Rob and I have been running holiday lets for nearly ten years now. When we bought our first house together the nature of my job meant I couldn’t live in it during term time. We didn’t want to rent it out all the year around as I needed a place to escape. The ideal solution was to rent it out as a holiday let.
The benefit of this was we had someone else helping us out with the mortgage and we could book it ourselves when we needed a break. Also, with the recent crack down on buy-to-let renting, there are some great Tax Advantages to running a Furnished Holiday Let instead of a normal domestic let.
We didn’t start out with the intention of making much money beyond covering costs, but it turned out to be quite profitable and we have successfully run a number of holiday lets in the countryside.
Holiday letting has a positive impact on our local community which isn’t saturated with holiday cottages in the same way counties such as Devon and Cornwall are. The local pubs and restaurants enjoy the extra custom, and local farm shops also do well as my guests love a good farm shop stock-up.
Be warned, to do it properly you need to invest money. Guests have high expectations and your gran’s old sofas won’t cut it any more. Cleaning, laundry and gardening costs can be astronomical, so do your research. (These costs can be offset against profit, though, in a way domestic lets can’t.)
I have learned a great deal over the past ten years about how to successfully run a holiday let. The following points are entirely my personal opinion. I am happy to elaborate or answer any questions so do feel free to use the comments section below.
1. Starting up and running your Holiday Let
Choose your property carefully.
There’s no point buying a place where people don’t go. Try your tourist office to find popular areas for visiting. If you look at any holiday letting site you will see the same most requested features: Nearby Pub and Shops; Wood burner or Open Fire; Coastal or Countryside location; King-sized beds; High-Speed WiFi; Hot tubs; Private, enclosed garden and Pet/Family friendly. Bear all of this in mind when looking for a cottage. Try and find one near to where you live as it’s a nightmare sorting out an emergency if you are miles away.
Go through an agent until you have built up a good customer base
We have always gone with a traditional holiday letting company: Cottages.com (aka Cottages 4 you, Hoseasons, Wyndham Vacations, English Country Cottages). We have also used Mulberry Cottages who were also very good. We haven’t used Airbnb so I can’t comment on their services.
We found it best to go with a company. Although they can take anything up to 30% of your money, (always negotiate! We have managed to save thousands by playing hardball as they really wanted to list our cottage) they have an enormous advertising reach and sort out the collection and distribution of money. They can also be really helpful if you have a problem guest.
We found after a few years we built up a regular list of guests who kept returning. Once that relationship had been established we could have made private arrangements and cut out the middle man.
Get a decent and reliable cleaner – preferably a company
I cannot emphasise enough how important this is. Cleanliness – and I mean absolutely spotlessly clean – is your (and your guests’) number one concern. Of course you can always save a lot of money by cleaning the house yourself, but if you don’t have the time – Rob and I both work full-time – you will have to find a cleaner.
We tried local individual cleaners, who were fine, but a couple of times they couldn’t make the changeover as they had child care problems or they were ill. This caused a complete panic as we were at work and the guests were arriving within four hours.
Cleaning companies are more expensive, but they have teams of workers so you won’t be let down. Trust me, the last thing you want is a family of travel-weary guests arriving at your cottage to find used bed linen still on the beds and rubbish everywhere.
Check, check and re-check they are cleaning your cottage properly. Show them the bad reviews if guests comment on poor standards. So much easier than having to bring it up yourself – the reviews do the work for you. During the main season (May to September) have the cottage deep-cleaned each month. It’s easy to be busy and fully booked and then you don’t notice the build up of grime. Trust me, your guests will.
You really do have to do things like run your finger across the tops of pictures and mirrors to check for dust. Watch out for the taps, they should be gleaming. I once had a guest take photographs to prove the cottage wasn’t clean enough. He sent shots of dust lingering under the bed, a bit of dirt inside the toothbrush holder and for his last picture, must have stuck his head inside the microwave oven.
Write a Good Handbook
This is essential. Spend time on it. We found the most effective format was getting A4 folders with plastic pouches like this one. These are great as you can easily update information without having to re-produce the whole thing.
Get leaflets from local tourist attractions. This site has some useful advice. Most of it is common sense, but don’t forget to include manuals for things like microwaves and TVs, instructions on central heating (most guests seem to lose all their brain cells when faced with an unfamiliar heating system), and maps of local walks. Don’t forget to include detailed instructions on what to do with the rubbish. Print out the advice from your local council for reference. It can be very complicated and your guest may be used to a different way of dealing with recycling. It’s worth texting them to remind them to put the bins out as, in our experience, they always forget.
