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Sunburst Beach Vacations Thriving in South Walton

July 9, 2012 by Joyce Owen

South Walton has seen great changes over the last decade, and though real estate business was down for a bit, it had a positive effect for vacation rental companies.

“When people could not sell a house, they put it on a vacation rental program,” says Steve Howard, co-owner of Sunburst Beach Vacations in Seagrove Beach.

Of course, it’s not a totally rosy picture. Of the homes Sunburst manages, there were foreclosures, and sales were off with only one house selling in each of the last six years, he says.

No one is ready to declare the housing market has completely turned around, but in the first six months of 2012, five of the houses Sunburst manages have sold or are under contract.

The increase in sales is a good sign, says Steve, who has a real estate license with Davis Properties of Northwest Florida. Sunburst partners with Davis Properties in a mutual effort to assist buyers of vacation rentals. When Sunburst’s clients consider buying a house, Davis Properties is recommended. When someone purchases a home through Davis Properties and plan to put it on a rental program, they can work with Sunburst for a realistic rental projection.

Sunburst manages 88 homes, but Steve says, “We want to manage a small number of homes and do it well. We aren’t looking to do a volume business, but one with really good rentals. We like to have quality properties.

“We turn down seven out of 10 houses,” he says.

Not every home, even high-end properties, is a good match for vacation rentals. Sometimes the owners just don’t have the mindset for it. They might be concerned about simple things – like renters rearranging things in the kitchen or moving the furniture – while others want no evidence that anyone ever stayed in the house.

Although the company’s team of cleaners and inspectors makes sure all the homes are well taken care of, little things happen, and wear and tear has to be expected.

Steve likes owners that accept suggestions for new paint or furniture without taking it personally. Sometimes he mentions comments from a guest survey that freshening the home is advised. On average there’s a three-year trend where the rate goes up and then levels off. Then it’s time to consider options, like installing a pool heater or updating décor, to bring a higher rental rate or more bookings.

“Most owners get it,” he says.

The company, which was founded in 2002 by Steve and co-owner David Leuze, has about 20 employees, although there are an additional 30 contract employees that handle the cleaning services.

David manages the financial side of the business. Payson Howard directs the operations of the business – overseeing office personnel and the housekeeping staff.

A new area for the company is Sunburst Luxury Vacations. The rental of one of the luxury homes includes a concierge that assists guests with check-in, meeting them at the home and giving a tour with special attention to the myriad of devices including remotes and alarm systems. There is a mid-week cleaning and the concierge is available to book restaurants, set up tee times or arrange excursions throughout the guests’ stay.

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