The Vacation Rental Scene

By Beth P. Storie

The Outer Banks of North Carolina is a treasured vacation place. In years back, there were lots of Mom and Pop — and some larger — motels here that were the annual destinations of many a vacationer. But many of these jewels have been torn down over the past couple of decades to make way for more vacation cottages. Some visitors may think that this makes an Outer Banks vacation out of their pocketbook’s range. But if you think renting a vacation home is something that only people with lots of money do, think again. Renting a home can be surprisingly affordable, and it’s the savvy vacationers’ secret to saving money. The price is often comparable, or even less, than a hotel room per night, and a vacation home can actually save you money by allowing you to eat some of your meals at your home base.

Make no mistake — the Outer Banks still has some fabulous hotel rooms, places that are perfect for shorter stays and last-minute getaways. But if you’re coming for several days or a week and you’re bringing a crowd with you, a vacation rental can offer the perfect getaway accommodation with all the comforts of home plus the added luxuries that make a vacation special.

The Outer Banks Vacation Rental Scene

The Outer Banks vacation rental is by a long shot the most popular choice for accommodations here. There are close to 20,000 vacation rentals, including homes, timeshares and condominiums, in Dare and Currituck counties, compared to fewer than 2,000 hotel rooms.

Why We Love Vacation Rentals

·       Privacy You won’t have to share your oceanfront balcony or swimming pool with strangers. Plus, there’s much more privacy within your own family because everyone can have their own bedrooms.

·       Freedom Sit on the porch in your bathrobe. Walk around in your undies. Turn up the TV as loud as you want. Eat breakfast without having to get dressed and go down to the lobby.

·       Cooking A full kitchen means that you don’t have to eat every meal out, a real money-saver. All rental homes are equipped with the things you’ll need to cook a meal – dishes, utensils, cookware and appliances. Most homes supply a grill for outdoor cooking, and some homes have gourmet kitchens with many extras for people who like to cook. If you’re trying to save money, stock up on paper towels, toilet paper, trash bags and other necessities at your local Sam’s Club or Costco back home and bring them with you. Also, bring your spices and some staples from home, if you have room in the car, so you won’t have to run out to the grocery for expensive sea salt, balsamic vinegar and spices that you already have.

·       Common Areas As opposed to a hotel room, a house has common areas, such as family rooms, kitchens, porches, dining rooms and game rooms, where family groups can be together in comfort.

·       Space A single room can feel cramped with more than two people, but a house offers enough room for everyone.

Gatherings and Celebrations in an Outer Banks Vacation Rental Home

Vacation rentals are perfect for uniting groups for events such as family reunions, weddings and retreats. Many of the vacation rentals on the Outer Banks were built specifically to handle large groups; they have super-sized common areas, extra-long dining tables, kitchens with two refrigerators and two stoves, and other amenities to comfortably outfit a crowd. Of course, if a week with your in-laws sounds a little unnerving, or if your group is too large for one house, you can always rent several houses side by side. Rental companies are used to this request. (Keep in mind that most all of the companies have strict rules prohibiting house parties and groups like fraternities and sororities, high-school graduation celebrants and the like.)

Large family walking on the beach of the Outer Banks North Carolina

Many of the Outer Banks rental companies now have concierge services or event planners on staff to help work out the details of planning reunions, weddings and retreats. These folks can help you find a home specifically suited to a group’s needs. Corporate retreat planners can find a house equipped with fax machines, wireless internet access, plenty of tables and desk space. Family groups can find lots of houses equipped with game rooms, home theaters, play rooms, swimming pools and baby gear.

A popular use for oceanfront rental homes is small weddings. Couples rent a magnificent oceanfront home with an open floor plan, have their wedding on the beach and their reception in the rental house or around the pool. Rental houses are also used for wedding accommodations, even if the wedding is not on site. It’s easy to find a large house for the whole wedding party or several houses close together. Not all rental companies allow events such as weddings in their homes, and most require an additional security deposit if you are planning a wedding in the house.

