The most perfect beach in the world might also be the most accessible and convenient on the East Coast: St. Augustine Beach. And the best way to experience all this fun, historic area has to offer is by renting a beach house. Here’s what you need to know.
My family has vacationed in St. Augustine Beach, Florida, for longer than I’d like to admit. We love St. Augustine. The beach is world class – wide, white and drivable (yes, you can take your car right on to the beach as long as it’s a 4-wheel drive; you can learn more here). And we love old St. Augustine’s history, fantastic restaurants, live music, sight seeing and ancient cobblestone streets.
But what we love most is the beach itself – sea breezes, sunsets, the ocean crashing at your feet and all of it dog-friendly. We always rent, and we are happy to share our secrets to renting a beach house. Here’s some of the lessons we’ve learned along the way.
Beach Rentals: What They Cost
Typically we pay $2,500-$3,000 per week in June or July for a three bedroom house. Houses with more bedrooms and closer to the beach can be $5,000 or more. But even at the mid-range, $2,500-$3,500, you can have beach views, sea breezes and often, a private pool.
We look for a house with a short walk to the beach, the ability to see and hear the ocean from the front deck and a short drive to town and grocery stores. Most houses are three or four bedrooms but there are some that have five or more and a few that have two units for a total of five bedrooms or more.
Location, Location, Location
There are four areas that make up the St. Augustine Beach area: Vilano Beach (including South Ponte Vedra Beach) which sits just north of St. Augustine, St. Augustine Beach (just south of the Old City), Crescent Beach (including Butler Beach,) and Summer Haven. Most of these areas are on Anastasia Island, which extends south from St. Augustine to the Matanzas Inlet. In addition to houses on the beach, there are plenty of condo complexes and rental houses on the Intracoastal Waterway, which are great for boaters.
Vilano Beach is the closest to old St. Augustine but is probably the smallest beach community. At the southern tip the beach is wide, but it narrows to the north with some houses having no beach at all at high tide. We rented there only once. While we liked the convenience, the rental house and the virtually empty beach, we really like to have access to the beach at all times of the day, not just during low tide.
St. Augustine Beach is probably the oldest community—and has some of the oldest houses on the beach (dating from the 1940’s or ’50’s). Houses can be smaller (but not necessarily) and those that are set a block or two back from the beach may offer only a sliver view of the ocean. Also, with all these houses, the beaches can be a bit more crowded. However, some of St. Augustine Beach’s bars and restaurants are walking distance, which is fun.
Crescent Beach/Butler Beach are less developed and have more houses with ocean views. Access is generally by public road (although there are paths across the dunes in some places). Driving on the beach is allowed (4×4 required), so if the walk is too long for carrying a cooler, chairs and towels, you can drive. A row of dunes separates all the houses from the ocean (it’s a law meant to protect the beach and property from storms) and houses are elevated on stilts so you can see the water from most of them, even if they are on the third row back from the beach.
Butler Beach is historic in that it was the first black-owned beach on the stretch between Jacksonville and Daytona. A local black businessman named Frank Butler bought the land and in the 1930’s opened the beach to black patrons. By the 1960’s Florida’s Park Service operated and maintained the beach, where public parking and beach access is available and it’s flanked by a small community of houses.
The last few years we’ve chosen Summer Haven for its deserted beaches and houses right along the water. The area is defined by the ocean on one side and the Intracoastal on the other (many houses have access to both), and runs from the Matanzas Inlet to Marineland. Many of the rental houses are on on Old A1A which runs along the ocean, but part of the road was washed away by a tropical storm in 2008 and remains closed, leaving many houses on essentially a dead-end street. This is partially what makes the beaches so empty: little access and no parking.
There are only a few rental companies that rent houses in St. Augustine Beach, and they come up on all the rental sites, from VRBO (Vacation Rental By Owner), AirBnB, Homeaway, FlipKey, Trip Advisor, Google search and more. VRBO has a little flag that tells you if you’re negotiating with the owner or an agency, and ironically, I found many more VRBO listings to be listed by agents. VRBO has a nice map function so you can look at listings by location, but its nightly rate calculator (you’ll get a rate when you put dates into the main search calendar) often gave us a rate that was much lower than the actual rate due to the way the system uses quarterly averages to calculate rates; this was really frustrating. Another site I found helpful was HomeAway, which I found had more owner-managed listings. But most rentals are managed by an agency, and there are pros and cons to this.
