Look elsewhere now, South and West, out where those sturdy frontier folk used to be. In northern Wisconsin old summer shacks are about as popular these days as bluebottle flies. The resort owners say vacationers insist on comfort and accessibility to shopping. They get their measure of rustic simplicity at the old-fashioned general store, which makes its own sausage and sells clothing, food and fishing equipment. In the Lake Erie area increasing numbers of families are staying at home during the summer, cooling off in their country-club pools, in part because the resort houses on the lake shore near Buffalo are being rented more and more to groups of youngsters. They seem to have money to burn, and the attitude occasionally is the hell with the houses if they burn them, too.
"The kids chip in and pay as much as $1,700 for a cottage away from the lake," one realtor explains. "They have created a situation where families can't afford to rent a place. Private owners will ask as much as the traffic will bear, and the more the kids pay, the more of them move into the house." In most parts of the country, however, homeowners balk at renting to groups of young people—residents in some Lake Michigan resorts actually put signs on their lawns warning off youths. This keep-off-our-turf attitude bends slightly when a group has chaperones, but usually one chaperone will not do; there must be two.
The most popular new trend in summer living is buying or renting a luxury condominium (an apartment building in which units are sold individually to private owners). In the Rehoboth Beach area of Delaware these structures have elegant names like Bethany West and Patrician Towers. They come with wall-to-wall carpeting, self-defrosting refrigerators, air conditioning, sauna baths, tennis courts and rooftop pools for those allergic to sand. Two-bedroom apartments sell for up to $50,000 and rent for as much as $500 a week. The advertising brochure for Patrician Towers notes that "'units are sure to appreciate rapidly in value." Realtors say that owners of condominiums, town houses and some of the old-fashioned cottages in the area are receiving a 14% to 18% annual return on their investments from rental income.
In Linville, N.C. three-bedroom condominiums are being sold for $74,500—exposed beams in the apartment ceilings provide a rustic, backwoods touch—and the prospectus notes: "Operated as a depreciable, income-producing asset...with many tax-sheltered benefits." The Linville complex, Grandfather Golf and Country Club, hopes to lure "top executives and up-and-coming ones" year round to the Blue Ridge mountain resort with golf, fishing, sailing and skiing facilities. The condominium will operate as a lodge, the apartments being rented to visitors when not being used by the owners.
Similar schemes are popular in Lake Tahoe, Calif., where a typical three-bedroom, two-bath condominium will rent for $300 a week fully furnished. The same apartment is available at a daily rate of $35 in the winter. In some instances the return on condominium rentals in resort areas reaches 30% a year.
It is not surprising that the stacked-up. condominium-style summer housing is becoming popular, so great are the numbers of people searching for a place on a golden strand. The fight to find a summer home begins earlier every year. Several dozen house hunters looking for cottages on New York's Fire Island are always on board the first ferry leaving the mainland in spring. This year it was snowing on that Saturday, and a March gale howled at 55 mph. Realtors in Wrightsville Beach, N.C. say virtually all of the 12,000 summer homes for rent there were taken by the first of March. An average house goes for $125 a week, and it is not unusual for real-estate agents to gross $50,000 to $60,000 a season. In Rehoboth brokers say the number of people looking to rent houses has doubled in the past year, and in the San Bernardino Mountains of California prospective renters increase by one-third each season. The wealth of summer housing that was once available on the beaches near Los Angeles, from marvelous Malibu to Laguna Beach and on the South Bay, no longer exists because of the influx of year-round residents. A modestly decorated two-bedroom apartment, if one can find it, on the Malibu coast will cost $350 a week at the height of the season, and some have been rented for as much as $500 a week.
In Northern California there is a better choice, with prices running from $65 to $1,000 a month for oceanfront places. And occasionally one can find a steal, so to speak. There have been many burglaries in the Bay Area, especially close to San Francisco and Oakland, and an increasing number of homeowners do not want to leave their houses empty for long periods. Though these people never before would have considered allowing strangers to eat off their china, they now are deciding that renting is the best way to protect their homes. Such houses are usually lavishly furnished and often available at reasonable prices.
Only in the Northwest, in Washington and Oregon, is the summer boom still in the shack-and-tent stage. There the virtues of the sleeping bag and the night sky are extolled—and practiced. In Oregon—which has 400 miles of coast, nearly all of it open to the public—renting houses is a word-of-mouth operation. There are no real-estate agents padding up and down the beaches, and not one of 16 builders queried in Portland is doing any summer-home construction. The main reason for this is the state's 3,000 well-regulated campgrounds, many of them in parks ranging to 4,000 and 5,000 acres, and Oregonians relish all that free wall-to-wall nature.
In neighboring Washington the situation is much the same, though there is one kind of vacation structure that is in short supply, the so-called clam shack. "If you're an outsider you can't get one on a good clam beach," a clam-digging enthusiast from Seattle explains. "My family and I paid $70 a week for a shack we rented that was built in the 1920s. It had linoleum floors and an oil stove, and we got it through a friend. We natives are outdoor-minded and we like something simple."
But the simple tastes of the Pacific Northwest are the exception. Most of urban America, from Southampton to San Diego, cherishes a more elaborate idea of rustic refreshment. Steeped in grammar-school recitations of Thoreau and Whittier, it waxes poetic about pastoral joys. But when things come down to the sandy-gritty, the Terry Bucknam family of South Laguna, Calif. is probably typical of today's urban escapists. They are going to rent their own house—it's on the beach—and leave such things as the TV behind as they head for Lake Tahoe. But the stereo, they're taking.