimal. "I'm sure many a novel or screenplay gets written here off-season," MacNiven said.
If you want to rent your house out in the winter, and market it as a get-a-way, there are many things you can do to get it rented, says Christine Karpinski, director of Owner Community for HomeAway.com (the online vacation home rental marketplace) and author of "How to Rent Vacation Properties by Owner, 2nd Edition: The Complete Guide to Buy, Manage, Furnish, Rent, Maintain and Advertise Your Vacation Rental Investment."
"Obviously, more people vacation during peak season," says Karpinski. "But there are still plenty of people who prefer to travel during the cooler months. Maybe they want to avoid the crowds, maybe they want to take advantage of the lower rates, or maybe they just want a break in the February doldrums. Your mission is to make your vacation home stand out from the many others that are available to potential renters. It's that simple. You have to go the proverbial extra mile."
Here are some of Karpinski's tips for making your vacation property in winter climates appealing:
• First, "winterize" your marketing. It won't matter how perfect your place is for a mid-winter getaway if people don't know about it. If you're like many vacation property owners, you're already listed on at least one "rent by owner" website like HomeAway.com. Make the most of it. Play up features like hot tubs and fireplaces. Add a few "off-season" photos of your property to your website. Photos of the home framed in brilliant autumn leaves or dusted with snow will speak louder than a thousand poetic words.
• Consider off-season specials. Everyone loves a bargain, and in the winter, they expect one. "My favorite off-season booking magnet is 'rent three nights and get one free,'" says Karpinski. "Or, when you get a call from someone looking to book for next spring or summer, offer them a winter special-say, half-price off a weekend stay - so they can come and check out the place early. That would be tough to resist."
• Plan for snow! If guests should happen to get snowed in at your home, you want to make the experience as pleasant as possible. Make sure to have a snow shovel, ice melt, and a windshield ice scraper on the premises. The possibility of inclement weather is a good reason to have a selection of nonperishable foods on hand, as well as movies and books. You certainly don't want a houseful of hungry, stir-crazy, cranky renters who are cursing their vacation experience (and by association, you)!
• Make your home baby and toddler-friendly. Appeal to people with children by including baby and toddler paraphernalia. A high chair and a portable crib should cost less than $150 combined, and can drastically increase your off-season bookings.
• Accept pets. Vacation properties that accept pets increase their occupancy by 10 percent to 50 percent. When you accept pets, it's okay to take an additional $20 to $25/night or $140 to $175/week. This extra (which pet owners would have to spend anyway on boarding fees) is enough to pay for any carpet cleaning that needs to be done.
Not sold on winter renting? Consider it "damage insurance." Winter renting can ward off property damage. "I've heard stories of locked-up properties that have been ransacked by families of raccoons, and of broken furnaces that have led to burst pipes," she says. "Houses that are empty for long stretches of time, especially in freezing weather, tend to have problems. If renters had periodically visited such homes, these issues could have been avoided or at least discovered early, before things worsened."