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Original Issue


There is lots of new fun to be had afloat, but just getting to the water's edge can leave you with a sinking sensation in a year when all America wants to make a splash with a summer home

These are the days when Urban America, its early-warning system alert to the impending swelter of summer, begins to yearn for gulls and cattails, sea and shore, simplicity and a rustic paradise. There are those alluring advertisements in the city newspapers. The Washington Post had some just the other morning:

"In the Blue Ridge Mountains.... Three acres of pines and overgrown pasture.... Lazy old rail fence of long ago still clings to life...."

"Over five acres, amazing wild turkey forest.... Half-buried antique fence on adjoining property...."

"Old mountain store.... Creaky building with merchant's shelves and much-worn counters. Old radios and remnants of World War I era still survive in musty building. Collapsing ageless barn out back usable as shelter for livestock.... Several mountain families live within sight of store."

Ah, the lyric romance of a vacation home. That mountain store is real camp, perhaps too real camp. You decide to leave it to the boy scouts. Besides, buying is more than you can bargain for. Rent a summer house? It sounds like a saltbox full of romance—beach plums, wild roses and the driftwood crackling in the fireplace on a darkeningday—well, until you consider the cost.

A coastline-to-coastline survey of those who make a living renting vacation hearth (a fireplace raises East Coast rents $500 for the season, thank you) and home to the fleeing urbanite shows that never before have so many spent so much to get away from, a cynic might suggest, so little. The great land rush and sand rush are on, and in this spring of 1969 most realtors say nothing seems unrentable or untenantable, no price too high, no demand too extreme—just as long as one element of vacation living is not involved: roughing it.

An intriguing but hardly typical place to begin is Southampton, N.Y., never a hardship hamlet to be sure. It was not that many years ago that Jessie Donahue set her Southampton table with the family silver, only it was gold. The Hamptons, an august string of villages some 100 miles east of Manhattan on the south shore of Long Island, still have their understated homes—cottages they call them—with six or eight master bedrooms and four or five maid's rooms. They sell for $250,000 to $300,000 and rent at $15,000 to $25,000 for the season. Three or four are taken each summer by debutantes' parents anxious to get their daughters' social feet wet on the right beach. Others go to "nice people." Certain Southampton realtors do not advertise or list themselves in the Yellow Pages in their desire to avoid the not-so-nice people. Nonetheless, the status of the Hamptons is now attracting the executives who have made their money at an ungracious pace and high-flying Texas types in his-and-her helicopters.

"More than 75% of the people we deal with are buying or renting status," a Bridgehampton broker says. "They want to know who lives behind the next hedge. They rent their summer houses by April 15 so they can be listed in the local telephone directory as if they've vacationed here all their lives." Status seeking can be measured to the last silly millimeter in the price of property. A broker in Westhampton has three 70-foot oceanfront lots for sale. They are spaced about two miles apart. It is the same beach, the same ocean, but the status changes as you walk the shore. One lot is priced at $17,000, one at $35,000 and one at $65,000.

Real estate in the Hamptons is appreciating from 15% to 50% each year. A waterfront acre can sell for up to $110,000. Since summer-rental prices usually are set at 10% to 12% of the value of the property, there has been a corresponding rise in those costs. One broker says rents have increased 50% to 100% in five years. Few houses are available at less than $2,500, and $4,000 rentals are average. The last bargain anyone remembers in the Hamptons was offered a couple of years ago when Magda Gabor put her mansion up for rent. An extraordinary house that started out as a trailer parked on an oceanfront lot, it has elevators, a theater, a sauna and gym and underwater music in the pool. Magda was asking $20,000 rent for the season, but she was willing to settle for $15,000—if the tenant allowed her to continue to live upstairs.

But inflated prices are not discouraging New Yorkers, who have been flooding the real-estate offices that edge the Montauk Highway as it winds among the Hamptons. Through the glass walls of his office in Westhampton, Realtor Herb Bellringer looks down on a crowded parking lot. "You learn to size them up fairly quickly," he says, "the guys who come out here trying to impress you with rented Cadillacs and blondes, the doctors who show up in jeeps because they figure the MD license plates on their sedans would ruin their chances to wheel and deal and the close-cropped, buttoned-down young executives who are going to put on wigs, beads and shades and turn into summer swingers their first weekend out."

Hampton realtors, being experienced in the away-from-home ways of New Yorkers, follow certain guidelines. They assume a house rented to four men will soon have four woman occupants as well. However, they square the number when renting to a group of women—four girls, 16 guys. "It's the facts of life," one broker says. The formula, of course, does not always work. There was the time a Southampton house was rented to two girls, and the owner, arriving unexpectedly one summer afternoon, found 20 cots laid out on the second floor and 20 more on the third.

