Rich & Richer: Vacation Retreats

From Napa to Nantucket, the most coveted summer rental properties have already been booked. However, latecomers still have an opportunity to find an idyllic retreat, whether you want to spend a few thousand dollars for a small beach bungalow or more than a hundred thousand for an 80-acre estate that overlooks a vineyard of cabernet franc.

For the most part, properties are renting for about the same or only marginally more than last summer, brokers said. And in some areas, high-end homes come complete with hotel-like amenities, such as a personal concierge, chaueffers, or nanny services.

Things have certainly changed in the most opulent locales like the Hamptons, where the wealthy population has become even wealthier. Fifteen years ago, the typical family (that is, typical for the Hamptons) would spend about $17,000 for the three-month season and be perfectly pleased with an 1,800 square foot home, with three-bedrooms, two bathrooms, and a swimming pool, one broker said. Today, the average family there shells out about $100,000 for a season-long stay at a property more than twice the size, she added.

"The standards have gone up a great deal," said Diane Saatchi, a broker with The Corcoran Group in East Hampton.

If you don't want to leave by the time Labor Day rolls around, renters might be well-positioned to find a better buy than in seasons past. In fact, in some regions, the housing downturn is actually helping the rental market: renters are using the opportunity to scout out a specific locale before committing in hopes that prices will fall further.

“Our sales numbers are down, but as far as rentals go, it’s just as strong as it has been,” said Michael Harrington, general manager of Resort Realty, which manages 450 properties in North Carolina’s Outer Banks. “It might be helping because instead of buying people might be renting instead. Everyone is waiting to see how low the market will go.”

Here's a look at four top summer rental markets around the country:

Wine Country, Calif.

In Northern California’s wine country, renters can find a range of properties, from intimate cottages to mountain-top manors. While homes are going quickly, the high season extends from June to October, which gives renters some more time. At Beautiful Places, which rents and sells luxury homes in Napa and Sonoma, about 35% to 40% of their inventory is still available in July and August, though they’re in the process of bringing more homes into their program.

The median weekly rental goes for about $7,500, says Patrick Smith, Beautiful Places’s chief executive officer, though renters can also create custom packages, whether they want a top chef, a nanny or a masseuse. Serious wine lovers can spend as much as $75,000 for a month-long stay and learn about a different aspect of the winemaking business each week.

“Food and wine are king here so there is no end to the beautiful wineries you can visit and tour,” Smith said, whether by car or by helicopter. “Anything can be arranged.”

Nantucket, Mass.

In Nantucket, Mass., the priciest properties – bigger homes on the waterfront - are largely booked for the month of August. But there’s still availability throughout the rest of the summer, with inventories and pricing on par with last season. Prices range from about $3,000 to $15,000 a week, depending on the location, size of the home and amenities. Rentals close to town or the water run about $10,000 a week, one broker says.

“We are seeing an early surge in our weekend business – a very early surge,” said Ross A. Joly, owner and chief executive officer of Coldwell Banker Joly, McAbee & Weinert Realty, based in Yarmouthport, Mass. “From all indications, it looks like it will be a very, very good season.”

Outer Banks, N.C.

North Carolina’s Outer Banks, a collection of barrier islands that hug the shore, is a popular spot for gathering large families who want to spend a casual week together idling the days away at the beach.

The most luxurious homes are in Corolla and Duck, and the median rate during high season -- which runs from about Easter to Labor Day – can be had for about $4,000 a week, said Resort Realty’s Harrington. For that price, renters can expect to find an oceanfront home with about five to seven bedrooms and a pool – all depending on the location. About 70% of Harrington’s rental inventory is already booked – families tend to book well in advance – but there are some oceanfront homes available, complete with pools and game rooms for the children, he said.

Hamptons, N.Y.

The Wall Street folks that migrate to the eastern reaches of Long Island tend to book early. While the most exclusive homes are the first to go – including an oceanfront property that fetched $600,000 for the season – there’s always new inventory coming onto the market, said Corcoran's Saatchi.

For about $50,000, renters can find a “nice house on an acre, north of the highway” (farther from the ocean beaches) with three bedrooms and a pool, she added. Properties south of the highway –- Route 27, the main road that runs through the Hamptons -- are more desirable, and thus more expensive, because they’re closer to the ocean.

But don’t wait too long. “In January, there was a robust, ‘I-need-to-find-my-house’ spirit, then it got quiet,” Saatchi said. “Ever since the weather got nice, my phone is ringing off the hook. At this point, people should come on out. It’s time.”

Big Beauties
In case renting is not for you and you prefer checking in and checking out without having to lift a finger -- unless it's to pick up the phone to call the concierge or room service -- here's a look at three exclusive hotels, some listed among the top in the world, with CNBC's Mike Hegedus.