As prime time for local beaches cranks up this week, sun worshipers are being beckoned to the shore -- to stay for a week at an oceanfront condo or bay-side townhouse or to claim their own place in the sun.
In growing numbers, many are doing just that, say real estate brokers and developers who specialize in resort rentals and sales.
On the rental side, agents say many prime properties for the most popular summer weeks have been taken, reserved months ago.
But they quickly add that much is still available for vacationers just making plans -- if they act quickly. With condominiums, townhouses and single-family homes for rent in Ocean City and the Delaware beaches of Fenwick Island, Bethany and Rehoboth, beach-goers can find accommodations ranging from oceanfront penthouses to bay-side condos with boat slips out front.
Weekly rates run from less than $500 for budget-priced apartments to more than $2,000 for larger units with multiple bedrooms and amenities.
Of the 1,300 privately owned rental units listed with Long & Foster
Real Estate Inc., "We still have prime weeks and prime units available," said Jim Waggoner, director of resort rentals for Maryland and Delaware. "But I wouldn't recommend anyone who has a week in mind waiting much past July 4th."
During the weeks through the end of August, a two- or three-bedroom condominium in Ocean City might rent for $850 to $1,350, while an oceanfront townhouse might rent for about $1,675, he said.
To accommodate the rising numbers of vacationers seeking more than a hotel room over the past five years, many owners have increased the number of weeks they rent out property, Mr. Waggoner said.
During that time, brokers say, property sales and prices have remained fairly steady in Ocean City, ranked the No. 2 vacation home market in the South by a Century 21 Real Estate Corp. national survey. The survey placed the Maryland resort town among the top 21 second-home markets in the United States based on lifestyle, accessibility and affordability.
The average sales price of a home in Ocean City was $99,175 in May, the multiple listing service for the area shows. A typical buyer has vacationed there for years and purchases a beach home once the kids -- and the disposable income -- have grown, brokers said.
"We're not experiencing, as in the real estate industry as a whole, a decrease in sales," Mr. Waggoner said. "It's one of the pockets in the business where real estate is holding its own."
Demand for beach-area homes can only rise -- along with prices -- by the end of the century as baby boomers age and more people in Baltimore and Washington find themselves in a position to buy a retirement or second home, said Bernie Roache, broker with Century 21 New Horizon in Ocean City.
With the town's 10-mile strip of sand nearly built out, areas to the west and the north have become magnets for new home construction.
Agents say construction and sales are booming in Bethany Beach, where an unimproved oceanfront lot can sell for up to $300,000 and an oceanfront home for up to half a million dollars. In North Bethany Beach, prices are even higher, with oceanfront lots pulling in $600,000 and homes up to $1.3 million.
"They're just building like crazy up there," Mr. Waggoner said.
The expansion of Ocean Pines, a 27-year-old waterfront community three miles west of Ocean City across Isle of Wight Bay, marks one of the biggest single developments in years. Balfour Holdings Inc. purchased the last undeveloped 620 acres in March, with plans for builders to construct more than 1,300 condominiums, townhouses, single-family and custom homes over the next five years in seven architecturally distinct villages. Sales opened yesterday.
Ocean Pines was originally envisioned as a resort for second-home owners when the existing golf course, tennis courts, swimming pools, yacht club and marina were put in. But it evolved into more of a bedroom community for workers in Ocean City and other area towns, as well as a mecca for retirees.
Ray Smith, division president of Balfour, says retirees and families will make up the two-thirds of buyers who he expects will live in the new section year-round. Vacation home owners should make up the remaining buyers. Construction is expected to start in the fall.
Estate-size lots for custom homes will start at $88,000, with interior lots starting at $38,000. Keystone Homes of Bel Air will build Cape May-style townhouses in the Marina Village starting in the low $100,000s.
Gulfstream Development Corp. will build single-family homes with an Eastern Shore farmhouse theme featuring multiple gables, tall ceilings and front and rear porches, set on the existing golf course. Other villages include a golf and tennis village, a gated Victorian estate village, an 18th-century Colonial village and a senior living village.
"This property has a pent-up demand of people who live within the community who wanted to move to larger lots," Mr. Smith said.
Plus, he added, "the retirement market is growing dramatically, and they don't all want to go to Florida or the Carolinas. A lot of people will be going to Ocean City."