Friday 28 August 2015

Travelling to the Holiday Cottage

This week's guests in the  cottage travelled to us in Derbyshire from London. Unusually they travelled by train. Most of our guests arrive by car. The trip on the train from London to Derby city is easy. It takes between two hours to two and a half hours, and you usually don't have to change trains. By car the same trip can take upwards of three hours depending on the level of congestion on the motorway.

The last leg of their journey involved a couple of changes, they had to catch a local train from Derby to Duffield (about 10 minutes). From Duffield they travelled on the Ecclesbourne Valley Railway. The EVR is one of those private tourist rail services run by enthusiastic volunteers. During the summer the services are reasonably frequent.

I was a bit surprised when our guests turned up on foot at the front door of the cottage. They were exactly on time and carried only a small rucksack each. They are obviously used to this style of travel though it is the first time they'd visited Wirksworth. The town is small,but has a heritage going back hundreds of years, some of it is pre-Roman.

The organisers of the EVR were pleased their service had been used for part of a long distance journey.

Wednesday 26 August 2015

Increasing the comfort at the holiday home

Yesterday we delivered a new mattress and pillows for the bed at the holiday home. When we originally furnished the place last year we chose new furniture. However the budget was limited as we were uncertain as to the financial success of the project. So the bed was of reasonable quality, but not really luxurious.

This year, following a change of agents to Sykes, we have been booked just about every week of the holiday season. We are going to make a small operating profit of income over running expenses. We decided to upgrade the bed and also add a casual chair to the lounge. The new pillows and mattress are much more comfortable. The chair came from a local antiques store, it also is very comfortable as a reading chair. We'd received no direct comments from our guests about poor quality furnishings, in fact several praised the quality, but it was not up to the quality we'd expect. Inside the house the furnishing and linen is of the same quality you'd receive in a four star hotel.

As we were driving to install the new bedding we had another call from Sykes. Someone wanted to take the cottage from today. We've been fully booked through August and now September is filling too.

Sunday 23 August 2015

Little things take the time

We had a call from our current guests. They  were asking if they could do something to get the TV in the holiday home working properly. A couple of the TV channels were not displaying correctly. We use the Freesat service. My guess was the transmitting companies had changed some frequencies and this had not been updated on the TV. As usual we'd checked the TV worked before the rental started. We do this for every rental, but I confess we don't check every channel routinely.
I'd noticed the guest were not comfortable with technology, so  I had to visit the holiday home to re-tune the TV. It is not difficult to do, but the round trip took over an hour. I'd not previously worked with this particular TV tuning, but it was reasonably straightforward. My hunch was proved correct and now the guests have excellent quality reception.

Saturday 22 August 2015

Phone system is a hit,

It seems the idea of installing a hotel style of phone in the holiday cottage is a hit with our guests. When we greet them on arrival we mention they only have to pick up the handset and dial 10 to reach us free of charge.

The guests make good use of the facility, but don't abuse it.

So far no guest has asked for the outgoing call facility, preferring to use their own mobile phones. They'd find our call charges are lower than BT or their mobile providers (outside of plan), particularly for international calls.

Friday 14 August 2015

New credit/debit card reader

We occasionally need to add a fee for our guests which is outside of the primary rental handled by our agents (Sykes Cottages). An example of this is a deposit fee for the use of the in-house telephone system, or perhaps accepting the outstanding balance of call costs. The benefit to our guests is the don't have to use cash. If they are from another country the currency conversion is automatic on their credit/debit card account.

I've just been trying out Paypal's new reader. It handles CHIP and PIN, magnetic strip swipe and also touch payment. The reader links by BlueTooth wireless to your iPad/iPhone or Android Tablet/Phone. You have to download the appropriate PayPal/Here App from Google Play or from Apple as appropriate. After minimal configuration the device is up and working.for the first time in a few minutes. Subsequently it doesn't take long to get it operational again.

You need to have:

  • A PayPal Business Account
  • A Wifi or 3G/4G signal to allow you phone/tablet to connect to the Internet.
The handling fee is about 2.75% per transaction.

Operating a configured device is quite easy. First start the PayPal Here App on your tablet/Phone. Get things going by typing in your PaylPal password on your tablet/phone, Then switch on the bluetooth card reader. You enter details of the transaction on your/tablet/phone to get a total fee. You then hand the card reader to your client. It shows the amount you intend to charge. Ask them to either touch,insert, or swipe the magnetic strip of their card. For the latter two they will be asked to enter their card PIN. Your client can then approve the transaction.

Once the payment has been approved you can print a receipt or email a copy to them. The App will display some limited statistics such as transactions and totals. Unlike the iZettle approach you cannot do "Card Not Present" payments, you'd need a different Paypal service to handle those, it costs £20 a month to do that. 

