How the Pandemic Triggered Vacation House Changes

Today’s vacation homes require an updated set of features to maintain appeal in a post–COVID-19 world, including space to spread out and top-notch Wi-Fi connectivity.
A muted tone home with peaked roof overlooking a lake

Diane Saatchi / Saunders and Associates

Key takeaways:

  • Post–pandemic vacation homes need a whole new set of amenities that complement current reality.
  • More people are taking longer breaks from the city and working from home, so connectivity is important.
  • With more communities toughening rental rules, buyers must stay abreast if earning extra income is a goal.

During the second half of 2020 and through 2021, vacation home sales skyrocketed, according to a report from the National Association of REALTORS®. Today, vacation houses provide important stress relief to the woes of post-pandemic life. As COVID-19 transmission continues to ebb and flow, these homes offer a mental and physical escape as well as a way for extended families and sometimes groups of friends to gather safely, particularly those whose primary homes are in dense urban areas.

Some buyers also view their vacation house as an investment opportunity for rental income. Since vacation homes are typically used for short spurts of time, short-term rental services like Airbnb and VRBO provide opportunities to generate income when the house isn’t in use by the owner.

What works and what doesn’t have changed since the pandemic began, and making a smart purchase requires attention to a different playbook than in years past. These days, a getaway may require more time than the occasional weekend, so different amenities may appeal. With work culture still trending toward the hybrid and work-from-home models, people might spend more time at a vacation home, since where they work is flexible. There may also be more people under a single roof, since extended family members gravitate to be together. And if extra income is desired via short-term rentals, there’s a need to pay attention to a municipality’s rules as more tighten up on the number of days and the number of guests permitted.

Because the pandemic has upended inventory, prices, layouts and more, help clients fine-tune their plans based on what’s available so that they can also fine-tune their wish list. Sometimes a vacation house may even transition to a primary residence, says broker Linda Novelli of The Novelli Team at Compass Real Estate in Margate, on the New Jersey shore.

Working With Available Inventory

As with listings for non-vacation houses, most housing stock remains in short supply, which will influence where and what clients buy. “Sales have been very strong, and the market hasn’t softened. We ran out of good inventory after fall and winter,” says broker Diane Saatchi of Saunders & Associates in East Hampton, N.Y. “When a new house is constructed, it gets purchased right away—and above the asking price,” she says. 

In Telluride, Colo., vacationers come for the two prime seasons of winter skiing and summer relief from hotter climates such as Florida, Arizona and Texas. “They may pay 25% more than they did a year ago,” says broker-owner Anne-Britt Ostlund of Mountain Rose Realty.

In contrast, the Michigan and Indiana vacation areas near Chicago have started to slow. “There are still sales, but it’s not as crazy as it was with 15 offers,” says Jason Milovich, whose Union Pier, Mich.–company, Bluefish Vacation Rentals and Property Management, handles rentals. “The rental market has also slowed a bit,” he says.

Thinking About Distance and Location Accessibility

Without a private plane or helicopter, getting to certain vacation locations may not be easy. For example, Telluride requires flying into its small regional airport or a larger one in Montrose, 40 miles away, and taking a shuttle, says Ostlund. “I—and others who come here—like it because it is so far away and quieter than Aspen or Vail,” she says. As a result, many stay for three to six months, or otherwise longer than they used to, she says. 

Even vacation havens in New York’s Hamptons or Massachusetts’ Cape Cod require longer drives due to increased traffic. Many spend extended weekends or longer stretches to avoid going back and forth. The communities reflect that change by offering more services and shops. In some towns in the Hamptons, New York City art galleries, luxury retailers and hospital satellites have opened locations to cater to the increased population and the longer stays, Saatchi says.

Another factor buyers care about is how far a house is to a downtown, beach, ski slope or entertainment. The main attraction for those buying in Orlando is Walt Disney World, says James Mitchell with Buy Orlando Properties. In Vail, being on a bus route helps renters do without a car, says Tyra Rudrud, broker-owner with Engel & Völkers’ office there and in Beaver Creek.

