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10.1.08

Finding the Perfect Rental House

Washingtonians Don and Ann Brown spent thirty-seven summers renting the same house in Vineyard Haven. Before that – and since – they’ve cheerfully moved from one rental to another. We visited with them recently in Chilmark.

Not everyone who summers on the Vineyard nurtures dreams of owning a house on their favorite island. Don and Ann Brown have spent more than forty years happily renting here.

“I like the idea that I close the door and don’t have to do another thing,” says Don, a Washington, D.C., real estate lawyer and entrepreneur. “I already have two houses, and that’s enough to take care of. We’re only here for two months.”

“We have come close to buying several houses,” adds his wife, Ann. “We always talk ourselves out of it.” She served as chairman of the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission during the Clinton administration and now makes speeches about consumer product safety and keeps busy with Democratic politics.

This past summer the Browns spent their third season at a home high in Chilmark’s hills. Built in the 1930s by the late Island contractor Herbert R. Hancock, the house was extensively renovated and expanded fifteen-plus years ago to be used by the owners as a primary summer residence when their children were young. The house has just been sold again, which means Ann and Don will be living elsewhere next summer. But for these veteran renters, the prospect of finding a new rental is not daunting.

They have spent most of their forty-plus summers down-Island, originally inspired by their next-door neighbors in Washington who owned a home in the Eastville section of Oak Bluffs. Two or three years later when their friends ended up selling and moving out to the Berkshires, the Browns were hooked.

“We just loved the Vineyard,” Ann says. “Since then, we’ve brought many house guests who fell in love with the Vineyard.”

For the next thirty-seven summers they rented a Vineyard Haven house overlooking the harbor. When it was sold, they switched to West Chop. The neighborliness of Vineyard Haven appealed to Don, who describes himself as a gregarious person who liked to hop on his bike and go visit his neighbors. He also says he enjoyed the activity of ferries and sailboats coming and going in Vineyard Haven harbor.

When the house they rented in West Chop went on the market three years ago, Ann and Don thought seriously about buying, but Ann says she doesn’t feel the need to own a house here. “I’m a bit of a communist at heart,” she jokes. “I’m a sharer.” As an example, she mentions the tennis court the Browns share with three of their neighbors in Washington. Even so, when the opportunity to buy presented itself, Don weighed the economic merits of renting versus owning.

“You can’t run a house and get a return,” Don says. “The only way is if the value is constantly increasing. If you own your own house, it is really a chore to get people to work on it.”

The ownership side of the balance sheet includes real estate taxes, insurance, upkeep, and wear-and-tear. On the other hand, a tenant doesn’t benefit from any increase in property value and has no equity. Nor can a tenant be sure that the place won’t be sold and become unavailable. For Don, the math nevertheless made it clear that the Browns would be better off renting. They began talking to several brokers and thinking about houses down-Island, where Ann had said she was used to living.

They saw the Chilmark house when they were looking at photos and lists of amenities, but didn’t consider it at first. For one thing, all the houses they had rented for almost four decades had been on the water. And an important condition was that they wanted a place for the whole season, a full two months.

“People who have upper-end houses don’t usually rent for the whole summer,” Don points out. “They want to spend time there themselves.”

But they found that the houses they were looking at down-Island weren’t very appealing. Then, an attractive newspaper ad by Sandpiper Realty in Edgartown caught Don’s eye.

He told the agency, “We want the nicest house available.” He took a friend and went to look at the Chilmark house. The listing stipulated “no dogs,” but the Browns were not willing to leave behind their beloved chocolate lab Godiva. The dog could have been a deal breaker because at first the landlord was reluctant to let them bring a pet.

“We explained that the dog behaved better than we do,” Don says. “We would not treat this house one bit differently than if we owned it. That is important to him.” They assured the landlord they would be responsible for any damage. “He trusted us,” Don says. “I think he got the impression that we cared about their house.” The Browns signed a lease in the fall.

The following spring, before their first up-Island summer, the Browns lost Godiva. Never without a dog for long, they acquired a three-month-old black lab and worked feverishly with a trainer to make sure she would be well-behaved. Rosebud, who was six months old by the time they arrived on-Island, did not let them down.

