For Alan Clarke, looking at the beach beats looking at a parking lot by far.
The Atlanta resident and his spouse, Jeffery Brown, stayed at their North Topsail Beach house for 13 weeks at the start of the coronavirus pandemic. Clarke, an attorney at Taylor English Duma LLP in Atlanta, said, “It came about because my office said to stay home unless you absolutely have to be in the office. There are 200 attorneys in my firm, and I didn’t see any need to be there.
“I’m closing in on 60 and have slight asthma. I don’t want to be around all that so if I have the choice between being in Atlanta and working and being in North Topsail and working, I’m going to take North Topsail every time.”
Some owners, like Clarke, have chosen at various times to stay at their beach houses that are normally rented out to vacationers, while other rentals are occupied by renters who are working and vacationing at the same time.
Sandi Monroe, marketing director of Surf City-based Ward Realty, said “What we’re finding is that so many people had travel plans to go all over the place, and they’ve been canceled. Even my husband and I were going to go to Greece in June, so we had a staycation instead because we happen to live here [on Topsail Island], but people who live in Raleigh or Wake Forest or Durham or somewhere closer … are coming here to the beach.”
Monroe added, “They’re working from home in Raleigh; they might as well work here at the beach.”
Initially, Monroe said, Ward Realty saw a lot of people like Clarke, whose rentals Ward Realty manages, who came to use their homes because the usual vacation renters couldn’t travel.
“Then as the different states and areas lightened up a little on restrictions … we had several people coming and spending two, three, four weeks because they were renting a place here and working remotely anyway.”
And now many children in North Carolina and beyond are learning remotely where schools are not reopening yet.
Ward Realty recently blasted a marketing email, seeking to capitalize on the idea, that stated, “Are you working from home? Are your children learning from home? Then move your desk to the beach!!”
For Clarke, the benefits went beyond being able to experience different scenery, including being away from Atlanta, where the case count was rising, and getting to meet their neighbors because previously Clark and Brown had not had the chance to be at the beach house, where they plan to retire, for an extended amount of time.
“It was very pleasant to meet our neighbors. We had neighbors from North Carolina, Virginia and the Raleigh area who were doing the same thing, working, and we were all saying, ‘Isn’t this awesome that we can be here, get our work done’ … we started saying we had cocktail hour instead of rush hour.”
Clark is currently back in Atlanta, where his office does indeed look out onto a parking lot, while his house is occupied by renters. The occupancy rate of vacation rentals surged earlier this summer locally and nationally.
“Vacation rentals have been strong since the rental ban [brought about by the pandemic] was lifted,” said Kevin Futral, managing director for vacation rentals for Intracoastal Realty. “We are consistently seeing 100% occupancy on available properties each week. As we begin moving into our offseason, we’re seeing an increase in offseason longer term bookings with 1-6 month terms. I do think that increase is due, in part, to more people working remotely.”
Monroe said, “We have been booked solid for the summer. We’re just now getting a few openings in our homes.”
According to a May report by AirDNA, a website that aggregates data and tracks daily performance of short-term rentals, the industry began looking up.
“After its onset in early March, vacation rental bookings found rock bottom during the week of April 5th,” the report stated. “As of May 18th, they’d remarkably rebounded close to pre-COVID levels. Whereas there were just over 916,000 total bookings (both Airbnb and Vrbo) made during the week of April 5th, the week of May 18th saw over 2.08 million.”
The report highlighted markets that were driving that recovery, and they included Carolina Beach and Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. In Carolina Beach, the number of bookings for April 6 was 107, shooting up to 1,178 for the week of May 18, a 1001% change, according to AirDNA.
The report continued, “The theme here is pretty clear: markets rebounding the fastest are primarily leisure destinations in states pushing for a swift snap back to reality. Rentals near the beaches of Alabama, Georgia, Texas, and the Carolinas are the first to benefit from a travel- starved population. Average growth in new bookings for these cities is up over 968%.”
That momentum appears to have continued, locals say.
“We’ve been so busy with weeklong vacationers (seems like pent-up demand), that we haven’t had anyone staying for longer as of yet,” said Justin Ash, president of Sea Coast Rentals, when asked about whether he’s noticed people coming for the specific purpose of working at the beach. “I am sure once the season ‘winds’ down, we will start seeing people do just this.”
As for North Topsail homeowners Clarke and Brown, getting back to the beach is a priority.
Clarke said, “We can’t be there now because of the renters, but we’re counting the days until we can get back.”