NEW YORK — It's the classic American vacation: Rent a house near the water in July or August. Lie in a hammock or beach chair while the kids splash or swim. Forget about the office, the bills, the busy schedules.

There's just one stressful aspect to that blissful scene. If you don't have your summer rental reserved by Easter, in some parts of the country, you can forget about it. In fact, realtors say top rentals for peak weeks like July Fourth are often gone by March.

Take heart, though. If you're flexible about dates and location, plenty of options remain. And if you use the Internet, finding a place is easier than ever.

The first step is deciding where to go. Do you prefer the ocean or lakes? Can you fly, or must you drive to transport bicycles, fishing gear and kayaks? Is there a place that fills you with happy memories of your own childhood summers, where you can bring your own kids?

Every region has its treasured summer places. New England offers woodsy lakes, Maine's rocky, evergreen-trimmed coast, and Massachusetts resorts so famous they are known simply as "the Cape" (as in Cod), and "the Vineyard" (as in Martha's).

Water-loving Midwesterners flock to the Brainerd Lakes region of Minnesota, which has nearly 500 lakes within a 30-minute drive. Many New Yorkers swear by the Jersey Shore, while the San Juan Islands in Washington pull visitors from Seattle and California. And on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, generations of family vacationers have climbed the dunes and reveled in the surf.

Once you've settled on a region, find that rental. Call the local chamber of commerce for help, contact the Vacation Rental Managers Association, which represents properties around the country, or search the Internet.

New Yorker Julie Reiss used the Internet to locate summer rentals two years in a row on Mount Desert Island in Maine, where Bar Harbor and most of Acadia National Park are situated. But Reiss admits that renting a house, sight unseen, "was a leap of faith."

"It's always turned out OK, but you have to ask a lot of questions beforehand," she said. "And there's always this moment when you open the door and you say, 'Please don't let it be disgusting!' "

After turning down a house where the owners planned to live in the garage while renting out their home, Reiss learned to ask a few key questions. Among them: What's the privacy factor? How far is the house from a main road? Are there other houses nearby? How many rooms are there? If the local weather has the potential to be chilly, as Maine can often be in late August, is there heat? (In warmer places, ask about air-conditioning.)

Michael Sarka, director of the Vacation Rental Managers Association, recommends setting your priorities before you start looking. For example, he said, "If money is more important than location, you won't be on the beach, but you'll save."

Timing is also crucial. The week of July Fourth is typically one of the busiest. In contrast, because schools in some areas start mid- or late August, there's often far less demand toward summer's end. "Santa Cruz, Calif., Labor Day week — that's a really slow week," Sarka said. "You can get a much better deal then than in early July."

Sarka also noted that even last-minute vacationers may be able to get a summer rental, as long as they're flexible. "Easter is not a drop-dead date everywhere," he said. "The better properties do move the fastest, and I'm not appealing to people to procrastinate, but there are opportunities out there."

You'll also want to know who to call if problems arise. How far away do the owners live? If they're next door, you may be under a microscope. But if they're in another state when the 20-year-old refrigerator dies, that's a problem. If you're renting through an agency, ask about cancellation insurance; otherwise, be prepared to forfeit your money if you cancel due to an emergency.

Overall, Sarka said, the rental market looks brisk for the summer. A strong euro and continued concern about global security may contribute to strong demand for domestic vacations. But an uptick in the purchase of second homes has increased the availability of rentals in some areas, where owners are willing to rent their property. Sarka's members reported a 7 percent increase in the number of available properties last year over the year before, and they expect a similar increase this year.

As for price, about two-thirds of VRMA agents expect rates to increase 4 percent, while another third will keep rates the same.

But prices and availability vary tremendously. At Brainerd Lakes, rates for waterfront cottages range from an affordable $600 a week to several thousand, depending on the size and grandeur of the house. And with more than 3,000 lodging units, "if your date is flexible, there are last-minute openings all summer long," said Lisa Paxton, CEO of the Brainerd Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce.

Renters in the pristine San Juan Islands, where whale-watching and views of snow-capped mountains are part of the appeal, will pay $950 to $3,000 a week, according to WendyKay Gewiss, a real estate agent for the local Windermere office. Since none of her clients see the properties beforehand, Gewiss provides "spec sheets" specifying the age of the furniture, distance to local parks, whether there is a dishwasher, and many other details. Gewiss reported 30 percent of her summer rentals gone by mid-February.

Anthony Conselice, a realtor with the Arthur Rue agency in Seaside Park, N.J., says a nice house (three bedrooms, air-conditioning) that's a short walk from the beach at the Jersey shore typically runs $2,000 to $2,500 a week. Sharing can save money; if four couples rent a large house for $3,800, it's just $950 per couple.

Doug Azarian, a Falmouth, Mass., realtor, says an average weekly rental on Cape Cod — near, but not on the water — is $1,500 to $2,000 a week, increasing to $3,000 or $4,000 weekly for a house with a view of the water.

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The Cape's attractions include not just a pristine natural setting, but also easy access to amenities like good restaurants, video stores and kid-friendly activities. "You have the ocean, the beach and the boats, but the difference on the Cape is you're not that far away from what you're used to," he said, adding, "If you haven't made plans to rent a place by the end of April, it becomes slim pickings."

But regardless of when you go or how much you pay, the appeal of a house by the water is universal.

"It's about not having to worry about work and the rest of the world," said Paxton. "The kids can grab a fishing pole and sit on the edge of the dock while you read your favorite book. It's about making memories for families across the generations."

Conselice agreed, saying: "We get a lot of people who grew up here or vacationed here as little children. I get a lot of calls from brothers and sisters saying, 'Our family is going to have a big reunion.' They want to come back here because they summered here, and they want their children to be exposed to that."

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