Brokers in the Hamptons say they "discourage as incompatible to the area" from 25% to 40% of the people who make inquiries about summer houses. Incompatibility takes many forms and varies from village to village within the Hamptons. Depending on the locale, one must not be Negro, ought not to be Jewish and might well avoid being Catholic. Homosexuals have a limited welcome. Other categories: under 25 (incompatible); single and under 25 (doubly incompatible); single, female and under 25 (triply incompatible).

In spite of the difficulties, and the cost, the number of people who rent homes must be enormous. Take just one town, Westhampton. The population year-round is 4,000; in the summer on weekdays it is 35,000 and on weekends 60,000.

There are no reliable estimates of how much money vacationers bring to the Hamptons, but the effect of the summer people on the economy of Cape Cod has been calculated. According to the Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce, the 40,000 homes on the Cape that are rented during the season supply $150 million in capital. The figure is conservative, but it provides a useful gauge for making estimates elsewhere.

Certainly the Cape Cod summer families are more representative than Southampton's. For the most part, they are people who rent honest-to-goodness cottages standing cheek by jowl on a spit of sand. The homes are usually what realtors call Mom and Pop deals, houses that have been built for retirement. The owner—say, a Boston fireman—uses the house in May and September and rents it in between to pay the mortgage and expenses. He may have as many as 10 different tenants in a summer, signing them in and out on a weekly basis. On Saturday mornings he will drive down from the city, the car loaded with wife, children, buckets and brooms. He checks out the old tenants at 10 a.m., cleans the house and checks in the new people at 2 p.m.

The rents on these houses have been edging up slowly, like the cost of a cup of chowder. "See if you can get another $5 or $10 a week," the fireman tells the real-estate broker. The $125-a-week house of a few years ago is now $150, and the $150 one is $180.

More noteworthy, realtors say, is the increasing demand for appliances—dishwashers, washing machines, dryers and disposals. "They even come out here looking for self-cleaning ovens and freezers," one broker says. "They want to surround themselves with all the comforts of home. The idea of living in a 'skin-and-bones,' as we used to call vacation houses, is passé. I don't know what draws these people, why they come. They drive up and down Route 28, go to the gift shops, the drive-in movies and the Dairy Queen."

The names on the roadside billboards seem to attract vacationers with cool promise—Ebb Tide, Tern Cove, Sandpiper, Windjammer, Blue Ship—and they surge the 70-mile length of the Cape. There is an average of five motels, four realtors and 3,500 tourists to each mile.

René Poyant, who was the baker in Hyannis until 12 years ago, is now Cape Cod's largest real-estate dealer. An exuberant man with a build like a brioche, he tells wondrous tales of moonrocketing land values. For instance, a two-acre plot of commercial property in Hyannis has been sold three times in less than three years. The prices: $12,000, $75,000 and $150,000. It is not unusual, Poyant says, for land or houses to be turned over that quickly, so swiftly do the profits accrue. He has had clients buy and sell three different houses in three years, moving up from a $12,000 home to one worth $35,000. Barnstable County, which includes Cape Cod, is second only to Los Angeles County in the transfer of real estate. The boom is enough to make the Puritans who landed at Provincetown turn in their graves, those buried in the cemetery on Main Street in Hyannis—surrounded by laundromat, gas station, supermarket and Howard Johnson's—probably have.

In contrast, Nantucket, a ferry ride away, values its heritage highly. The seagull-gray clapboard houses are being restored, and an effort is being made to "trade up" the island by finding fewer visitors who will spend more money. "We've priced some people right out of the rental market," one realtor admits candidly. "They can't afford to come here anymore." A house that could be had for $1,500 two summers ago is bringing $3,000 or $4,000 this year. On the average, rental prices are up 50% in the last two years and property is up 100%.

Look elsewhere now, South and West, out where those sturdy frontier folk used to be. In northern Wisconsin old summer shacks are about as popular these days as bluebottle flies. The resort owners say vacationers insist on comfort and accessibility to shopping. They get their measure of rustic simplicity at the old-fashioned general store, which makes its own sausage and sells clothing, food and fishing equipment. In the Lake Erie area increasing numbers of families are staying at home during the summer, cooling off in their country-club pools, in part because the resort houses on the lake shore near Buffalo are being rented more and more to groups of youngsters. They seem to have money to burn, and the attitude occasionally is the hell with the houses if they burn them, too.

"The kids chip in and pay as much as $1,700 for a cottage away from the lake," one realtor explains. "They have created a situation where families can't afford to rent a place. Private owners will ask as much as the traffic will bear, and the more the kids pay, the more of them move into the house." In most parts of the country, however, homeowners balk at renting to groups of young people—residents in some Lake Michigan resorts actually put signs on their lawns warning off youths. This keep-off-our-turf attitude bends slightly when a group has chaperones, but usually one chaperone will not do; there must be two.