Pros of Working With a Rental Agent (Versus an Owner)
- Rental agents typically also manage the property so you can call them if something needs to be repaired, replaced or delivered
- They typically ensure the house is clean, stocked with necessities and in good condition before you arrive; some will have groceries delivered before you arrive and supply you with other items, too
- Rental agents are available evenings and weekends to answer questions as you are shopping for a rental house or once you have rented a house
- Rental agents can make getting into the house easy; once we paid for our rental we were sent a code to the lock box, wifi password and directions to the house
Cons of Working With a Rental Agent
- Rental agents can be tougher to negotiate with than an owner on the price of a rental. When I have a lot of choices for my rental week, or I’ve chosen an off-season week, I’ll submit an offer below the published rental rate. I’ve been pretty lucky to get a better than advertised price every time.
- Rental agents add on lots of fees: Our bill typically has about 20-25% added to it in fees: Taxes, cleaning fee, pet fee, damage waiver (sometimes refundable, sometimes not), amenity fee (I’m not sure what this is for, but we were charged this, too).
- Rental agents can drive up the price of rentals in a market because they control more of the market than individual owners do. Also, they have a greater incentive to keep prices higher and let properties go unrented, whereas individual owners might be more likely to reduce rental fees in order to have a property rent.
Tips to Know What You’re Getting
- Insist on seeing pictures of the ocean and/or Intracoastal from the house.
- Look up the location on the map so you know exactly how far it is to the beach; also, locate the closest beach access (ask the owner or rental agency for this exact info and for a photo). Beaches sometimes are only accessible by public road, which may be three or four blocks away.
- Ask about sleeping arrangements: If a three bedroom house sleeps 10, what is the setup of beds, pullouts and bunks?
- Ask what is included in your fee: Linens, towels, beach chairs, beach toys, a grill, so you know what you need to bring or buy.
- This may sound crazy, but ask if the house has town water or well water and if it’s well water, make sure it’s potable. Many remote beach communities have well water that is not drinkable and isn’t pleasant for showering, either.
- Search for reviews or comments from prior renters. They will tell you the pros and cons of the property. With the shifting sands of beach communities, make sure photos and reviews are recent; old photos and reviews can be misleading.
- High season is June-August; most renters are families with kids in school, and most drive. Since Southern schools start early-to-mid-August, the town is much emptier in August than it is in June and July.
- St. Augustine is a 3 season region: Winter is cold, with temperatures often dipping down to the freezing mark. Spring is beautiful but ocean temperatures can still be cold. Fall is lovely—more like an extended summer.
- Don’t be afraid of hurricane season. Even though the area has been hit a few times, it’s not a regular target like other areas such as the North Carolina Outer Banks. Also, if you’re evacuated, typically the storm passes in a day or two and you can return to your rental quickly if it’s undamaged. Also, you can purchase trip insurance which may cover you if your trip is interrupted by a storm (check the fine print for this).
What To Do Besides the Beach and Seeing Historic St. Augustine
- Kayak the Intracoastal or Atlantic: You can rent a kayak, bring your own or take an organized tour.
- Learn to surf: there are many surf shops that rent boards and give lessons; the water here is ideal—it’s warm and the waves aren’t too huge.
- Catch a view of local wildlife: manatees are often visible on the Intracoastal, and dolphins are a daily sight in the Atlantic. You will also see all sorts of birds, turtles fish.
- Fishing — a very popular local pastime, and you can go deep-sea fishing, fish in the surf or from local docks and piers.
- Eat fish: lots of local sea food restaurants serve fish caught just off shore.
- Learn more about marine life at Marineland, a brach of the Georgia Aquarium, where rescue dolphins are studied and interact with humans, including a swim with the dolphins program.
- Play golf: not only does St. Augustine have lots of great local courses, it’s also home to the World of Golf. We find discounted rates on the day of play at GolfNow.com (we usually pay $30 or so per round per person).
Not that we find a lot of time for golf when we head to St. Augustine Beach. Between the beach, the sun and hanging out with family, time flies.