My initial impression is that it works well, ideal for a small business which needs to take an occasional card payment face to face.

Correction 3rd Nov 15: You can do card-not-present payments. I've just taken one for the cottage. It was simple. Though it should be noted Paypal charge extra for such payments - around 3.5%.

Wednesday 12 August 2015

Wrong number - inherited problems

As part of the facilities in the holiday home I've added a phone system. It uses the same VOIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) technology as I'd recommend for a small business. We use a hosted service which means the hard technical work is done by an external company. All we have to do is plug in a phone to the cottage Internet and change a few technical parameters and it works.

We've configured the service so that it acts as an extension phone. All the guest has to do to contact us is to pick-up the handset dial 10 and they will be connected to me free of charge. To prevent costs spiralling we restrict outgoing calls that would attract a fee. If the guests need to use the phone for outgoing calls we can switch on the facility in a couple of minutes via a web browser. At the end of the stay we can present a an itemised call bill to the guest. Usually however guests use their own mobile phone for their calls. We can also prevent calls to expensive numbers. It costs us about £3/month to provide the service, calls are additional but cheaper than BT tariffs..

The phone comes with a local DDI number so the family and friends of the guest can call the number on the cottage phone. There's no charge for these incoming calls and the phone has voice mail capabilities. When we were choosing the number we were able to get one that is easy to memorise. The number ends as 888111, which is pretty easy to remember. However this is where the problems started.

It turns out the national dialling prefix number is only one digit different (adjacent on a phone keypad) from a telephone exchange in Dawlish down on the south coast of England. There's a taxi company in Dawlish with the same 888111 for its telephone number.  We started to receive calls late at night from people wanting to order a taxi. Presumably they'd been to a pub, had too much to drink, and then needed a taxi to take themselves home. Rather easy to mis-dial in that level of mental capability.

Fortunately the facilities on the VOIP service allow us to redirect call straight to voice mail on a timed basis. We were able to say any incoming call between 10 p.m. and 7 a,m. should route to voice mail without disturbing the guests. 

The full number had also been previously allocated to a local business that had failed. We started to receive calls from a debt collection agency wanting contact the owner of the failed company. Thanks to the facilities on the VOIP management system I was able to contact the agency and ask them to remove the number from their database.

Edit: 28th Aug 2015 - We had a call from a different debt collection agency wanting to contact the previous owner of the number. They too have agreed not to call the number again. These calls are not a major problem, but I don't want the guests disturbed by them.

Tuesday 11 August 2015

Why did we leave London?

Life in Derbyshire with us on pensions and some income from the holiday home is a bit like being on permanent holiday. We don't have anything like the disposable income we used to have, but I've just been listening to the London News. Yet two more 24 hour London Underground strikes because the management and the Unions can't agree on a package to introduce 24 hour trains.  London gets ever more crowded and house prices keep rising so our children can't afford to buy.  Some thirty years ago we bought a Victorian terraced house in London. Its price was 3.5 times my salary as a junior manager.  The same house is now priced 15  times my son's annual salary and his work is similar level to mine 30 years ago. How can our kids afford to raise a family?

So the City is crowded, the transport is overloaded, housing is too expensive, schools are overfull. In Derbyshire today my main problem was the freezer in the holiday home hadn't defrosted because I'd not turned it off properly. Walk into Wirksworth town and even strangers will say hello to you.

Run out of time - must dash

We popped into the holiday cottage in Wirksworth to collect the laundry after the departure of the guests. They'd actually left dirty dishes in the kitchen sink and stuff in the fridge. It was a bit like the Marie Celeste, as though they suddenly had to leave before finishing. The rest of the house was clean and tidy, it was just those few dishes. It's no great problem for us to wash them up.  I wondered how the couple felt as they were driving home along the motorway and the realisation came to them that they'd left a mess for us to handle?

The agency who organises the rental asks our guests to rate their experience at our cottage. There's review sites like Tripadvisor where comments can be left by visitors to our cottage. However there doesn't seem to be the reverse, a central site where holiday home owners can rate their visitors.

Friday 7 August 2015

New washing machine up and running.

The replacement washing machine was delivered bang on time this morning. It is now installed by me and is undergoing the "First Wash" after delivery. So all should be ready in time for our new guests this afternoon. The installation was a bit fiddly but went well without any major hitches. We aim to provide a comfortable clean environment for our guests. It is not luxurious because we allow guests to bring a pet. We've learned that if an item of equipment fails in the cottage  it is best to replace it with new as quickly as possible and without any quibble.