But because of less inventory and higher prices, some buyers are willing to compromise on proximity. “Years ago, summer residents didn’t want to be five or six blocks from a beach, but now they’re more flexible and willing to be in parts of town once considered less appealing,” Novelli says.

Rudrud also sees that kind of change. “Before, people were looking to be in the center of town or close to slopes, and now, they’re willing to look outside core areas and be in the valley.” she says.

Today’s In-Demand Features

The most critical feature to attract buyers is a house in move-in condition, since many don’t want to do work, even if they can line up a contractor. “I used to say ‘location, location, location’ was most important. Now I say ‘new, new and new,’” Saunders says. “That’s another reason why some will purchase in locations not as popular­–if the homes are in ready condition,” she says.

Ostlund agrees. “They don’t want to be bothered since they want to get in and enjoy their house. To get work done, they might have to wait one or two years because skilled carpenters remain hard to find,” she says.

Second on many wish lists is high-speed connectivity, as more people have the flexibility to work from home, says Milovich. In some remote locations, it requires planning to gain a strong connection.

Also high on the list is the still-popular open plan with a spacious, functional kitchen, which remains the family hub. In kitchens where there’s extra space, a new trend is two islands—one for socializing and the other for kitchen prep.

The increased number of people that occupy a vacation home at one time has led to renewed interest in dining rooms. Buyers don’t want formal spaces, but a room so everyone’s not eating only at a breakfast bar in the kitchen, Rudrud says.

The greater number of people has also led to demand for more bedrooms and bathrooms. “No longer is a three-bedroom, two-and-a-half-bathroom house sufficient,” Novelli says.

And if constructed with a basement, the lower level may be finished to include an exercise room since many homeowners still avoid going to a gym, Saunders says.

What’s Important on the Outside

Having some property available outside is a must, though how much depends on location, budget and how buyers plan to spend their outdoor leisure time. Strong connectivity outdoors, if possible, is also important, as more are moving their home office outdoors in good weather and seek strong connectivity there, too.

If internet is available inside, a strong Wi-Fi signal may be available outside, especially if the router is placed to facilitate it, according to Rebecca Lee Armstrong, with Salt Lake City–based The company is comprised a group of internet and tech experts who help consumers find the best options in their area. Residents can also use Wi-Fi extenders that can send the signal in specific directions, she says.

Another popular feature for vacation homes is a swimming pool. In Saunders’ area, “everyone wants a pool, and an in-ground gunite design,” she says.

Milovich sees that trend slightly slowing, though. “At the height of COVID, a private pool was the number one amenity, but that’s tapered off since there’s not as much trepidation now about going to a beach,” he says.

Other amenities that appeal include a deck with heaters for colder climates, roof overhangs for sun protection and outdoor gathering, and a hot tub, says Rudrud.

Infographic of the Top 10 states for Wi-Fi speed

BONUS: Using a Property Management Company to Rent Out Your Vacation Home

Although many homeowners successfully rent their homes on vacation platforms such as Airbnb and VRBO, another option is to work with a property management company. Many brokerages are now offering property management services. Though the company usually takes a percentage of the rent—typically from 10% to 50%—many also place their listings on well-known vacation platforms for wider exposure. Milovich’s company does and receives 60% of its bookings from its property management work, versus 40% from the other sites.

They also offer the advantage of knowing an area’s rules and regulations, like:

  • How many days the property can be rented annually
  • Whether short-term rentals of fewer than 30 days are permitted
  • The number of guests and cars allowed on the property, since there may be limits

In Ostlund’s Telluride area, the town has placed a moratorium on short-term rental licenses through 2023 so officials can study how they affect the community’s fabric, she says. Vail is studying restrictions because of the shortage of workforce housing, says Rudrud.

Another advantage of property management companies is that many have reps who handle all the nitty-gritty, such as checking renters in and out, setting out fresh linens and towels, stocking the kitchen pantry, and removing personal items. They may also spiff up the decor to make the listing appeal to the widest possible audience.