Cashing In On Change

Historic event is making entrepreneurs of homeowners

Obama's Inauguration

November 14, 2008|By Rona Marech and Stephanie Desmon | Rona Marech and Stephanie Desmon,rona.marech@baltsun.com and stephanie.desmon@baltsun.com

Looking for a place to stay for the inaugural festivities?

How about $5,800 for a week in a 7,000-square-foot house in Mitchellville? Or $6,000 for "Large Estate Style home in Montgomery County"? On a tighter budget? Maybe a New Carrollton "1 BDR, 1 bath Condo" for $200 a night would do the trick. Four-night minimum, but take heart: There's a high-speed cable modem, and smoking is negotiable.

Excited supporters of President-elect Barack Obama are busy laying plans to travel to Washington so they can witness history in the making. But first, they must find a bed to sleep in - or at least a couch or floor - and that might prove difficult, with hotels across the region rapidly filling up and enterprising residents renting out their homes for thousands of dollars.

"I've never seen a reaction like this to anything going on in the capital area," said Dave Shineman, who put his two Annapolis homes up for rent the day after the election. Within 36 hours, he had rented out both places - one for $3,500 and the other for $7,500 - for the five days around the Jan. 20 inauguration. He and his wife plan to go to Florida and watch the swearing-in from there.

"I think if I'd held out, I could probably get 10 grand for the bigger house. People are going to get desperate in the next week or two when they see everything is booked," he said. "You'll have to go 100 miles away to get any kind of rooms."

It's already happening.

On Monday, the visitors bureau in York County, Pa., got a call from a Texas man asking whether he could make a reservation for Inauguration Day. It took a minute for the woman who answered the phone to realize what inauguration he was talking about. York is about 90 miles from Washington.

"It was on our radar screen," said Alison Smith, a spokeswoman for the York County Convention and Visitors Bureau, "but we didn't realize people would be calling from Texas two months out. This is all snowballing really quickly."

The county, which bills itself as the "Factory Tour Capital of the World," is aiming to capitalize on its (sort of) proximity to Washington. The bureau is even printing buttons with its motto for the event: "Stay in York, Pa. for Inauguration Day." It hopes to offer insider's tips for the best way to get to the center of the action (one way could be to drive to Baltimore and take the train; another to drive to Shady Grove and take the Metro). "We're really excited to play a part," Smith said.

You can forget about hotels in Washington - unless, perhaps, you are willing to line the pockets of someone trying to pass along his hotel room via eBay - and Maryland is quickly running out of spots too. Montgomery County hotels are sold out, Baltimore City, Baltimore County and Howard County are almost there, and even Harford and Cecil counties are getting in on the action.

La Quinta in Aberdeen sold out rooms for the days around the inauguration the morning after the election. The Comfort Inn in North East, in Cecil County, still has a few of its 91 rooms available that week but does not expect to for long, said Rachel Clendaniel, the front desk manager, who has taken reservations from Montana, Texas and Idaho. The hotel has raised its rates from $99 to $229.99.

"We're hoping the inauguration becomes an annual event," joked Tom Noonan, president and CEO of the Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, listing hotel after hotel that has no vacancies. "We thought we'd get some pickup, but we were surprised by how much we saw and how quickly we saw it.

"So many people have a desire to say, 'I was on the parade route. I was part of this amazing moment in history.' "

The visitors bureau is planning to put up a Web page to guide visitors during their stay, with Amtrak deals to get to the celebration in Washington and ideas for things to do while in Charm City, playing up its African-American tourism sites.

With demand so high, many people are turning to private homes, and they're finding folks who live near Washington, the Metro or the train and are hoping to make a quick buck. Or a thousand bucks. Or more.

Lindsay Phillips posted an ad on Craigslist offering to rent her two-bedroom, two-bath Rockville condominium from Jan. 17 to 24 for $8,000. "You Voted Change, Watch It Happen!" she wrote.

"One of my neighbors brought it up to me that I should rent it out because I'm planning a ski trip that week," said Phillips, 20, who will be at Deep Creek Lake, where her family has a home. She made a plug for her place: She can see the Metro station from her window, she has a flat-screen television and wireless, the Metro ride to the National Mall is 30 minutes.

Obama was Phillips' candidate, and part of her would like to be around for the hubbub, but on the other hand, she could do without the hustle and bustle.

"It's going to be so crowded," she said.

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