Bed Linen, Towels and Laundry
Buy the best quality bed linen you can. Same goes for towels. Get bath sheets. I have bought bed linen from The White Company (in a sale) and from Asda. The Asda set was a tenth of the price, but guess which crisp white linen is still going strong ten years’ later? (It wasn’t the set from Asda). I have also found great Egyption Cotton towel bundles on Ebay which have been very good. Check the reviews carefully though, as some can be too thin. You want big, white, fluffy bath sheets – well who doesn’t?
You’re absolute best bet is to go to companies like Out of Eden. Last year I bought ten double sets, five king-size bed sets, and ten sets of single bed sets all from them. Not only are they nice white cotton, they LABEL THE SIZES! I can’t tell you what a boon this is. When you’re sorting up to six sets of bedding and it’s all white cotton, you wouldn’t believe how difficult it can be to tell the difference between a double and a king-size duvet cover.
Out of Eden also do lovely things like disposable toothbrush and toothpaste sets. My guests go crazy for these, and often mention them in their reviews.
Get your sheets ironed. I know – it’s a pain. But guests appreciate crisp, clean sheets. Impossible to do at home, find a good laundry company. There are loads out there. Maybe you can wash the sheets yourself and find a company that takes it away to be ironed. It’s easy to wash and dry all the towels at home, so you can save money there.
Get a HIVE for your heating
Have a look here if you don’t know what this is. It is a Godsend to the holiday letting landlord. The Hive is a remote way to control your heating and hot water. You download an app to your phone which connects to your cottage. You can turn everything off the moment guests leave and turn it back on before the next guest so the cottage is warm and welcoming. It’s horrible to arrive at your cottage to find it freezing, with the heating taking ages to warm the place up. Using the Hive means you can turn it all on an hour or two before they are due to get there. It has also saved us a fortune.
Many guests think that turning the thermostat to 32 degrees will mean the house will heat up more quickly. With the app we can keep an eye on this, and turn it down a notch or two if they are being extravagant with the gas. We haven’t had a guest notice, so far.
If we were paying council tax on our cottage it would be about £100 a month. As we have registered the property as a Furnished Holiday Let we qualify for Business Rates. Because our income is relatively small, we qualify for Business Rate Relief so we don’t pay anything at all. I hasten to add I am writing this in January 2018, this may change in the future. An obvious way to save money.
Build up a list of contacts for plumbers and electricians
You may have to call on a plumber or electrician to sort out a problem as a matter of urgency as you have a family with very young children shivering in the dark of your cottage. You need to have names of good, highly-recommended local tradesmen who you can rely on to come at any time and sort out the problem. This is particularly useful if you are not nearby.
Make sure your cottage is fully equipped
Buy good quality toiletries, any hospitality website like Out of Eden supply them. You can buy a giant refill and just top up the little bottles. Of course you could have a fancy bottle which you replace with slightly cheaper soap liquid; they look lovely in your spotless and gleaming bathroom.
Go to somewhere like TK Maxx to get quality kitchen equipment like peelers, cutlery and so on. It’s fairly inexpensive there and they seem to last longer. Imagine yourself in that kitchen wanting to cook a family roast dinner, or a cake, a stir fry, curry or risotto. Have you all the things you need to make them from scratch? As well as plates, glasses, cups, knives forks and spoons for six people (or however many you sleep)? Lots of our guests use their holidays to spend time cooking and we get in trouble if we haven’t provided a garlic peeler.
One guest commented we had everything we needed, ‘even chopsticks!’. It’s little touches like these that impress guests, and impressed guests writes good reviews.
Get a decent Key Safe. Guests are happy to use them and it means you don’t have to meet and greet if you can’t get away from work. We use the Supra model from The Key Safe Company. We’ve tried loads of others from different places and they all broke. This is recommended by the police and has never let us down. We now have four of them.
2. Decorating/Renovating your cottage
Keep things clean, light and bright
As you can see from the picture above, we managed to make a big difference to the stair well just by re-painting, and removing a door. Guests do not like, in our experience, dark, gloomy and cluttered cottages. Old buildings look gorgeous, but they often have low ceilings and small windows so can feel very oppressive. We try to use light colours as they are easier to keep clean – and touch up – and we make sure there are only a few ornaments dotted about. Make sure you create plenty of storage space – and give them wooden hangers! Guests loathe plastic and metal coat hangers.
Think about flooring
Carpets can get grubby very quickly over the main season. Especially if you allow pets and children. By the way, we pushed our bookings up by allowing guests to bring two dogs. You can charge extra for pets and the owners tend to be very responsible.
We went for hard floors with rugs in our cottages. The bedrooms are carpeted, but hard floors are so much easier to keep clean, especially as you have only five hours for a changeover and you need to get everything done quickly.
3. The Importance of Customer Service
Holiday Letting is a service industry and in today’s review culture you must make sure your guests are happy. If you can’t cope with the general public (who can be lovely but can also be absolutely awful) you are in the wrong business. If we get a bad review we see bookings dip – it’s a simple as that. I know people who are very laissez-faire about customer reviews but they are idiots. Here are a couple of things we have learned.
