LACONIA — COVID-19 has not only impacted the way people live and work, it has also changed the way they relax and spend their leisure time.

Visitors to the Lakes Region, who before COVID would often frequent such crowd-pleasers as concerts, crafts fairs, or cultural festivals, now are looking more to take advantage of opportunities to unwind in the wide-open spaces of the area’s lakes and mountains.

“No one wants to be in the city. They want to spend time on the lake or in the woods,” Kay Huston, a licensed agent in the Long-Term Rental Department of Bayside Rentals in Meredith, a vacation home and long-term rental agency.

Not surprisingly, that means that vacation rentals will be in high demand this summer, especially properties that are on or very near the water.

“It’s crazy. It’s nothing like I’ve ever seen,” said Gail Archibald, owner of Break Away Vacation Rentals and Property Management. “COVID has increased the vacation home market by making vacations a little safer.”

The vacation home rental option provides people an opportunity to enjoy fresh-air attractions while still scrupulously following social-distancing practices which many people consider essential.

Going fast

Not surprisingly, lakefront homes, especially ones with a dock, are almost all booked, according to Huston and Archibald.

“Most of the availability (now) falls in areas that are not directly on the water,” said Archibald, who started Break Away last year but has worked in the vacation rental business for 10 years.

Huston said houses with beach access are still available. But, she cautioned, “Once a place hits the market it’s usually gone in about a week.”

A three-bedroom house on the water is typically renting for about $4,000 a week, while those away from the lake fetch under $3,000 a week, according to Archibald.

One reason that bookings are filling up faster is that people are booking for longer stretches than in the past.

Month-long rentals are not uncommon, and people who previously rented for one week, are now looking to rent for two or three weeks.

One explanation for the longer stays is the number of people who are continuing to work from home. They have greater flexibility that allows them to mix business with pleasure. They can come up to a vacation house and work part of that time and relax the rest of the time.

“They have more time because they are still working remotely,” Amy Landers, executive director of the Lakes Region Tourism Association said. “No one knows if that computer has moved.”

The outlook for the short-term rental market is also looking very good for this summer.

Karin and Marc Nelson, who use the Airbnb online platform to rent out a room with ensuite bath at their home in Meredith, say most weekends for June, July, and August are already booked, according to Karin. Like those who are renting vacation houses, most of the Nelson’s guests are coming up to hike or enjoy other outdoor pastimes.

“A lot of people that are using Airbnb say they are looking for something that is more socially distant,” she said.

But unlike last year, Nelson said, some guests coming up this summer are doing so to attend weddings.

Those who rent out houses to vacationers do so for a variety of reasons.

Archibald said some people do so because it allows them to hold onto a place that has been in the family for years and get some income to help offset some of the expenses, such as property taxes or the cost of a new roof.

Others may buy a house on or near a lake as their eventual retirement home, but in the meantime they treat it as investment property, renting it out until they are ready to retire, according to Huston. She anticipated that some homes that will be sold around the area this summer will be purchased by buyers with that intention.

“We think this will be a strong season for both rentals and sales,” she said.

Carol Gildea and her husband bought a 1,000-square foot cottage on Dockham Shore Road in Gilford about 11 years ago with the idea they would spend much of the summer there. But after a while they realized they were spending less time at the cottage than they had thought, so about five years ago they decided to rent it out.

The money they get from renting it for 10 weeks covers the property tax, Gildea said.

The rental option works for them because they use an agency — in the Gildeas’ case, Break Away — to manage the reservations and the housekeeping and other property management functions.

“It’s much better to have someone manage the rental, especially if you live away,” said Gildea who lives in Weston, Massachusetts. She praised the level of service they have received from Archibald’s business.

The cost of vacations rentals in some markets has increased as effects of COVID have made them more attractive. A recent report said the cost to rent a place on the Massachusetts island of Nantucket this summer is 15 percent higher than last year.

In the Lakes Region, however, while some homeowners have increased their rental fees, many have not, Archibald said. Some have held the line, knowing that the cleaning fees have gone up because of COVID precautions.

“Cleaning fees are more,” Karmen Gifford, president of the Greater Lakes Region Chamber of Commerce pointed out.

“We’ve stepped up cleaning,” Nelson explained of her Airbnb rental. “Now I use bleach and sprays and wipes. Sometimes I spray and then spray again.”

Gifford senses that, now that people are more than a year into COVID, there is a greater sense of confidence than there was last year.

She expects that it won’t be just summer vacations rentals that will be strong. She also anticipates stronger demand across the hospitality industry.

For Gifford, one optimistic sign is that summer youth camps are making plans to reopen, after most remained closed last summer because of COVID restrictions. Assuming those camps open, hospitality businesses, including hotels and restaurants, will see more business as parents travel to the area to visit their children and vacation with them once their camping session is over.

“Last year there was an incredible amount of uncertainty about what life was like,” Gifford said. “Now, even though we are in flux, we know how to behave safely and welcome people safely.”

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