Outer Banks Vacation Rental Home Amenities

With almost 20,000 Outer Banks rental homes, it’s a sure bet that everyone can find the perfect house! The homes of the Outer Banks offer an incredible variety of amenities, all of which are well-advertised to attract renters. You can expect the basics — ac/heat, cable TV, stereos, telephones, washer/dryers, all kitchen appliances, standard indoor furniture and outdoor furniture, cooking utensils and equipment, blankets, comforters and pillows and equipment for normal housekeeping. Most homes offer outdoor showers, beach equipment and grills as well. You might find a few retro cottages with no air-conditioning, TV or phones, but those are very few and far between.

With a lot of competition in the rental market, owners try to keep ahead of the pack by adding more amenities to attract renters. What used to be considered luxury is now almost standard — hot tubs, private pools, whirlpool tubs, DVD libraries, high-end music systems, fireplaces, WiFi and game rooms. Other amenities you can find include keyless entry and check-in by mail, home theaters, whole-house audio systems, media centers, gourmet kitchens, home gyms or fitness equipment, elevators, outdoor play sets for kids, pet accommodations and more.

If you’re vacationing on a budget, there are plenty of modest homes for rent. Save money by renting a home with fewer amenities, and don’t worry, you won’t feel deprived. Why do you need a private pool when you have the ocean for free? Rent in a resort community and you’ll probably have access to a public pool. Why do you need a home theater when you can go to the movies for much less money? You get the idea.

What to Bring

In most cases, you’ll need to bring your own groceries, along with toiletries, paper products, cleaning products and your personal items. Some homes have cribs and high chairs, computers, bicycles, volleyball courts and other offerings, and those amenities are usually listed in brochure or website.

If the house doesn’t have all the items you need, you don’t necessarily have to bring everything from home. Many of the rental agencies now rent linens and towels. Plus there are several equipment rental companies on the Outer Banks that offer linens, baby equipment, bicycles and strollers, all sorts of beach gear, sports equipment, stereos, grills and just about anything else you could want.

Choosing an Outer Banks Vacation Rental

As you would expect, there is an enormous variety in price, location and amenities of Outer Banks rental cottages. Locations span across the islands, from the ocean to the sound and everywhere in between, and individual ownership means that properties vary widely in décor, design and amenities. Price varies depending on both of these factors. The main factors to consider when looking for a rental house are location, occupancy, amenities and price, in whatever order is most important to you.

Choose Your Outer Banks Locale

One of the first things you need to decide is which area you would like to stay in. The areas of the Outer Banks are very different, so do a little research and pick a location where you and your party will be the happiest. What follows is a very brief synopsis of the main locations of the beach communities on the Outer Banks, listed from north to south. 