They are on holiday, remember that, and sort things out quickly
It’s easy to forget, when you are dealing with yet another complaint from a newly arrived guest, having only just seen the last lot out, that these are people who have looked forward to their holiday for months. They may have travelled a long way, and are looking forward to a good break from their stressful lives. If they arrive to find the heating not working, or the place untidy, or light bulbs blown, they will be understandably disappointed. Be courteous at all times and rectify the situation as quickly as possible.
We have have had all sorts of things go wrong: an infestation of ants; heating and hot water breaking down; cleaning company forgetting to turn up; sofas breaking; radiators flooding and bedroom door handles falling off, locking the guests inside.
On every occasion the guests were understandably upset. Each time we made every possible effort to resolve the problem straight away. We found that guests are usually very understanding. They appreciate things can go wrong which are beyond our control, but you must take visible and immediate action to do all you can. They then don’t complain or give a bad review.
Keep them entertained
The weather in the UK is temperamental to say the least and some poor guests may find they are stuck inside for the length of their precious holiday due to pouring rain. Make sure you have plenty of games, books, pool tables, DVDs, jigsaws, paper and pens etc to keep them happy. Think about getting two televisions, if possible, as we find families really appreciate the chance to split up the adults and children to get a break from each other. A nice wood-burning stove can also cheer a place up when the weather is miserable and grey
Provide a decent Welcome Pack
My husband and I argue about this all the time as he says it’s a waste of money spending too much on a welcome pack. I disagree. In our reviews and guest books we get more positive comments about the welcome pack than almost every other aspect of the cottage. Guests really, really appreciate a good welcome pack. Milk, tea and coffee are basics, of course. We also include a bottle of white wine, a nice cake from M&S and some local salted crisps. In the kitchen is a Tassimo coffee machine so we provide a couple of pods for that as well. The toothbrush set, in case they have forgotten theirs, and a couple of dishwasher tablets complete the pack which is presented in a nice wicker hamper. It always goes down well.
4. Some Final General Tips
Give clear instructions about how to leave the house but don’t go on about it.
Don’t be too dictatorial about how they should leave the house at the end of the holiday beyond ‘as you found it’. Judith Woods wrote a very funny article in The Telegraph titled ‘Why do Holiday Cottages have so many Rules?‘ As landlady myself, I can see the attraction of writing ‘bossy lists’ but this can ruin someone’s holiday, and trust me, the review will be terrible.
One instruction I would recommend (as it can be hugely helpful) is about laundry. Ask your guests to put all their used towels in bath. Also, get them to put bed sets into one of its own pillow case – if that makes sense – so you can keep them all together: sheet, pillowcases and duvet cover. Not only does this mean you know what doesn’t need washing, it saves time when doing the changeover. Stripping beds can take ages so get them to do some of the work for you.
Beware large groups without children or babies
In our experience if we have a group of six booking a week or a weekend without any children going, its either a stag do or a hen do. You can’t stop them, but bear in mind it may take a little longer to tidy up. The last time this happened to us we arrived at the cottage to find six glitter pink cowgirl hats and hundreds of pink feather boas scattered all over the place. They’d clearly had a whale of a time but those pink feathers got everywhere.
These seem like a godsend. Especially in the slow months – January to March and October to December. You’re not getting any rent in and you are feeling skint. The company phones you up to say someone wants to stay there for two months. Great!
But. You might want to ask a few questions first. Often, it’s a couple or family needing somewhere to stay while they wait for their house sale to go through. That’s fine. Sometimes, though, it’s a building company who have a big local job on and want you to host a gang of their builders or plasterers for a few months.
We have never had a good experience with this. One set of carpenters stayed for a week and didn’t use the dishwasher once. When the cleaning company arrived they found the guests had left every single plate they’d used, along with a knife and fork and bits of old, rotting food, lined up all around the kitchen.
More recently, plasterers were staying. They were there three months. I offered them fresh bedding every week but their boss said they would wash their own linen. When we went to do the changeover each bed was marked with the ghostly, greasy imprint of male plasterers who had clearly not changed the sheets once.
The evidence in the kitchen would suggest that every meal they had consisted of fried fish, which they cooked in a deep fat fryer they had bought with them – and left behind – which also had not been cleaned the length of their stay. The smell was indescribable.
Here’s a picture of our gardens in full bloom to try and ameliorate that image…
So that’s it. I’m sure I’ll think of more things over time so perhaps I’ll write another blog. I’d love to hear any comments or questions you might have. Do get in touch. I hope I haven’t put you off holiday letting! We have really enjoyed running these lets and have met some wonderful people from all over the world.