Don wasn’t sure he would like the remoteness of Chilmark, but he found it very peaceful and not too far away. “Chilmark has its own ethos,” Don says. “I’ve liked meeting new people.” An avid golfer, he was happy to find that the drive to Vineyard Golf Club in Edgartown is actually shorter than it was from Vineyard Haven.

“I’m devoted to the Vineyard Haven Yacht Club,” says Ann, who plays tennis there three times a week during July and August. With Vineyard Haven twenty minutes away, she planned her down-Island excursions for hot days when everybody else was at the beach.

“We’ve kept our Vineyard Haven friends,” she adds. “I think it’s been a treat to live different ways on the Island. Sometimes we go to a different fish market, but I feel much more secure being closer to Chilmark Chocolates.”

Their Chilmark rental accommodated the Browns’ lifestyle with ease. The house faces south, with broad expanses of deck opening up to a breathtaking view over treetops to the ocean in the distance. The eight-acre property includes a grove of evergreens, a cedar, and oriental pines given to former owners by artist Thomas Hart Benton. The breezes and location keep the property mosquito-free, and while it does have air conditioning, the Browns rarely needed it.

“Even my bathroom looks out on the view,” says Don, “and I love the garden.”

More decks on the second floor outside the master bedroom offer access to the outdoors. A bathroom, shower, exercise room, and fully equipped office complete the master suite. Since both the Browns brought work with them, they found it a major advantage to have an office with all the equipment they needed to conduct their business.

“I use the workout room almost every day,” Ann says. It includes a stationary bike, treadmill, universal trainer, weight-lifting machines, and an array of weights.

On the main floor, a capacious guest wing opens off the front hallway near the formal living and dining rooms. With three bedrooms and three baths, when their teenaged grandchildren came to visit, the Browns could enjoy the privacy of their own separate part of the house.

“We’re outside whenever we can be,” Ann says, “and the kitchen is like a great room.” She loves the open concept. The family often congregated at a large table next to a fireplace, with sliding doors to the outdoor decks.

A crucial element in the rental mix is the ability to get along with your landlord. Don, who has taught real estate classes at Harvard Business School, says, “In the real estate market, rental location is one of three equals. The others are the house and the landlord. We get along with our landlord.

“The problems we have are so minor.” Don says, “A door might stick. A week before we come, he has the whole house checked.”

Don remembers mentioning that he was used to sleeping on a queen-sized bed, and the next year he arrived to find one in the master bedroom. “And of course we take great care of the house,” he adds. The landlord provided weekly house cleaning, but the Browns had two additional cleanings per week. They also brought a couple with them from Washington to be live-in managers of the house.

As tenants, the Browns say they feel just as close to the Vineyard as any homeowner. In 2007, they hosted parties for two Island charitable organizations: Camp Jabberwocky and Habitat for Humanity.

“I was on the board of the Martha’s Vineyard Donors Collaborative,” Don says. “One of the missions was to persuade people like us that they ought to do their philanthropy here. So we feel a commitment to the Island.” He has also been actively involved in Vineyard House and Martha’s Vineyard Hospital.

While in residence, the Browns spent their time reading, listening to music, playing bridge, working, paying bills, checking on investments, keeping track of friends, and as Don says, just doing the stuff of living. “We both try to get exercise every day,” he says. “We love the heated pool.” Located across a gravel driveway, the free-form pool, like the house, overlooks the south shore. The pool has a dressing room and shower, a gazebo, and barbecue pit. At the height of summer, brilliantly colored hibiscus bloom in the adjacent garden.

Diversions off-site include two nearby tennis courts, along with kayaks, a motorboat, a canoe, and access to Lucy Vincent, Squibnocket, and a private beach. Rosebud in particular loved her excursions to Squibnocket. If the weather turned bad, the Browns spent their time inside in the office or the spacious kitchen area. They could close off the formal living and dining room area, along with the downstairs guest suite, to create a cozier atmosphere.

“They say you can see Nantucket on a clear night,” Ann says. “We don’t get the sunset, but we do get the early morning sun.” The only disagreement the Browns have comes in the form of verbal jousting. She says “renters.” He prefers “tenants.”

