For us the start of a new decade marks ten years of owning our cottage and running it as a holiday home. If you are reading this perhaps you would like to do the same one day? Here’s how it all started for us, and some things we’ve picked up along the way.
How it all started
We need to go back to the summer of 2009, while we’re camping in Eype, just down the coast from West Bay. No plan to buy a holiday home but I knew there was a cute looking cottage for sale in West Bay. I like to potter around estate agent’s websites occasionally, and we already loved West Dorset, in particular Bridport and West Bay. So we went to look at it, just for fun. We fell in love with it. Furthermore we could see the benefit of having our own little place in Dorset, near my parents. They were getting old and both unwell so it would make visiting them regularly easier. Plus the cottage was running as a holiday let already. We though we could do the same to cover its day to day costs. But really it wasn’t these practical thoughts that swayed us, owning a cottage by that beautiful coast and we’d be “living the dream”! We had to make up our minds quickly, the estate agent told us there were others interested. So we went for it, remortgaging our own house. We were lucky enough to win a nerve-racking sealed bidding process.
We got the keys to the cottage in early November (see top picture). The first evening we arrived in a howling gale with water coming in under the door! The cottage had been renovated within the last couple of years and we had bought a lot of the contents as part of the sale. We didn’t expect we’d need to do much to get it ready for guests. As soon as we stayed in it we found there were some things that needed improving fast. New beds and hob were first on the list, and stopping the fire alarms going off all the time. This was soon followed by a new TV (and an aerial, as it turned out we were connected to number 3’s one!), some baby stuff, the wood burner, and bits and bobs like mats, rugs, cushions, towels, bedding, kitchen utensils, garden furniture…the list goes on. We refreshed it indoors with a coat of paint.
What do we need to do?
Our knowledge about letting out a cottage was non-existent. I bought a book and found lots of useful information on an online holiday rental owner’s forum, Lay My Hat. We swotted up on the legalities, including a fire risk assessment and booking terms and conditions. I put together a visitor’s book with all the information our guests might need about the cottage, and our favourite things to do in the area too. A couple of simple spreadsheets later and we were ready to keep a track of bookings though the year (oh the fear of a double booking) and record all incoming money and outgoing costs, a tax requirement.
We needed a website and were happy the url westbaycottage.co.uk was available. We took some photos and planned the pages and what we wanted to say on them. That Christmas my husband set up a website (luckily he knew a bit about that sort of thing). We kept the same rental fees as the previous owners. A West Bay website advertised local holiday accommodation. We paid for a listing, linking to our website. An early decision was to keep things independent and look after the booking process by ourselves. Mostly to keep the costs down for us and prospective guests. A booking agency might bring in more bookings but we wanted to keep control and high occupancy wasn’t imperative.
The good times
Our website went live at the start of 2010 and it didn’t take long before we had a few bookings. I was nervous before our first guests arrived in March but I needn’t have worried. All was well. I was pleasantly surprised with the numbers of bookings coming in. The cottage was busy that first year, the numbers bumped up with family and friends wanting to stay there too. It turned out West Bay had a lot of fans, and this was before Broadchurch!
As the years went on we learned more about running a holiday home and streamlined the booking process. In 2017 I bit the bullet and created a responsive website. This was new to me but I followed online lessons on how to create a vacation rental website using WordPress. Daunting at first but quite fun. SEO remains a mystery to me but I started to share the odd Facebook entry, twitter comment and Instagram photo from West Bay Cottage. The course encouraged people to write blog posts, so I started to do that too. Mostly subjects I enjoy researching and find interesting about the area, like its history and the films and TV programmes made there. Statistics consistently show that the Dorset apple cake and Dorset knobs posts are the most read from google searches. Food wins hands down!
And a few not-so-good times
There have been a few stress-inducing times over the years. Late 2010 we had noisy builders next door, without warning, upsetting one set of guests. In 2014 a couple staying were very unhappy to find a camera crew on their doorstep. Turned out the Broadchurch team were filming a scene next door! We’ve had a few boiler problems over the years too. Just this New Year’s Eve we had to dash to the cottage to sort out the new “smart” thermostat. Very occasionally we’ve had a complaint. A couple of them with good reason and one or two not so much, a criticism about seagull feathers in the backyard springs to mind. It goes without saying that we want everyone to have a great holiday and find our cottage a pleasure to stay in. Even after ten mostly trouble-free years the worry that something might go wrong, or be found not up to scratch, still gets me. Being an off-site owner doesn’t help. The first thing I do when we arrive back at the cottage is read the comments left in the visitor’s book since our last visit. It’s so nice to read that people have had a happy time and enjoyed the cottage. It makes it all worthwhile.
Has letting the cottage covered the costs?
Yes, letting our cottage has enabled it to “pay it’s way” so far, with some thanks to Broadchurch for making West Bay even more popular. We put much of the profit back into the cottage. Lots has been replaced at least once, including all the kitchen appliances, the tiling in the kitchen and bathroom, stuff in the TV corner, the table and chairs, as well as less obvious things such as the electrics and the boiler. For us the opportunity to keep it as charming and practical as we can is definitely worth it.
A couple of tips for prospective holiday home owners
We’ve learnt that staying there often ourselves is invaluable, although it’s not the relaxing time guests enjoy. We check up on things and do any repairs, replacements, touch-ups or deeper cleaning required. Plus I feel the need to return all the kitchen things to their “rightful” position and move things around on the kitchen shelf!
Anything we might do differently with hindsight? Ideally we’d like to live nearer to our holiday home. The same old car journey gets a bit boring. The expected journey time of three hours expands if the M25 is slow. We reckon the prospect of 90 minutes max travel time ahead would be much more appealing on a Friday evening. But the gripe is not really one to be levelled at our West Bay cottage, it’s more a negative aspect of living just north of London but loving West Dorset!
So my advise to anyone thinking of buying a holiday home is, if you want to do it purely for financial profit, it’s probably not worth it. But if you like making a place nice, running your own business and fancy faffing around with a website, then yeah, just go for it.