Outer Banks North Carolina Beach House

  • Four-Wheel-Drive Area/Carova If the thought of an off-road adventure is appealing, this area north of Corolla is for you. There are no paved roads, and you have to drive on the beach to get to your rental house. So, of course, only those with a four-wheel-drive vehicle can rent up here. This is the end of the line on the Outer Banks, it’s remote and rugged and quiet. There are no hotels or commercial businesses, just rental homes, the beach, the marsh and sound, and the famous Corolla wild horses roaming about. While you might suspect only little cabins for rent up here in the boondocks, that isn’t so. The rentals in this area range from rustic to luxurious, with all the same amenities you’d find anywhere else.
  • Corolla Corolla, on the northern end of the Outer Banks, has a modern resort feeling. Most of the rental homes available in this area are part of one of many planned communities and therefore offer added features like community pools, tennis courts, beach shuttles, beach accesses and more. Pine Island and Palmer’s Island, on the south end of Corolla, have the largest, most swanky oceanfront rental homes. Corolla has several shopping/ dining/ recreation areas, including two major grocery stores and a movie theater, plus some great historic attractions and the small Corolla Village area.
  • Duck & Sanderling Duck is south of Corolla. People often ask “What’s the difference between Corolla and Duck?” Duck has a tightly packed little village center with shops and restaurants, while Corolla’s amenities are a bit more spread out. Both Duck and Corolla offer numerous vacation rentals, and both have many planned communities with some great on-site features for guests. Duck also has a large timeshare community. The Sanderling area, just north of Duck, is a quiet residential area with many rental homes. There are no public beach accesses in Duck, but if you’re staying in a vacation rental, you have free range of the beach!
  • Southern Shores Southern Shores is mainly a residential community. There are a few commercial establishments, including a grocery store on the south end of town, but mostly this is a place to rent a home and enjoy the beach.
  • Kitty Hawk, Kill Devil Hills, Nags Head These three towns are very similar when it comes to vacationing. They offer tons of vacation rentals, ranging from older small cottages to mega-houses, plus a very lively beach-town atmosphere. You’ll find lots of restaurants, shopping centers, souvenir stores, fishing piers, go-cart tracks and more. Those who like to be in the thick of things like to stay in these areas. South Nags Head, which has no commercial establishments, offers a more peaceful atmosphere on the central beaches.
  • Roanoke Island People often interchange the terms Manteo and Roanoke Island. But, in reality, Manteo is the lovely waterfront town that's located on Roanoke Island. There's a hub of vacation rental activity in the town itself in the form of older houses, mostly located in the historic downtown area near the water, that have been transformed into weekly rentals. There's even a boat you can rent! The beauty of Manteo is that you're in the middle of shops, restaurants, galleries, nightlife, attractions and more all within walking or biking distance. Plus, if you want to be close to the beach but not smack dab in the midst of the bustle, you're only 10 minutes from Nags Head.
  • Hatteras Island Hatteras Island is a little more remote than the northern beaches, and that affords it a simpler, more laid-back status. There are seven villages on Hatteras – Rodanthe, Waves, Salvo, Avon, Buxton, Frisco and Hatteras Village – but the vast majority of the island is part of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore and undeveloped. Nature lovers, anglers, outdoor recreation enthusiasts and people who love peace and quiet like Hatteras Island. There are no chain stores (except for the Food Lion grocery store) and no big shopping malls. Hatteras Island does offer a wide range of rental accommodations, from cozy cottages to princely palaces. If you haven’t been here in a while, you’ll be surprised at the upscale offerings there are here today.
  • Ocracoke Ocracoke is the Outer Banks’s most isolated island, and you can get here only by ferry. There are no oceanfront rentals because the beachfront is undeveloped. But you can find a rental on the sound, on Silver Lake, on a canal, in the historic village or overlooking the marsh. The undeveloped beachfront, quaint village atmosphere and very quiet lifestyle are the top draws on Ocracoke.

Choose a Location

Now you need to choose a location within your preferred locale. Do you want to stay on the ocean or the sound or in between? For some people, this decision is driven by price. Obviously, waterfront properties command the most expensive rental rates, with those on the oceanfront the highest. If you want to save money, consider sound side as opposed to ocean side. Or consider a property between the highways, which can be incredibly affordable and yet only a block or two from the ocean. Take a look at some of your general options. Keep in mind that these are not the only designations rental companies use, and there may be other designations depending on the location options. 

·       Oceanfront Directly on the beach. The benefits are many: convenience for beach-going, incredible views, private walkways.

·       Semi-oceanfront This is the next best thing to oceanfront. Semi-oceanfront denotes that the house is one row or house back from the ocean. Not all areas have more than one house on an oceanfront lot, so this is not available in all areas.

·       Oceanside This means that the property is not directly on the oceanfront, but it’s on the east side of N.C. 12 and therefore you don’t have to cross a major road to get to the ocean. You do not have direct access to the ocean and will have to use a public access.

·       Between the Highways This designation applies mainly to the properties in Kitty Hawk, Kill Devil Hills and Nags Head. The property is between the Beach Road (N.C. Highway 12) and the Bypass (U.S. Highway 158). Typically it is not a long walk to the beach, but you will have to cross N.C. 12 to get there.

·       Westside These properties are on the west side of the island, west of N.C. 12 or U.S. 158. In the wider areas of the islands, it may not necessarily be close to the sound. If you’re looking for a good deal, something very affordable and usually nice and quiet, westside is a good option.

·       Soundside These are houses on the soundside of the island but not soundfront. These properties often have great views of the marsh and sunsets.

·       Soundfront Houses are directly on the sound with great views and usually some sort of access to the sound. The soundside of the island is much more tranquil, so even if you can afford oceanfront you might want to consider soundfront. Kiteboarders, kayakers and windsurfers can enjoy sound access.

·       Golf Course Many vacation rentals are available overlooking one of the Outer Banks’ four golf courses.

·       Canalfront A home on a canal usually offers a boat dock, which is very convenient for vacationers who bring their own boats.

