Winter rentals are not for everyone

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Photo by Jamie Stringfellow

Summer rentals are an important part of the Vineyard’s seasonal economy, and the high cost of buying Vineyard real estate keeps the number of people looking for winter and year-round rentals high. Some homeowners attempt to keep the rental income stream flowing during the off-season by renting in the winter. While some professionals in the real estate market told The Times that most winter renters present few problems, there are exceptions and those exceptions keep some rentable houses vacant in the winter.

“I’ll never do it again,” said Ellen Duncan, of Edgartown, referring to renting her house for the winter. “They cost me much more than I made in rent. I had to replace my whole living room set, all my dishes. I had to buy a new refrigerator. I spent thousands of dollars to get back the house that I had. It scared me. They were destructive and they stole my bike and other things. The house was such a pig sty. There was so much damage”. She said the security deposit didn’t come close to covering her expenses.

Ms. Duncan had rented her house for the winter to a family with four children that, she thought, were down on their luck. She says she wanted to help.

Ms. Duncan’s experience is not the rule, but careful practice by property owners is required. An experienced rental property manager, David Vigneault, executive director Dukes County Housing Authority, which owns and manages affordable apartments, acknowledges the problem and has some advice to offer.

“References, references, references,” he said. “The nut of bad tenants has shrunk and become pretty obvious. The Island is a small enough place. Over time, problem renters get known, and they really limit their possibilities.”

Mr. Vigneault said it is important to get a sense of the prospective renter’s plans. Do they have a place to go in the spring? Is this their first winter on the Island. “We know the Island looks a lot different in January than it does in July. Sometimes you see people jumping ship, and you can understand that, but you try to minimize your risks.”

Ms. Duncan is in the mortgage business and thought she knew the risks well enough. “I feel like a victim,” she said. “I learned my lesson, even though they had a compelling story and I wanted to be compassionate. I was trying to give this family a chance. It was a big mistake.”

By early spring the renters stopped paying the electricity bill. The power was turned off and Ms. Duncan thought the house had been abandoned. “The electric bill was in their name, which saved me,” she said. She rents the house for around $2,200 per week in the summer and has not even thought about renting it in the winter again.

Few pros deal with winter rentals

Skip Dostal, co-owner of Martha’s Vineyard Real Estate, manages dozens of summer rentals. When one of his clients wanted to rent a house for part of last winter, he stepped in to help. When the lease ended and it was time for the renter to move, she didn’t. “I think she had health issues, and we had to help her move. The house was filled with her belongings, and it was obvious that she had been smoking in the house, in violation of the lease,” Mr. Dostal said.

An informal poll of Island real estate salespeople found that few of them handle winter rentals, and when they do, it is usually as a favor for a client. Some recommend not renting during the winter at all.

Ocean Park Realty in Oak Bluffs will occasionally handle winter rentals even though Ocean Park’s principal realtor, Alan Schweikert, does not recommend it to homeowners.

Winter renters are often transients, according to Mr. Schweikert. “Sometimes they have animals and other guests staying with them, so the house may suffer from more wear and tear than a summer rental,” he said. “I have seen situations where the winter tenants don’t move out in time for the summer rentals, and of course, this becomes a huge problem and a big legal hassle. If you like your property, don’t do a winter rental.”

Lisa Stewart, principal broker for Lighthouse Properties in Oak Bluffs, has similar reservations. “We would handle a winter rental as a service for a client,” she said. “We tend to caution homeowners against it. I have had experiences where people did not get out on time, and that was really a problem for the summer rental season. It was bad, stressful.”

She said that most winter renters are responsible and respectful of the property. But, by contrast, she said, there is very little wear and tear on a house rented for the summer.

“The one-weekers [summer rentals] are awesome,” Ms. Stewart said. “They’re in, they’re out. It’s cleaned regularly. They usually don’t use the kitchen heavily or have guests very often.”

Ms. Stewart said the longer term rental people bring more belongings and their kids and their pets. “The house is lived in hard,” she said. “You can rent the house out for ten weeks in the summer for the same amount you can get in the winter. With more wear and tear, it’s not really profitable.”

She said her office receives calls almost every day from people looking for both year-round rentals and for winter rentals. She said that the cost of Island real estate prevents many working people from buying their own house so they are forced to rent.

“I’ve done the dance myself, and I never want to have to go back and do that again,” she said. “Most of us who managed to find a way to buy back in the eighties could not afford to buy the houses we live in now.”

Lessons, learned hard

For people who decide to put their houses on the winter or year-round rental market there are lessons to be learned from the pros. People in the business say most winter rentals are handled through the classified ads in the papers or word of mouth. More people are looking for year-round rentals, and sometimes they have to settle for a winter rental.

Nancy Gardella, executive director of the Martha’s Vineyard Chamber of Commerce, said that she advises people with houses to rent to list in the classifieds in the Island papers and people looking to rent to check the classifieds.

Homeowners will most likely have to handle the renting themselves. Most realtors don’t want to. Deborah Eggers of Deborah Eggers Realty handles hundreds of summer rentals every year. She said, “When there is a line of people waiting for most every winter or year-round rental, it doesn’t make sense to do what an owner can do.”

After her horrific experience, Ms. Duncan has a few tips for people considering renting out a house for the winter. “Pull credit-checks, call the police and the sheriff’s office, cross-check references, and never keep the utilities in your own name,” she said. “Follow up on all information provided on the rental applications and verify the information, including addresses and phone numbers of employers. Talk to prior landlords and be sure they have solid jobs on the Island.”

Homeowners can use the courts to help evict tenants who are in violation of a lease. The formal eviction process is called summary process and starts when the landlord files a complaint in court. Notice is served by the Dukes County Sheriff’s office for a small fee. Complaint forms are available at the courthouse. If a tenant is evicted, the tenant’s property left in the apartment will be placed into storage. The laws and regulations governing that process are complex, but generally require that the tenant will be responsible for payment of the storage and any moving fees, and that the goods can be sold by the storage company if they remain without payment for six months.