You've made a little extra money lately. You're wondering what to do with it. The stock market looks scary. But real estate prices have been going up all over the country. What about a place at the beach?
If you're just looking to make money on your investment, that isn't the way, according to many real estate agents working the Delaware and Maryland shores. If you're looking to enjoy yourself and watch your kids make sand castles, that's a different story.
"It's very much worth it for some people," said Mary Abell, Long & Foster's top Ocean City agent last year. "For some, it's not worth it. If you're going to be here every weekend, it's definitely worth it."
Whether there is money to be made--on top of just frolicking in the waves--seems to depend on how much the investment cost in the first place and whether you believe the property will appreciate in value. It's not based on what you'll make renting it, because many owners say they don't break even on their beach rental properties.
Consider Tom Welch's case. In July Welch, a managing partner in a real estate investment partnership called Ocean Rentals, bought a two-bedroom, 1 1/2-bath oceanfront apartment on the 19th floor of the Golden Sands building in Ocean City for $146,000.
He and his partners estimate they can make between $11,000 and $12,000 a year renting out the apartment on a weekly basis during beach season. They think that during the peak August weeks, they'll be able to get between $1,200 and $1,400 a week for the place. The beach rental season is relatively short--10 weeks a year for most properties, with an extra two weeks for oceanfront places.
But out of that income, the partners have to pay a rental agent a commission of between 12 and 16 percent for supplying them with a steady stream of renters. Then there are the property taxes, the condominium assessment, maintenance, cleaning between tenants and utility bills.
There's no mortgage, however. The company sold a property in Dewey Beach and reinvested the profits in the Ocean City apartment. Under current tax laws, no capital gains taxes are due if profits from an investment property are plowed back into another investment property purchased within 180 days.
After expenses, Welch estimates he and his partners can pocket some $7,500 a year on the apartment. That's 5.1 percent on their investment, similar to what you might get on a five-year bank certificate of deposit but not even close to the stock market's historical average annual return of 11 percent.
But what they're counting on is that the price of the apartment will rise.
"It's not necessarily true that you can't make money on it," said Welch. "Our hope is that the value of the property will go up. As long as the economy stays heated, the stock market seems to be moving, all things point to a good five or six years ahead."
Welch admits, however, that he bought "high." Prices had been rising in the Ocean City market for about a year before he purchased. But he's still confident he and his partners will make money in the end.
Oceanfront Ocean City is still affordable, agents say, compared with the pricier resorts of Bethany and Rehoboth beaches. And Ocean City lends itself well to the investment rental market, they say, because most of the real estate for sale there is condominium apartments--usually cheaper than detached houses.
Susan and Max Shapiro of Germantown bought a condo in Ocean City for the same tax-exchange reasons that motivated Welch and his partners. The Shapiros had recently sold a property in Kiawah Island, S.C., on which they made a handsome profit of $105,000. To avoid taxation, they needed to pick a new investment (within 45 days) and reinvest the money within 180 days, or six months, or be subject to capital gains taxes.
Instead of paying tax, they decided to buy a place closer to home. They'll settle on a new two-bedroom, two-bath condo on the bay side of Ocean City the first of December. They paid $155,000 for the condo and expect to rent it for anywhere between $1,200 and $1,400 a week.
"We lost money on the place in South Carolina every year until we sold it," said Susan Shapiro. "On this place, we're hoping to cover our expenses. And I'd like to say that prices in Ocean City are also going up."
Oceanfront prices at some of the resorts along the Delaware shore have already risen so much that there is truly no money to be made in renting the places, agents say, even though the beach rental market is brisker than it has ever been.
Prices of so-called ocean block properties--anything east of busy Route 1--in Bethany and Rehoboth have also risen phenomenally in the past two years.
"I get clients telling me they want something that will pay for itself," said Leslie Kopp, Long & Foster's top agent in Bethany Beach. "If that's what you want, it's not here. You have to want a place for your enjoyment, for your family's enjoyment. That's what it's about here."
But properties a ways off the beach, even in trendy Rehoboth, could be a different story.
Kevin Bliss and his partner bought a charming blue clapboard house about a mile from the Rehoboth boardwalk last year for $135,000. They made several improvements to the house themselves, painting the inside and the kitchen cabinets and putting a herb garden in the front yard. Now they're planning a Japanese-style pond behind the house, visible from the back screened porch.
Bliss said agents told them they could get more than $1,000 a week for the five-bedroom house during the summer. And if they rented it out for the entire summer, they could cover their mortgage expenses for the whole year.
But they've changed their minds.
"We started out with the idea that we would rent it out for a lot of the summer," said Bliss, who lives in the District. "But now we've decided not to rent it at all. We like coming here too much ourselves."