3 (almost-free) ways to hack a summer at the beach

By Mary Lowengard  | May 18, 2021 - 3:00PM

Last summer, in the throes of the pandemic, our writer found a way to be on the sand at least once a week at Sandy Hook National Seashore in Highlands, New Jersey.

Mary Lowengard

After a winter and chilly spring cooped up in my Manhattan apartment, I’m dreaming of a summer on a white-sand beach. I have my eye on a place I would love to rent: A cedar-shingled, three-bedroom, two-bath cottage south of the highway in Amagansett—it’s one block from the ocean, with a heated pool and outdoor shower.

At $185,000 for the 98 days between Memorial and Labor Day, it’s a regular steal—for someone else, that is. The cost of $1,887.76 per day is light years beyond my reach. But if you’re in the same predicament, fear not—here are my secrets to hacking a beach vacation, even a summer rental share.

Last summer, in the throes of the pandemic, I found a way to be on the sand at least once and sometimes twice a week, frolicking in the surf, keeping up in real time with my “New Yorker” readings, and cultivating an enviable, if dermatologically objectionable, suntan. This is how I did it.

1. My silver Subaru, beach house edition

In mid-June, I converted all 14 square feet of my 2018 Forester cargo area into a traveling beach shack. I packed beach chairs, half a dozen beach towels, a ready-soldier bag (sunblock, bug spray, sunhats, several months of back issues of the “New Yorker,” a change of clothing), a cooler and our ‘house” for the summer: A Manta sun shelter I picked up at an end-of-season sale two summers earlier. Once I figured out how to fold the thing up again (“a few turns of the wrist”—I think not) it became our favorite beach toy.

My beach of choice was Sandy Hook National Seashore in Highlands, New Jersey – yes, the same Highlands, NJ where The Boss was frolicking last fall. (There oughta be a law, I say.) But any beach within 60 miles of my front door would have worked, including New York’s Jones Beach, Sherwood Island along the Long Island Sound in Connecticut or even Sea Bright just to the south of Sandy Hook.

My wing woman of choice was my sister—with the pandemic still in full force, I chose my companion judiciously. We don’t room together (anymore), however throughout the summer we considered ourselves in the same pod.  

The pandemic-friendly beach house prep

Our drill started with a test of our gambler’s instincts. What would be the most promising weekday, weather-wise? A little flexibility is always required, given the unreliability of weather predictions in the mid-Atlantic. Those summer storms come up so suddenly.

We packed up the night before—a light lunch of assorted frozen fruit and lots of frozen water. Off we’d go, cranking up SXM and pushing off by 7:30 a.m., with a goal of being on the beach by 9 a.m., well before it got crowded. Social distancing was easy. Good thing, because who wants a face-mask tan line? Three or four hours later—enough with the sun, sand and surf.  We packed up and headed home. Once we figured out the origami moves necessary to create a taco out of the Manta tent, we’d be back in the city by early afternoon, sometimes after a quick stop at IKEA. I could still cram in a couple of hours of work, my editors none the wiser.

We followed this protocol all summer long, every week, early June through Labor Day. A couple of times I brought an alternate beach buddy to join me if my sister was otherwise engaged. It seemed prudent to keep the beach blanket bingo to one-on-one at the time.

Maximum fun, negligible cost

This beach-house vacation, technically speaking, wasn’t totally cost free—there were gas and toll expenses, and a season pass to the state park. I also sprang for a detailing for the Subaru once it returned to being just an SUV, to evacuate sand that accumulated in every nook and cranny. Total cost of a summer of weekly beach visit plus cleaning? Less than a day’s stay at that Amagansett beach house.

I’ll repeat this routine this summer, though I am flirting with the notion of mixing it up a bit. I might conduct tryouts of different beaches for the first month of the season, before springing for another season pass. (By the way, much to my chagrin, the pass does not entitle one to skip the lines at the entrance. Not yet, anyway.)  

On the other hand, why mess with success?

Now, suppose you’re jonesing for a more traditional summer of weekend beach time, or the two weeks off in the dead of August? Can this be pulled off at equally minimal cost? Yes, indeed.

2. The almost-free beach house

Beach-house shares are a time-honored means to take the bite out of the cost of a summer house in the Hamptons and down the (Jersey) Shore. If you have a family, however, you might consider what I did one summer when my kids were young, which was to split the use (and costs) of a rented house with another family. Share and share alike.

As in any roommate situation, this requires some upfront negotiation to make sure everyone’s square on the rules of the road, who gets which weekends when, and allocation of expenses such as utilities, kitchen basics, and cleaning costs.

Quite by happenstance, I discovered a way to “share” the modest summer cottage I rented on the Jersey Shore one summer when my kids were toddlers—ultimately at no cost to me. I had signed a lease to share with another family, who then backed out on me. Once I got over my ire, I asked the landlord if I might be allowed to sublet what was now my lease alone. She was accommodating. Turned out, this particular beach was a hot number for short-term rentals. I managed to claw back about half the seasonal rental cost.

An even better subletting schedule 

The next year, I crafted a schedule to let us use the house every other weekend, and then rent it out for a “non-traditional” span of Sunday evenings through the following weekend to midday Friday for a 12-day stretch. I could then charge a prorated rent based on the going weekly rate for that location, which was much higher than the seasonal rate on a per diem basis.

We vacated Sunday at noon, the cleaning service swooped in, and the renters took up residence at 4:00 p.m. Then, two Fridays later, the whole thing reversed and we moved back in for our weekend at the beach. We reserved Memorial Day and Labor Day weeks for ourselves, so we had the classic two-week beach holiday, separated by two months. I got eight weekends and rented out six almost-two-week periods. And I earned back what I paid for the whole summer.

It sounds a little wonky but it worked out. The following year I had multiple repeat renters return. This meant lower stress for me because I knew they were trustworthy and they knew what they were getting. I advertised the place as child-friendly and stocked the cottage with best sellers (for the parents) and beach toys (for the kids).

There were, to be expected, a few tenant issues; I was a landlord after all. But the benefit of what amounted to a cost-free if not quite 100 percent worry-free beach house outweighed the glitches. And everything was aboveboard: My subtenants signed leases, paid security deposits, and agreed to house rules. I made new friends—even though we outgrew this charming cottage a few years back, I still exchange holiday greetings with several of our beach-tenant-friends.

3. Swap for sun, sand, and surf (someday soon)

Someday, when the pandemic has completely subsided, my third “free-house” gambit will be doable again, though likely not soon enough for this summer. But take note and perhaps it will be possible in 2022.

I have long been a fan of house (i.e., my apartment-for-a-house) swapping. If your New York digs have no prohibition from management (in the case of a rental) or onerous cooperative rules, it’s a match made in heaven. A place in the Big Apple is a highly desirable, swappable hot ticket for people who may have a special event to attend in the city; or just like coming in to hang out in Central Park.

Many put up their beach houses for swapping throughout the U.S. and indeed around the world. HomeLink was my go-to swap platform for many years, leveraging my Manhattan coop for homes in London, Dublin, Steamboat Springs, Florida. One summer, as subletters lounged at my beach house, I swapped my apartment for a farmhouse in Italy, about an hour north of Rome and 30 minutes east of the Lido di Tarquinia. We got plenty of beach time—not to mention a good dose of Italian culture and amazing gelato. Talk about double dipping!

Mary Lowengard is a writer and editor who has been in a New York Real Estate of Mind since 1971.


Mary Lowengard

Mary Lowengard is a New York City-based freelance writer with more than three decades of experience as a journalist and editor.

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