  • On Roanoke Island As the name implies, the island is surrounded by sound waters, so views are never far away. There are a few vacation rentals that are directly on the water, but the others are within a block or so of the waterfront area.

Occupancy

Plan well for the number of people you will need to accommodate and the configurations in which they will sleep. Don’t get more house than you need if you are trying to save money.  The rental company jargon is that a home “sleeps” a certain number. Typically, a house sleeps two people per bedroom, so a four-bedroom home would sleep eight people. But sometimes a home has a pull-out sofa or extra beds in the rooms, so it sleeps more than you think for the number of bedrooms it has. Each house has a maximum occupancy, so pay attention to this before you book. Respecting a home’s occupancy limits is very important, as most Outer Banks homes are on septic systems instead of sewers. The occupancy limits are also set based on the amount of parking that is available.

Price Range

As we said before, the price of a rental home varies widely according to season, location, amenities and size. Property management companies’ websites allow you to search for properties according to price, so you can set a budget and then find a property that falls within it. An important note: The base price you see on the house listing is not the final price. The price is always higher because of added taxes, security deposit, trip insurance and processing fees. All vacation rentals are subject to the North Carolina sales tax and the county occupancy tax. You can expect to pay from 10 to 12 percent in taxes. However, some companies now include all the fees, taxes and deposits in the base price of the house. This is a new trend, so read the rental literature of the company you’re working with closely. If you're renting a vacation home in Manteo, you'll find that the price is quite reduced from the oceanfront rentals.

When to Come to the Outer Banks

If you want to save money on the price of an Outer Banks vacation rental, the best thing to do is to rent in the spring, winter or fall. You will be amazed at how much rental prices drop after Labor Day. The price of rental accommodations varies greatly according to the seasons. All of the different rental companies have their own systems of dates, terminology and rates for the rental seasons, but in general they all revolve around the prime or peak, shoulder and off-season schedule. The most popular seasons for vacations are the most expensive times to rent. The prime season, i.e., most expensive season, is summer, from mid-June through August. Early June and late August are sometimes a little less expensive. The shoulder seasons of September and October and April and May are less expensive than the summer. In the off-season, or winter, typically November through March, prices drop even more. Seasonal prices for each house are clearly listed on websites and in rental brochures.

The Rental Week

Do you want to rent from Saturday to Saturday or from a Sunday to a Sunday? If this matters to you, be sure to talk to a rental agent. Some companies now offer Friday to Friday rentals, which means that you come and go outside of the busiest rental changeover days on Saturday and Sunday. Friday to Friday rentals are also nice for those planning a weekend wedding.

Length of Stay

In the prime season (June, July and August) most companies have a one-week minimum rental. But some companies offer last-minute, partial-week rentals for any properties that are not already booked. They usually won’t make reservations for these until two weeks before, or the week of, the rental. In the off-season partial-week rentals are more readily available. You’ll also hear the term “mini-vacations,” which allow you to rent a home for three or four days instead of a full week. Not all properties are available for partial weeks. If you’re looking at the last minute in the off-season you can typically find a place. Policy varies on how the rate for a partial week is determined.

Book It!

There are nearly 60 property management companies/rental agencies offering vacation rentals on the Outer Banks, and that’s not including the cottages offered by cottage courts, motels and private individuals. With so much competition, you can bet the companies work hard to earn your business. You don’t have to work with any company whose service is less than exceptional. All of the companies offer websites and color rental brochures detailing their properties. Do-it-yourselfers can search properties online, using a variety of criteria, and even book the property online. If you prefer speaking to a person, all of the companies have booking agents who can help you find just the right property.

Once you have booked your property, you will be required to pay a deposit, usually half of the booking fee, plus a security deposit, administrative fee (if applicable) and trip insurance if you choose to buy it. Once you have paid your deposit, the company will send you a lease agreement to sign and return. The balance of the fee is due within 30 days of your visit.

About the Author Beth P. Storie
Beth Storie first came to the Outer Banks for the summer of 1976. She fell in love with the area and returned for good three years later. She and her husband published the national guidebook series, The Insiders' Guides, for more than 20 years and now are building OneBoat guides into another national brand. After spending time in many dozens of cities around the country, she absolutely believes that her hometown of Manteo is the best place on earth, especially when her two children, six cats and one dog are there too.