When Justin and Tiffany Ford launched their vacation rental management business in 2006, there were about 8,000 residential units available in the state. That number included houses whose owners rented them by the week or month in summer, as well as cabins, cottages, and condominiums near ski resorts like Sugarloaf and Sunday River.
Today, there are about 22,000 such rental properties in Maine. Clearly, the way people vacation has changed, and those who own desirable houses hope to cash in. Tourists are moving away from stays in motels and hotels and instead are choosing to rent houses. Part of the trend is described as “invitation” vacations, in which grandparents rent a house and invite their children and grandchildren, Justin Ford said.
National statistics bear out this trend.
Ford said in 2006, 7 percent of Americans had stayed in a vacation home. Today, 30 percent of Americans have tried this way of vacationing.
The goal for the Rockport couple’s business, On the Water in Maine, Ford says, was to list and manage 75-100 of those vacation rental properties. Even by narrowing the focus to represent mostly oceanfront and lakefront houses, the Fords have succeeded in growing their list to 130.
The properties they manage range from Cape Elizabeth in the south to Harrington in the east, and include coastal communities like Belfast, Boothbay Harbor, and Harpswell, but most are in the Rockland and Camden area.
Gross rents are at $3 million annually, he said, and the business charges a 20 percent commission to property owners and a 10 percent service fee to renters.
In addition to the “on the water” niche, the couple limits their offerings to high-quality vacation homes. That means they will drop houses if homeowners don’t keep up with maintenance, and fail to repair rotting decks or replace saggy mattresses.
On the Water in Maine offers an alternative to online vacation rental companies such as Airbnb by doing more than listing properties. The business provides all the linens and bedding for its rentals, and the office on Route 1 has a commercial-grade laundry facility to wash and dry them.
On the Water also manages a cleaning crew of 20-30, who swarm across the area to ready houses for the next renters.
“The biggest challenge in this business is finding cleaners—quality cleaners,” Ford says. “We teach people how to clean,” and when cleaners leave the job—as often happens—Justin and Tiffany will pitch in.
SERVICE FIRST AND FOREMOST
More than anything, though, Ford stresses that his business provides a service to both property owner and vacationer. If the bedroom air conditioner doesn’t work, the smoke detectors keep beeping, or the coffee maker is out of filters, renters call the office and the situation is made right, he said, without involving the property owners.
“We charge a fair price for what we do, but call our property owners with solutions, not problems,” he said. “We have two customers in every situation,” the vacationer and the property owner.
“We had a turkey fly through a window in Harpswell, and a sewer back up in Belfast,” he said, two recent problems he and the staff had to address.
Protecting the property owner’s interest is also part of the equation. On the Water does not require security deposits from renters, but purchases insurance to cover potential problems. Typically, no more than $3,000 in damages is tallied each season.
“We’re putting quality people in your home, minimizing your risk, maximizing your income,” he said.
A typical rent is about $2,200 a week, with $8,000 the highest and $1,100 the lowest.
On the Water provides renters with a suggested itinerary while visiting the Camden-Rockland area. Ford tells the story of three families climbing to the summit of Bald Rock in Lincolnville, and discovering they all chose the hike because of the itinerary provided in the houses they were renting.
During a mid-October interview, it was clear the business was still in high gear. It might slow down a bit around Thanksgiving, Ford concedes, but says the business of lining up house owners with weekly and monthly renters rarely takes a day off.
“It’s a true four-season business,” though 80 percent of renters opt for mid-July to the end of August. Over 60 percent are repeat renters. Twenty properties were rented for the second week of October, though Ford expected activity to drop off soon.
As a volunteer firefighter, Ford is especially concerned about safety in the rental properties he manages. On the Water makes sure smoke detectors, rails on decks, and other safety features are maintained at its properties.
Another reason for its success has come in keeping up with the evolution of the internet.
“We were the first in the state to do online bookings seven days a week,” he said, and the first to allow users to post reviews. “We’re still open on weekends,” so potential renters don’t find another place while waiting for a response.
For more information, see OnTheWaterInMaine.com.