The most popular new trend in summer living is buying or renting a luxury condominium (an apartment building in which units are sold individually to private owners). In the Rehoboth Beach area of Delaware these structures have elegant names like Bethany West and Patrician Towers. They come with wall-to-wall carpeting, self-defrosting refrigerators, air conditioning, sauna baths, tennis courts and rooftop pools for those allergic to sand. Two-bedroom apartments sell for up to $50,000 and rent for as much as $500 a week. The advertising brochure for Patrician Towers notes that "'units are sure to appreciate rapidly in value." Realtors say that owners of condominiums, town houses and some of the old-fashioned cottages in the area are receiving a 14% to 18% annual return on their investments from rental income.

In Linville, N.C. three-bedroom condominiums are being sold for $74,500—exposed beams in the apartment ceilings provide a rustic, backwoods touch—and the prospectus notes: "Operated as a depreciable, income-producing asset...with many tax-sheltered benefits." The Linville complex, Grandfather Golf and Country Club, hopes to lure "top executives and up-and-coming ones" year round to the Blue Ridge mountain resort with golf, fishing, sailing and skiing facilities. The condominium will operate as a lodge, the apartments being rented to visitors when not being used by the owners.

Similar schemes are popular in Lake Tahoe, Calif., where a typical three-bedroom, two-bath condominium will rent for $300 a week fully furnished. The same apartment is available at a daily rate of $35 in the winter. In some instances the return on condominium rentals in resort areas reaches 30% a year.

It is not surprising that the stacked-up. condominium-style summer housing is becoming popular, so great are the numbers of people searching for a place on a golden strand. The fight to find a summer home begins earlier every year. Several dozen house hunters looking for cottages on New York's Fire Island are always on board the first ferry leaving the mainland in spring. This year it was snowing on that Saturday, and a March gale howled at 55 mph. Realtors in Wrightsville Beach, N.C. say virtually all of the 12,000 summer homes for rent there were taken by the first of March. An average house goes for $125 a week, and it is not unusual for real-estate agents to gross $50,000 to $60,000 a season. In Rehoboth brokers say the number of people looking to rent houses has doubled in the past year, and in the San Bernardino Mountains of California prospective renters increase by one-third each season. The wealth of summer housing that was once available on the beaches near Los Angeles, from marvelous Malibu to Laguna Beach and on the South Bay, no longer exists because of the influx of year-round residents. A modestly decorated two-bedroom apartment, if one can find it, on the Malibu coast will cost $350 a week at the height of the season, and some have been rented for as much as $500 a week.

In Northern California there is a better choice, with prices running from $65 to $1,000 a month for oceanfront places. And occasionally one can find a steal, so to speak. There have been many burglaries in the Bay Area, especially close to San Francisco and Oakland, and an increasing number of homeowners do not want to leave their houses empty for long periods. Though these people never before would have considered allowing strangers to eat off their china, they now are deciding that renting is the best way to protect their homes. Such houses are usually lavishly furnished and often available at reasonable prices.

Only in the Northwest, in Washington and Oregon, is the summer boom still in the shack-and-tent stage. There the virtues of the sleeping bag and the night sky are extolled—and practiced. In Oregon—which has 400 miles of coast, nearly all of it open to the public—renting houses is a word-of-mouth operation. There are no real-estate agents padding up and down the beaches, and not one of 16 builders queried in Portland is doing any summer-home construction. The main reason for this is the state's 3,000 well-regulated campgrounds, many of them in parks ranging to 4,000 and 5,000 acres, and Oregonians relish all that free wall-to-wall nature.

In neighboring Washington the situation is much the same, though there is one kind of vacation structure that is in short supply, the so-called clam shack. "If you're an outsider you can't get one on a good clam beach," a clam-digging enthusiast from Seattle explains. "My family and I paid $70 a week for a shack we rented that was built in the 1920s. It had linoleum floors and an oil stove, and we got it through a friend. We natives are outdoor-minded and we like something simple."

But the simple tastes of the Pacific Northwest are the exception. Most of urban America, from Southampton to San Diego, cherishes a more elaborate idea of rustic refreshment. Steeped in grammar-school recitations of Thoreau and Whittier, it waxes poetic about pastoral joys. But when things come down to the sandy-gritty, the Terry Bucknam family of South Laguna, Calif. is probably typical of today's urban escapists. They are going to rent their own house—it's on the beach—and leave such things as the TV behind as they head for Lake Tahoe. But the stereo, they're taking.