Tuesday 30 April 2019

Washing Load

Our guests rarely see is the amount of work involved in preparing for each guest holiday. Here's a photo of a laundry collection after a couple of guests have left after a week's stay. It represents 2-3 loads in our large washing machine.

Part of that load are cushion covers for the settee in the lounge. One of them became heavily stained by one of the guests. This occurred a few days after we'd installed freshly laundered cushion covers on the settee.  It's a grease stain which required us to use solvents to remove the mark.

At least twice a month we take bedding to a local laundry service to have bed linen professionally ironed. The costs of this facility mount up, but it improves the quality offered to our guests. Typically we spend around £12 per booking visit for this service, this excludes the  costs of first running the load through our washing machine and dryer. Here's a copy of one of the bills.

Monday 22 April 2019

Stiff Locks on Easter Sunday

We had a call from our latest guest on Easter Sunday afternoon. She just arrived, obtained the key from the keysafe, but thought she'd jammed the back door lock at the cottage in Wirksworth.  We'd had our handyman install new 5-lever locks when we took on the cottage six years ago, but they always been a bit cranky and needed a bit of key jiggling to unlock/lock the doors. Possibly quality issue on low cost locks from a builders merchant? I offered my apologies to our friends who'd come for lunch, grabbed some tools and jumped into the car to drive over to Wirksworth.

On the way as I drove over, she called and said she'd been able to get into the cottage, but the lock was still difficult to use.  Ten minutes later I'd arrived at the cottage and started to diagnose the problem. Of course when I used my own copy of the key, the lock worked okay. I tried the cottage key and the lock worked okay, so I asked our guest to show me her using  the key on the door and the problems returned, even when I tried using the key. I checked the key, using vernier calipers to make sure it was correctly cut and it was okay.  I then tried my key again, but the lock was very stiff.

Our guest left to take her dog for a walk, leaving me to resolve the problems. I decided to lubricate the lock with Graphite dust.  This involved removing the sash lock mechanism from the door. When I inspected the lock I realised the anti-pick shield in the key way prevented easy lubrication. It was time to open the lock body to lubricate the internal key levers. I did think about purchasing a new lock, but as it was late Easter Sunday afternoon there was no chance at finding a locksmith shop open.

As I released the three retaining screws of the lock case and opened it there was a ping noise as a spring under tension dislodged an internal part of the lock. Ooops!

I spayed some silicone lubricant and graphite dust on the levers and other moving parts of the lock and attempted to reassemble the lock. After the first attempt I replaced the case retaining screws and tested the lock. It didn't work! When I reopened the case I found one of the lock levers had become displaced.  It took an extra hour's worth of fiddling to reassemble the lock in a working condition and replace it in the door.  I SMS messaged our guests with the good news and left the cottage in a locked up state. Since then, no further complaints. It seems some lubricant has improved matters.

The following morning I was on the Internet to order two replacement security locks and spare keys. This time I've purchased high quality, British manufactured, security locks. They are supplied as "keyed alike", so the same key will be able to open both the back and front doors. This arrangement will simplify locking up for the guests and reduce the number of keys required in the cottage.The new locks will replace the existing cottage door locks. I'll retain the old locks as spares as spares. 

We keep plenty of spare keys. The 5-lever lock keys need to be cut by a good locksmith, not just by a cheap shoe repair shop key copying. The cheap keys often don't work well in security locks. We had one unidentified guest who'd lost one of the cottage keys and had had a low cost copy made in a shoe repair booth. It gave endless problems and took us a while to work out the cause. Since then we have instituted a policy of charging for lost keys.

Saturday 20 April 2019

PhD in rubbish

One point which always puzzles me is why local authorities make the process of rubbish disposal and recycling so complex for the average householder. The schemes seem to differ between adjoining boroughs. It is even worse for us, because  in our self catering holiday cottage we have different guests every week and getting them to dispose of the rubbish within the rules on the right day is a bit of a nightmare.

In our case the council treat our cottage as a business premises. We can either contract with a private waste disposal firm or pre-buy specially marked green trade waste bags. These bags cost about 60 pence each. They are collected twice weekly early in the morning from the street close to the front of the cottage. There's no published schedule of collections for the trade waste bags, so we can't leave it in our Cottage Visitor's Manual. We have to remember to tell our guests in advance, and get them to put the bags out the night before, otherwise they'll miss the collection. If they miss the collection it is another two weeks before a general trade waste collection takes place.

The council do collect a food waste bin, for composting, once a week on a Tuesday excepting Bank Holiday weeks when it is a different day. There's a special small bin for that purpose, but the food waste must be in special biodegradable bags. Our guests usually forget to put this bin out, and when they do it frequently "goes walkies" from the street during the day.

The council also collect recycling, every other week, even from those places classed as businesses. The recycling bin has a detachable inner bin. This inner bin is used to hold paper and card, but not shredded paper, the paper must not be bagged or taped. The main bin is for metal cans, plastics and glass, but not sheet/film plastic, nor expanded foam plastic. Broken glass or window glass should not be put into the recycling bin.Scrap household appliances should not be put into recycling, but separate disposal arranged. Batteries should not be put into general waste nor the recycling bin. No rubble, sand or decorators material should be in general waste or recycling.