We turned up at the cottage at 10:00 am, the official check-out time, to find the earlier guests still in residence. We said it was no problem, but we had to come in to un-install the failed machine, ready for collection by the delivery men.

While checking the furniture after the departure of the renters we found they'd managed to spill some liquid and stain the sofa base. I wish they'd told us in case some remedial action was required prior to the next guest. Arrgh!

We need to be sure our guests have access to the operating instructions on the washer/dryer machine. To an inexperienced man the various dials and soap containers do look complicated. We also have to guard against someone losing the only copy of the manual, so I took the original home. Once there I cut it into individual pages and scanned them into my PC. Once done I was able to print a new copy and leave that in the Guests Cottage Manual. The following day I discovered an electronic version of the washer/dryer instruction on-line on the manufacturer's website, so I didn't need to scan.

Giving an old building new life

In September 2013 my wife Sue and I live in Derbyshire after retiring from London. After a shopping trip to Matlock we were driving through the town of Wirksworth in Derbyshire. We'd taken the road as an alternative route because the A6 main road was very busy. We'd been through this route a few times before, but this time we decided to stop, have a cup of tea and look around. Some parts of the town are plain ugly, but other parts reveal the long history going back to Roman times. We were walking around the older parts of the town and we happened to glance in an estate agent (realtor) shop window and saw some properties for sale. A couple of weeks later we came back for a serious house hunt as we wanted to buy an investment property.

We'd short-listed five properties in Wirksworth for closer inspection. They were of various sizes, ages and values. Some had been converted into holiday homes and all had different features worth consideration. However on walking through the door of No 2 Warmbrook we knew this was the house we wanted to buy as an investment. It's small compared to our home, but our budget was not unlimited. As it was a later Victorian property, 2 up 2 down style of house, we knew what to expect.

The decor was in poor shape and there was a damp musty smell to the house. We could see no signs of subsidence which was a plus point.  The lounge and bedroom ceilings were cracked. The back bedroom had been subjected to a crude partial conversion to provide a cramped bathroom and a half sized bedroom too small for a bed. I could see the tile roof was sagging at the back of the house and also in the front of the adjoining terraced house. A quick peek through the loft hatch revealed light coming through the roof in a few places and no insulation in the attic. 

Paint was flaking off the front door and on the street facing brick work. All of the interior paint work was aged and tired. The wall plaster was original but showing its age, blown in places and mostly covered in thick wallpaper to hide the imperfections. Up in the bathroom there were signs of rotten floor boards and some woodworm. The light fittings looked to be about 30 years old.

The roof of the shared outhouses was in a state of near collapse and the garden was weedy with a rotten fence. The Vendor had not put too much investment into preparing the house for sale. The Estate Agent mentioned there'd not been a lot of interest in the property.

The house was just what we wanted!  We put in a cash offer a couple of days later and called our solicitors and said we had some more business for them. We contacted our Buildings Surveyor and asked him to run a survey, but he had to turn us down as he'd surveyed the property originally for the vendor. The repeat the survey for us would have been a conflict of interest, so we found another surveyor and went ahead with the purchase process. After the usual tribulations of house purchase it became our property at the end of November 2013.

We quickly set about the restoration process of our new property. Our plan was to replaster, remodel and repaint the building. As we worked on the project we found evidence of some woodworm activity which require treatment and also the roof required a major overhaul.

After a couple of very dusty months the interior walls are smooth with new plaster. We've completely repainted the walls, ceilings and wood work. We took out the cramped compromise bathroom where the previous owner had taken half of the back bedroom. The house no longer has a bath, but a much more convenient and spacious shower room with completely new fittings. In the process we absorbed the back bedroom which had been too small to use. The wiring for the house has been checked and refurbished. The central heating and plumbing has been tidied. There's new carpet in the lounge, bedroom and stairs. The kitchen floor was given a new screed and a new vinyl surface. The roof no longer leaks and the sagging rafters and roof tiles were fixed. We treated the roof timbers with woodworm treatment and an anti-fungal as a precaution. The roof has been properly insulated to 30 cm deep fibreglass wool. It is now a well appointed warm and cosy house.

Progress in the Holiday Home

We've swapped agencies for holiday home rental this year as the earlier one was just not performing. Since joining Sykes Holiday Cottages we have seen a considerable increase in business. Last year with the previous agency we made a loss, this year we should break even on income/running costs and fees.

On the whole our guests have been good, though some are definitely smokers. We can always tell when we visit to check and clean the cottage when people have departed. The smell of tobacco smoke lingers.

Our current guests discovered the washer/dryer machine was not working properly. We've ordered a new replacement machine and we are just about to set off to receive the new machine and install it today, between lettings. Meanwhile we've given our guests a free laundry service, collecting and returning the clothes to them in the same day.