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The ‘five-star' beach rental

Unsold private homes offer upscale perks to lure renters

Fluffy bathrobes. High-end linens. Plasma televisions. Original artwork on the walls.

It sounds like the amenities of a fancy hotel. But more and more this summer, these are the sorts of perks that beach-house owners are providing their renters. As unsold vacation homes swell the supply of houses on the rental market, growing competition for tenants is driving out the chipped dishes, tacky bedspreads and sagging couches.

Karimu and Connie Kudura, who recently rented a two-bedroom oceanfront place in Waldport, Ore., were amazed at the amenities, including a hot tub with thick terrycloth robes, pillowtop mattresses, leather couches, multiple DVD players and a spice cabinet aimed at serious cooks. The last time they rented a beach place, five years ago in Maui, the carpeting was worn, the furniture old and the kitchen had just a few pots and pans. “Everything is so much nicer now,” says Mrs. Kudura, a desktop publisher.

Sales of vacation homes last year fell almost 31 percent, to 740,000, from the year before, more than triple the decline in sales of primary residences, according to an annual survey by the National Association of Realtors. Some of the unsold houses are ending up on the rental market.

Homeaway.com, which lists more than 115,000 vacation-home properties for rent, says the supply in popular destinations rose significantly during the February-through-April renting season over the same 2007 period. The number of properties was up 57 percent in Miami, 42 percent in California's wine country, 32 percent in New York's Hamptons and 31 percent on Cape Cod in Massachusetts, the Web site says. In a survey released last month, Zonder, another vacation-home rental site, found that 60 percent of a representative sample of companies that manage rental properties saw a significant percentage increase in inventory in the 12 months ending in April.

Ray and Cathleen Shera are among the beach house owners who are trying to lure tenants. The couple bought a four-bedroom oceanfront home in Encinitas, Calif., for $3.55 million in March 2007. Initially, they thought they might hold it a while, then sell it. But the Southern California real estate market quickly turned sour, so they decided to rent it out instead.

To stand out from other beach places on the rental market, the couple says they spent more than $500,000 on upgrades and new furnishings, including a new kitchen with a 50-bottle wine chiller and a Jacuzzi. They stocked the baths with scented salts and shampoo. “We wanted the same quality as a five-star hotel,” says Cathleen Shera, an interior designer.

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