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Thursday, February 26, 2004

Don't delay planning your summer vacation

NEW YORK (AP) -- It's the classic American vacation: Rent a house near the water in July or August. Lie in a hammock or beach chair while the kids splash or swim. Forget about the office, the bills, the busy schedules.


There's just one stressful aspect to that blissful scene. If you don't have your summer rental reserved by Easter, in some parts of the country, you can forget about it. In fact, realtors say top rentals for peak weeks like July Fourth are often gone by March.

Take heart, though. If you're flexible about dates and location, plenty of options remain. And if you use the Internet, finding a place is easier than ever.

The first step is deciding where to go. Do you prefer the ocean or lakes? Can you fly, or must you drive to transport bicycles, fishing gear and kayaks? Is there a place that fills you with happy memories of your own childhood summers, where you can bring your own kids?

Every region has its treasured summer places. New England offers woodsy lakes, Maine's rocky, evergreen-trimmed coast, and Massachusetts resorts so famous they are known simply as "the Cape" (as in Cod), and "the Vineyard" (as in Martha's).

Water-loving Midwesterners flock to the Brainerd Lakes region of Minnesota, which has nearly 500 lakes within a 30-minute drive. Many New Yorkers swear by the Jersey Shore, while the San Juan Islands in Washington pull visitors from Seattle and California. And on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, generations of family vacationers have climbed the dunes and reveled in the surf.

Once you've settled on a region, find that rental. Call the local chamber of commerce for help, contact the Vacation Rental Managers Association (VRMA), which represents properties around the country, or search the Internet.

New Yorker Julie Reiss used the Internet to locate summer rentals two years in a row on Mount Desert Island in Maine, where Bar Harbor and most of Acadia National Park are situated. But Reiss admits that renting a house, sight unseen, "was a leap of faith."

"It's always turned out OK, but you have to ask a lot of questions beforehand," she said. "And there's always this moment when you open the door and you say, 'Please don't let it be disgusting!"'

After turning down a house where the owners planned to live in the garage while renting out their home, Reiss learned to ask a few key questions. Among them: What's the privacy factor? How far is the house from a main road? Are there other houses nearby? How many rooms are there? If the local weather has the potential to be chilly, as Maine can often be in late August, is there heat? (In warmer places, ask about air-conditioning.)

Priorities, timing

Michael Sarka, director of the Vacation Rental Managers Association, recommends setting your priorities before you start looking. For example, he said, "If money is more important than location, you won't be on the beach, but you'll save."

Timing is also crucial. The week of July Fourth is typically one of the busiest. In contrast, because schools in some areas start mid- or late August, there's often far less demand toward summer's end. "Santa Cruz, California, Labor Day week -- that's a really slow week," Sarka said. "You can get a much better deal then than in early July."

Sarka also noted that even last-minute vacationers may be able to get a summer rental, as long as they're flexible. "Easter is not a drop-dead date everywhere," he said. "The better properties do move the fastest, and I'm not appealing to people to procrastinate, but there are opportunities out there."

You'll also want to know who to call if problems arise. How far away do the owners live? If they're next door, you may be under a microscope. But if they're in another state when the 20-year-old refrigerator dies, that's a problem. If you're renting through an agency, ask about cancellation insurance; otherwise, be prepared to forfeit your money if you cancel due to an emergency.

Overall, Sarka said, the rental market looks brisk for the summer. A strong euro and continued concern about global security may contribute to strong demand for domestic vacations. But an uptick in the purchase of second homes has increased the availability of rentals in some areas, where owners are willing to rent their property. Sarka's members reported a 7 percent increase in the number of available properties last year over the year before, and they expect a similar increase this year.

As for price, about two-thirds of VRMA agents expect rates to increase 4 percent, while another third will keep rates the same.

But prices and availability vary tremendously. At Brainerd Lakes, rates for waterfront cottages range from an affordable $600 a week to several thousand, depending on the size and grandeur of the house. And with over 3,000 lodging units, "if your date is flexible, there are last-minute openings all summer long," said Lisa Paxton, CEO of the Brainerd Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce.

Making memories

Renters in the pristine San Juan Islands, where whale-watching and views of snow-capped mountains are part of the appeal, will pay $950 to $3,000 a week, according to WendyKay Gewiss, a real estate agent for the local Windermere office. Since none of her clients see the properties beforehand, Gewiss provides "spec sheets" specifying the age of the furniture, distance to local parks, whether there is a dishwasher, and many other details. Gewiss reported 30 percent of her summer rentals gone by mid-February.