Separate arrangements exist for garden waste collection and also any medical waste.

The rules are different in adjoining boroughs and the bin colours are different for the various types of waste.

Now all we have to do is get strangers, who just want to be on holiday to follow those rules!

Wednesday 17 April 2019

Waiting to decorate the place

Our holiday cottage is due some renovation to the exterior paint work, and the interior could do with some freshening as well. I'd planned to undertake the work over the winter, but my NHS Lottery ticket came up in the shape of a cataract operation to restore my failing eyesight. The advice was to rest totally for the first month after the operation then nothing too strenuous over the next six months. So I had to put the decorating work on hold over winter. We also need to have a dry spell, not too cold overnight, so that the paint is given time to cure, but not too long, so that the layer of paint chemically bond.
I'd set some time aside to do this painting work a few weeks back, but just as I was gathering the equipment I had a text message from some unexpected guests telling me they arrive in 30 minutes. More on this story here. The last few weeks have been too cold for the paint to work properly, but finally we have a warm spell with no rain for a few days. Ironically we have some Easter guests in the cottage, so I don't want to disturb their peace. It is not a task that can be split over separate weeks.

Previously the external paint works had been done by our helpful handyman (not me), but he's not a decorator. The results were good, but the external stuff hasn't lasted well. When he went with my wife to choose the paints they chose external quality acrylic paint for the woodwork. It is easy to apply, but it just doesn't seem to last as well as solvent/oil based paints. I'm a traditionalist, and I've maintained sea water dinghies for a sea scout troop. I've found that marine yacht paint seems to last a lot longer than other paints. It is a bit more difficult to apply and get good results, but it does resist bad weather better without so much cracking and peeling. 

For the woodwork, I've purchased: 

The lower wall on the street side of the building are a different matter. A couple of years ago on the advice of the adjoining building owner I repainted the brickwork with a cheap tile paint from Wilco's. The reasoning was it would match his place and colour scheme in the Conservation area. The paint has not weathered well and is flaking quite badly. It also suffers from roadsplash and salt from the winter road de-icing. The walls are also quite porous and allow the rain/damp through to the detriment of the plaster inside the lounge.  For the outer wall, I decided to invest in some good quality exterior wall renovation paint. I'll use a chemical stripper to clean off the masonry first, then several coats to properly protect the surface.

For the wall, I've purchased:

I'm just hoping I've got the colours of the paint right.  It looked good on my PC screen when I ordered the paints late at night, but they do look a bit garish in the can.  I've since purchased a proper paint colour swatch book for the colour schemes used by these paint suppliers. If the local authority moans I can always apply another coat of paint to tone down the colours.

Tuesday 9 April 2019

Using the orchard

We have an orchard where guests staying in the Wirksworth Warmbrook cottage can visit and relax. The river Ecclesbourne is at one end of the orchard. In the summer there's shady spots to lounge and enjoy the countryside. There is also a charcoal BBQ, it is kept chained, so you'll need to contact us first.

It is located close to the Railway Inn (Cowers Lane) on the 6.1 bus route between Wirksworth and Belper. The distance by road is 5.2 miles, with a car journey time of 10 mins.

For more information, visit www.turnditch.org

Monday 8 April 2019

Why do we do it?

Why do we provide a holiday cottage for rental? It is part of our investment for retirement. We didn't buy-to-let using a mortgage. We invested our own retirement savings to purchase the place and to then renovate it for rental. Ignoring the capital involved in the purchase the holiday home doesn't run at a profit yet. After five years the running and set up costs are still larger than the income received from the holiday letting company.

If we'd taken the same money that we spent on purchasing the building and renovating the cottage, and instead handed it to our financial advisor to invest in a fund over the same period, we'd be approximately £40,000 in profit.  However the problem with financial investments is the risk. Banks and share markets can do crazy things and that £40K profit could be wiped out overnight. That sad thing is that property is a more stable investment. It is called investment portfolio diversification.

If however I'd put the same money into Amazon shares at the start of the period we'd be showing a profit of £623,000.  It just goes to show you can't always get it right! You cannot predict the risk.

Our major costs are:

  • 20% of booking fee goes to the agency; and we pay VAT on the remainder passed to us.
  • Power, water utilities, Internet Broadband (business contract),insurance - we still have to pay those even when the place is empty;
  • Laundry costs;
  • Rates;
  • TV Licence;
  • Replacement of broken and stolen white goods;
  • Replacement central heating;
  • Decorating bills and maintenance;
  • Furniture repair and renewal;
  • Tax accounting service £20/month
  • Kitchen towels at £2.75 per week;
  • Laundry and cleaning costs.

So if someone tells us the place is too expensive, we agree but we are not thinking of the booking rates paid by the guests! I worked out that we in effect subsidise our guests to the tune of £30 for each booking night. Add the cost to that of 2-3 man hours work from us for each turnaround for a new guest.

