By Ellen Wulfhorst
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Superstorm Sandy shifted the sands of the New Jersey shore's summer rental landscape, where some resort towns are suffering lasting effects of the barrage and others are, as they say, cleaning up.
Summer rentals are a backbone of the tourist season along the 127-mile stretch of coastline and barrier islands, where vacationers flock to the beaches and boardwalks that are convenient to New York and Philadelphia and more affordable than the celebrity-studded Hamptons on New York's Long Island.
Some 59 million people visited the Jersey shore last year, according to state figures.
In Ocean County alone, which is one of the four shore counties and boasts of 44 miles of coastline, the population typically doubles in the summer months to 1.2 million. In some of its small towns, the population grows ten-fold in the summer, according to county statistics.
But this year, that stretch is a patchwork of some towns largely unscathed and others still hurting from the hurricane-force winds and deadly flooding that roared over the coast on October 29, 2012.
Towns that fared better -- those with newer, more storm-resistant elevated construction or artificially engineered dune protection -- are looking ahead to a summer rental season that is as good, if not better, than ever.
Towns that suffered the worst -- where older homes were built on low platforms or even flat on the sand or dunes proved to be weak -- are still early in the throes of reconstruction, and a typical tourist season is a long way off.
Such is the case in Lavalette, which is putting the final touches on its freshly rebuilt boardwalk, and neighboring Ortley Beach, where houses lie toppled onto adjacent properties, roads are ripped up and signs warn non-residents to stay away, said Timothy O'Shea, manager and broker at Birchler Realtors in Ortley Beach.
The result has been a profound hit on rentals in the two towns, he said.
"We're off 50, 55, 60 percent from last year in total, largely due to the fact that Ortley is off nearly 100 percent," he said.
"People think that everything is devastated when in fact everything is not devastated," O'Shea said. "There are pockets of devastation."
There is no centralized count of summer rental homes along the Jersey shore, although they may number in the hundreds or thousands in many of the dozens of towns along the ocean.
Sandy damaged or destroyed 346,000 houses statewide, according to official statistics.
Potential summer visitors are asking questions about the state of the beaches, if it's safe to swim or if there's going to be a din of constant construction, O'Shea said. "If any of them are not answered, people will just go and find something else to do."
But local businesses hope to benefit from loyalty to the Jersey shore, where visitors have ranged from U.S. presidents to the denizens of the raucous reality show "The Jersey Shore."
Tourist spending in the four shore counties -- Atlantic, Cape May, Monmouth and Ocean -- amounted to more than $19 billion last year, accounting for more than half of the state's total tourism direct sales.
One person renting at the Jersey shore this summer is Regina Schaefer of Maplewood, in northern New Jersey, who said her family thinks it is important to visit and support the rebuilding effort.
"It's only going to help for us to be there," she said.
But prices are higher, Schaefer found, after renting a three-bedroom apartment for $1,900 a week on Long Beach Island that she said is more than 10 percent higher in price than similar rentals in recent years.
Several area brokers said summer rents have not risen, but Mayor Walter LaCicero of Lavalette said he expected local landlords were "able to get a little better" this season because of the devastation in neighboring towns.
"It's pure capitalism," he said. "I think we're going to have an outstanding season because the next town over is not going to have any rental units."
The 18-mile-long barrier island of Long Beach Island, home to six highly popular summer resort towns, was not hit as hard as other places by Sandy but is feeling the effects, said Kevin Thomas, chief executive of Prudential Zack Shore Properties in Manahawkin, New Jersey.
At the end of March, rentals were off by 30 percent, he said. He blamed a combination of a long winter and people's assumptions that a trip to the Jersey shore is out this year.
"They may be saying 'Let's go to Nags Head or let's go to Hauppauge or let's go to the Vineyard or let's go to Europe,'" he said.
To the south, beaches in Delaware barely touched by Sandy are enjoying a boom, said T.J. Redefer, broker and owner of Rehoboth Bay Realty Company in Dewey Beach.
"Along coastal Delaware, our inventories are tapped already," he said. "Normally in April, we would expect to have about 20 percent still remaining, and we have maybe 2 or 3 percent."
Typical renters hail from Maryland, Virginia, Washington and Pennsylvania, Redefer said.
"Now we're seeing a large influence from the Jersey shore," he said. "Many people didn't even know Delaware had a beach."
(Editing by Arlene Getz and Dan Grebler)