Anthony Conselice, a realtor with the Arthur Rue agency in Seaside Park, New Jersey, says a nice house (three bedrooms, air-conditioning) that's a short walk from the beach at the Jersey shore typically runs $2,000 to $2,500 a week. Sharing can save money; if four couples rent a large house for $3,800, it's just $950 per couple.

Doug Azarian, a Falmouth, Massachusetts, realtor, says an average weekly rental on Cape Cod -- near, but not on the water -- is $1,500 to $2,000 a week, increasing to $3,000 or $4,000 weekly for a house with a view of the water.

The Cape's attractions include not just a pristine natural setting, but also easy access to amenities like good restaurants, video stores and kid-friendly activities. "You have the ocean, the beach and the boats, but the difference on the Cape is you're not that far away from what you're used to," he said, adding, "If you haven't made plans to rent a place by the end of April, it becomes slim pickings."

But regardless of when you go or how much you pay, the appeal of a house by the water is universal.

"It's about not having to worry about work and the rest of the world," said Paxton. "The kids can grab a fishing pole and sit on the edge of the dock while you read your favorite book. It's about making memories for families across the generations."

Conselice agreed, saying: "We get a lot of people who grew up here or vacationed here as little children. I get a lot of calls from brothers and sisters saying, 'Our family is going to have a big reunion.' They want to come back here because they summered here, and they want their children to be exposed to that."

Thursday, February 19, 2004

Kerry, Edwards both top Bush in poll

Democratic presidential hopefuls John Edwards and John Kerry both hold leads of 10 percentage points or more in hypothetical match-ups against President Bush, according to a CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll released.


The survey marks the first time Edwards, a U.S. senator from North Carolina, has topped Bush in a one-on-one poll of likely voters if the election were held today.

In a head-to-head contest, 55 percent said they would choose Kerry for president over Bush, who drew the support of 43 percent. Edwards led the president 54 percent to 44 percent.

The poll of 1,006 adults, including 568 likely voters, had a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points. It was conducted Monday and Tuesday -- before the returns came in from the Wisconsin primary, where Edwards finished a strong second to Sen. Kerry of Massachusetts.

Kerry has argued that he is the only Democrat in the race who can beat Bush. That argument has helped him win 16 of the 18 presidential contests to date; Edwards won in his native South Carolina.

The chairman of Bush's re-election campaign said Wednesday he is not surprised by the new poll numbers.

"There's been a huge focus on the Democratic primary, a lot of media coverage of those events ... huge amounts of money spent attacking the president," said Marc Racicot, who left the helm of the Republican National Committee last June to chair the president's campaign. He spoke in an interview with CNN's Inside Politics.

"We predicted that we were probably going to be in a position where we would be trailing for a period of time, so I think that we've known all along that this is going to be a tough race," he said.

In his first interview since taking the helm of the campaign, Racicot also noted that former presidents Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan both trailed their re-election challengers, then came back to win strong victories in 1996 and 1984, respectively

"Our steadfast belief is that when the steady leadership of the president is characterized and also defined, that there will be a clear choice for Americans to make," he said.

The polls' use of likely voters appears to give Democrats an edge they have not enjoyed in previous surveys, finding that more rank-and-file Democrats are paying attention to the campaign.

Among registered voters, Kerry held a narrower edge over Bush, 51 percent to 46 percent. Edwards led Bush 49 percent to 48 percent in the same survey of registered voters.

Bush's approval rating dipped slightly in the most recent poll, down a point to 51 percent. Forty-six percent said they disapproved of the president's performance in office. The margin of error was plus or minus 3 percentage points.

More of those surveyed considered Bush a strong leader when matched against Kerry, 65 percent to 59 percent. But more said they considered Kerry honest and trustworthy, 61 percent to 55 percent.

But only 42 percent said either man had a clear plan for solving the country's problems today, and less than half of those surveyed -- 45 percent for Bush, 44 percent for Kerry -- said they believed the candidates would stand up to special interests while in office.

Critics, including Democratic Party chief Terry McAuliffe, have raised questions in recent weeks about whether Bush fulfilled his duties to the Air National Guard during the Vietnam era. But the poll suggests that neither those questions, nor Kerry's history as a decorated Vietnam veteran-turned-antiwar activist, are having much effect on voters' preferences.

Only 35 percent said they believed Bush did anything illegal or unethical during his time in the Guard, and 81 percent said his actions during that period would make no difference in their decision about whether to vote for him.

Seventy-nine percent said Kerry's combat experience also would make no difference to them in casting their ballot. And 69 percent said his antiwar activism made no difference in their decisions.

Those questions had margins of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.

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