The perils of letting a Holiday Home

Last year we had an unfortunate development linked to our holiday home. It shows some of the risks associated with letting out your property to other people. We had a regular customer, who'd frequently stay in our cottage. For the sake of this article I'll call him John. He always booked the cottage through our holiday let agency Sykes Cottages. On his first visit he arrived with his "wife" at the cottage and his pet dog, an older black labrador. We showed them around the facilities and then left them to get on with their holiday. At the end of the week they left the cottage in a clean and tidy state.

After the initial visit, John became a regular client booking several weeks at different times throughout the year. We never saw his "wife" after the initial visit, as she would be "waiting in the car with the dog." It got to the point where he'd just pick up the keys, without being shown around.  To be honest, we thought John had a mistress in town and was visiting when he could get away. 

Not long after one of John's stays at the cottage, we'd let the holiday cottage to another couple, a pair of elderly pensioners. They seemed to be comfortably settled in with no problems.

However, I received an anonymous phone call at our home from a very distressed and angry lady. I didn't know this person or had any previous contact with her. She was angily accusing me of being a dog trader and demanding I paid back the £1000 she'd paid for a "pedigree" dog, which turned out to have lots of problems.  She told me she'd bought the dog from "me" at the cottage. I said I didn't live at the cottage nor use it for any trading and that it was a holiday cottage where guests stayed, only booked through Sykes. She then wanted me to divulge the identity of the person (John), she even read over the phone to me, details of a presumably forged veterinarian document for the dog with the address of the holiday cottage and "John's" name. I told her to contact the letting company Sykes and see if they would help as I had no details of "John". This is true, in order to protect their client list, Sykes do not tell us the contact details, other than phone number, of the people staying at our cottage.

Shortly after her call, I had some threatening phone calls from another man, I discovered later it was her 22 year old son, demanding I paid up or he'd come and "sort me out". At that point I decided things had got out of hand, so I referred the whole matter to the police. This lady and her son had tried to obscure their identity by withholding their phone numbers. They'd also been abusive to the innocent elderly couple who were staying as guests. The elderly couple had given the lady our contact phone number.

The police subsequently agreed with me that the son would be given a formal warning rather than prosecution as the words were said in the heat of the moment. The police also implied they were investigating "John's" activities.  John had told me he was travelling from Manchester, but I was later able to prove he was travelling from Northern Ireland.

What lessons did we learn? It is very easy to suffer reputational damage. With the GDPR privacy regulations, the letting agency will not reveal details to the owners of the holiday cottage. The contract is between the guests and the letting company. The owners merely provide a facility/service to the letting company. With hindsight, we believe "John" rarely stayed in the cottage, but used it as a kennel for the dogs he was trading. He would use the cottage address to provide a respectable Front for his illicit business. He would use a lot of our towels, and often wash them, we presume he'd use them to dry the dogs after shampoo. We still, to this day, have a permanent rust stain on the tiled kitchen floor, we think this was from dog urine in a steel dog cage. After his visits he'd leave upstairs windows open, to reduce the smell of distressed dogs. After one of his earlier stays, we found dog poo on the bedroom carpet, presumably where a dog had been left unattended. We also suspect carpet damage and kitchen units were damaged by his dogs.
We subsequently told the letting company we'd no longer accept bookings from this gentleman

Unexpected guests at the cottage

A couple of weeks ago, we had a bit of a panic when a guest SMS messaged me saying they'd be arriving in an hour's time and how do they get the keys to the cottage. Unfortunately our holiday rental company Sykes had made a rare mistake and not told us about this guest's booking in advance. So, we were not expecting them to arrive. Having a week's gap in bookings, we'd removed the covers from the furniture and the cottage was not "made up" ready for the guests.  Indeed, I had been planning to start stripping paint at the cottage in preparation for some redecorations.

A couple of urgent calls to Sykes established the booking had been made, but not paid for by the guest. Sykes couldn't get the guest to answer their phone. However I, by SMS message, I was able to contact the guest and establish he had in fact paid in advance and had a booking number. I forwarded this information to Sykes who were able to sort out their problem and release the booking to me. At this point the guests were on public transport just 30 minutes from the cottage. I really didn't want to ruin their holiday.
Cleaning the cottage and making it up, normally takes a couple of hours work for my wife and me.  Unfortunately my wife was away from our home, at a charity committee meeting. I had to start the process of getting the cottage ready for the guests, and we live 20 minutes drive from the cottage. My wife understandably was not answering her mobile phone at the time, so I had to hurriedly gather clean bedding, linen, towels and chair covers, then head off to the cottage.  I could at least let the guests into the cottage when they got off their bus, but there'd be a delay while I prepared the cottage for them.

The couple duly arrived when planned, about five minutes after I'd arrived. After greeting them, I carried on preparing the cottage while they went and did some food shopping.  Not long after my wife materialised, having seen my messages and leaving her committee meeting. We set the cottage up in record time, including recovering the lounge furniture.