Next summer the Browns get to try another part of the Island. As the Chilmark rental has been sold, they plan to rent a house in West Tisbury. That’s the built-in adventure of renting instead of buying.

A guide to renting

Here are some tips from Island real estate agents about renting on the Vineyard, and a few guidelines for renting directly from an owner:

Start early.

Joan Dunayer of Martha’s Vineyard Real Estate and Martha’s Vineyard Home Rentals in Edgartown says the earlier the better. Her company starts preparing new leases in October, so she recommends beginning to look in September, especially if you’re interested in high-end rentals. “Many tenants come in and say they want the same house next year,” she points out. “That’s a problem especially with high-end rentals.”

Peter Cronig of Cronig’s Real Estate in Vineyard Haven suggests a December deadline for mid-level rentals, at the latest. He explains that the Vineyard summer sales market slowed down after 2005. “We’re ahead of the economy, because it’s a secondary [second-home] market. It also will recover faster.” In the meantime, he thinks 2008 rentals stayed at the same level as 2007.

Consider agents versus owners.

“We don’t book a house unless we’ve seen it,” says Anne Mayhew, who has been with Sandpiper Realty Inc. in Edgartown for fourteen years. The agency has had a very strong rental season, particularly in the high-end market. “I guess it’s because of the decline in sales,” Anne says. Empty houses for sale can turn into rentals.

Potential renters can expect to find stronger listings in the town where a rental agency is located, and do not have to worry about paying a real estate agent an additional commission for securing a property because the commission is built into the rental price.

Sandpiper has an inventory of 800 rental homes, with prices ranging from $900 to $38,000 per week. Though Anne warns, “A rental client who is looking for something specific may not be able to find it.” High-end renters often want air conditioning and a swimming pool: two amenities not always easy to find on the Vineyard.

Rentals through owners happen by word of mouth, newspaper and magazine ads, or Internet searches at sites like CyberRentals.com, mvol.com, or weneedavacation.com. Tenants should consider the potential of not having the owner responsive during their stay. If a problem develops, the homeowner may be thousands of miles away and not equipped to help, while an agent is more apt to be experienced in handling the plumbing or repair problem that crops up unexpectedly. Joan cites a recent case where tenants locked up the house they’d been staying in and the cleaners couldn’t get in to do their work.

One advantage of being in contact with the owner (whether directly or through an agent) can be the availability of ferry reservations, since the Steamship Authority allows them to book ahead for the season before the general public can in mid-January.

Go online.

The Internet is playing an increasingly important role in rentals, and it’s affecting the industry not just because renters are using the web to connect directly with owners. But also, Anne says, Sandpiper doesn’t get nearly the same number they used to of people who actually visit the Island before they book. A potential renter should check several websites to find out what’s available because no agency has every listing. One agency might have an exclusive that won’t show up in any other agency’s holdings. When the housing market is slow, as it has been this year, real estate agencies customarily focused on sales get more active in the rental market, so they should be not be crossed off a renter’s list.

The most helpful listings on websites not only include the town where rentals are, but also specify the area of that town. Photos of interiors and exteriors will help the prospective renter narrow the search. Joan cautions about owners who might embellish their holdings. “The renter may get there
and find the property is not at all what they expected,” she explains.

After you’ve gone to a website and found a house you’re interested in, call and discuss it. If you’re going through an agency, make sure the agent is familiar with the property and easy to  communicate with. “I had one client who had kids and wanted to know very specifically what the yard looked like, so I took a picture of it,” Joan says.

Think location.

Renters need to consider all of the implications of where they want to stay. Water views, for instance, command a higher price. Up-Island towns require more driving. If you are without a car, you might consider that many Vineyard Haven and Oak Bluffs addresses are within walking distance of the ferry. If you’re sensitive to noise, you might not realize the rental is just off a busy street like Circuit Avenue, which can be bustling well into the evening, so be sure to ask about how quiet the neighborhood is. If you’re a sun worshipper, of course you want to find out how close the property is to the beach. It’s a good idea to have a list of what’s important to you when you talk to the agent or owner.

These days wherever you are making arrangements from, modern technology allows the whole rental process to happen faster. Leases can be e-mailed or faxed. “It’s not like leaving a message on an answering machine anymore,” says Anne. “People carry their Blackberries with them.”

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