This is about the time of year when the ads for warmer climes start to look pretty darn good. So, to keep the blood pumping and the promise of suntans firmly in mind, we devote the next 16 column inches to Washington's summer home away from home, Ocean City.

Fred Valentine of Clinton may never go there again -- not after what happened to him last August.

Fred and his family shot the works to rent what they thought would be a luxury condominium. It featured such privileges as a swimming pool, a fully equipped kitchen and cable TV. The Valentines figured the rest of the place would be top-quality, too. And why not? When you spend $594 for seven days and nights, you don't expect anything but the best.

However, here's what the Valentine family discovered when they arrived:

Filthy sheets on all the beds.

Curtains drooping from their rods.

A filthy bathroom with a hole in one wall.

A wobbly kitchen table.

A living room chair whose springs were hanging out the bottom like so much spaghetti.

A tan chair that had been blackened with sweat stains.

And a ragged sofa that looked as if animals had started to eat its cushions.

Cable TV? Well, yes, there was a cable -- it dangled from a wall. And, yes, there was a TV set -- it was on a stand. But the cable was not hooked up to the set. Net result: no cable TV.

Appropriately furious, Fred Valentine rushed to the phone, called the owner and demanded his money back. The owner said, hey, buddy, you rented the place, you got the place.

Fred later ran the story past the Maryland Real Estate Commission. But the commission said the Valentines and the landlord had made a private deal, so it had no jurisdiction.

Fred and his family ended up renting a townhouse a few blocks away. But the whole episode left a terrible taste in their mouths, and a terrible hole in their checking account, since they have never recovered their $594 and would have to sue to get it.

Will they sue? "I'm a working man," said Fred Valentine. "I don't have time to sue."

Nor did he have time to check out the Chamber of Horrors before he rented it -- a piece of advice that Cookie Daehnke, rental manager for Anderson-Stokes Leisure Reservations Inc. in Ocean City, was quick to give to other prospective renters.

"You can be here in three hours," said Cookie. "Come down on a winter weekend and look for yourself if you're afraid you'll be disappointed."

Candi Smith, a rental agent for Moore, Warfield and Glick of Ocean City, added that the Valentines' experience is much less frequent in newer condominiums. "You can't go wrong in newer places ," she said. "The furniture is new. Everything is in great shape."

Everything except the Valentines' trust in their fellow man.

Sandy Frank of Potomac isn't bitter. He's just puzzled. And he thinks a lot of Washington area people may be similarly puzzled.

Back in October, Sandy received a bill from the mayor and City Council of Ocean City. In official-looking computerese, Sandy was summarily ordered to purchase a $110 business license so he could continue to rent his condominium in the Palm Bay East development.

A few things wrong here:

Sandy doesn't own the place in question.

He never has.

He never intends to.

So he doesn't know the first thing about any of this. And he wondered what he should do.

Sheldon Dietret, clerk-treasurer in the O.C. mayor's office, looked into L'Affaire Frank and couldn't explain it, except to say that somebody had made a mistake. Sheldon said that Sandy -- and anyone else in the same boat -- should simply return an erroneous bill to P.O. Box 158, Ocean City, Md., 21842, "and it will be corrected."

Don't write an angry letter to the mayor, Sheldon advises. In fact, don't write the mayor any kind of letter unless you also send along the computerese bill.

Finally, there is that joyous method of reaching Ocean City: the Bay Bridge.

Summer traffic snarls at the bridge are legendary. So, perenially, someone suggests that the Maryland Transportation Authority collect tolls from traffic heading in only one direction. Charge those folks double, and the other folks nothing, and the whole process will be speeded.

Not so, says Tom Freburger, public affairs officer for MTA. A study on this suggestion was just completed. Its conclusion was that the Bay Bridge Blues are caused by excessive traffic, not by delays at the toll booth.

So that's the latest on our Summer Playground. Now, if only August would hurry up and get here . . . .