Outer Banks vacationers can get their money back during coronavirus closure, N.C. commission rules

Dare County law enforcement check identification at a check point at the Wright Brothers Memorial Bridge on Friday, March 20, 2020. Only residents and authorized/essential personnel where allowed on the Outer Banks.

Tenants who do not get to visit the Outer Banks during the coronavirus closure should get their money back.

The law sides with the tenants in this case, according to a ruling Thursday by the North Carolina Real Estate Commission and backed by the state’s Attorney General.

Landlords who do not refund money are open to a lawsuit, the commission determined.

Dare County closed U.S. 158 at the Wright Memorial Bridge on Thursday as a precaution against the spread of the virus. Visitor and non-resident property owners cannot enter. Currituck County applied the same restrictions Friday night. Hyde County blocked visitor access to Ocracoke.

The restrictions created a whirlwind for all sides of the Outer Banks vacation rental industry. Tenants who paid their money with no idea a pandemic would strike wanted refunds, and homeowners who have to pay a mortgage on and maintain a beach house worth several hundred thousand dollars, were generally reluctant to issue them.

Social media posts and phone calls were a mixture of anger, confrontation, cooperation and diplomacy, said Monica Thibodeau, owner of Carolina Designs Realty and deputy mayor of the Town of Duck.

Her company is one of many on the Outer Banks that manages rentals for people who own vacation homes. They advertise and schedule rentals and keep the houses maintained and cleaned for a fee.

Weekly rates in late March and early April are about $3,000, but vary depending on location and condition. Wedding venues can be much more. The same house could go for $10,000 a week in the summer.

Travel insurance can refund a tenant in cases involving a weather event, such as hurricane that causes an evacuation. It can also cover the costs if a member of the visitor’s party gets sick.

But the coronavirus is a different emergency.

Many travel insurance companies refused to pay refunds, Thibodeau said.

Policies typically do not include a road closure that does not deny everyone access. Local property owners and workers can still come and go. Also, this emergency did not cause a true evacuation. Visitors already there were not asked to leave.

Thursday’s ruling determined landlords must repay the tenant, but other plans can be worked out. Thibodeau’s company plans to give people refunds during the closure, or reschedule to a later date if all parties are willing.

Other companies may handle it differently, she said.

“We’re trying to keep everybody happy as possible,” Thibodeau said. “We’re dealing with it on a week by week basis.”

Jeff Hampton, 252-491-5272, jeff.hampton@pilotonline.com

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