Sunday 17 October 2021

Vindictive guests

 We've already stated elsewhere on this blog that we subsidise guest stays in the cottage. We're looking to cover costs whilst keeping the property occupied without the longer term risks of tenancy agreements.  Bringing holiday guests into the locality also injects cash in the local businesses. As a consequence our rental fees one of the lowest in the area when compared to the facilities provided. However we still get some guests paying the low rent and then expecting Ritz facilities. They will then approach Sykes to get a discount on the subsidised prices.

We had one pair of guests stay over a year ago who demanded a partial refund from Sykes which they didn't receive even after they sent "photographs" to Sykes. Their main complaint was that the accommodation smelt musty. I guess that is difficult to (dis)prove with photographs.  We didn't get involved in this until their bad review was received by Sykes.  Either side of their bad review on the Sykes website are complimentary good reviews from other guests.

Contractually the guests are supposed to contact the owners first during the holiday stay to seek some form of remediation. The "guests" didn't attempt to contact us.  There were the other vague issues added to their complaint list, such as cleaning etc,.  All this could have been resolved if they'd contacted us during their stay.  

In fact we'd just finished redecorating the entire interior of the cottage about a month before their stay. We'd cleaned the whole cottage after the decoration process.  All of the carpets in the house had been professionally cleaned, prior to their arrival. We also undertaken a Covid-19 sterilisation clean in every room, at short notice, prior to their arrival. This included wiping down surfaces, UV-c light exposure and steam sterilisation

One of the guests has publicly stated in bold type on the Internet, for all to see, that their objective of their holiday was: "...a cheap few nights...I guess that sums up the whole event. I'm sure a discount would have made it cheaper. As it was they were able bring their two dogs to the cottage for no fee, which saved them £240 in kennel boarding fees.

However not content with a bad review via Sykes, they posted a similar review about the cottage on TripAdvisor some 14 months after their stay. That is plain vindictive. We're now considering legal action against this couple for damages. I've made sure to take full archival copies of their reports.  

They also failed to comply with Covid-19 regulations during their stay and also did not follow the departure procedures with the consequence that we were unable to check the security/state of the cottage when they left.

Thursday 9 September 2021

Should we make better use of the property?

 Having had a poor summer in terms of the guests, we're looking at future alternative uses for the cottage. In previous years the guests have complimented the cottage, but this year most of the Covid staycation guests have been excessively demanding, manufactured unwarranted complaints and looked to get discounts on our already subsidised prices. Would they put in hours of unpaid work for strangers who are only going to complain?  Guests, who we've allowed to board their pets in our property at no additional cost.

We're contacting the local authority to discuss offering our furnished property for rental to those in need of housing, such as Afghan refugees. People in genuine need.

Friday 23 July 2021

Cottage cleaning session

 Today's cleaning session, the guests left it generally clean, but there were the usual type of issues:

  1. Stain on lounge carpet;
  2. Soundbar; tinkered with by guest and left non-functional. The output audio cable had been plugged in the Coax (aerial) socket on the TV. Sound bar configuration had been set to Bluetooth.
  3. The neighbour's wooden, fence two palings broken, probably by our guests.
  4. Microwave oven left dirty and greasy.
  5. Bedroom bedside lamps disconnected.
Meanwhile, we did a swap out of consumable items, wiped down all contact surfaces with isopropyl alcohol or Stakil water based biocide. Each room was treated with 74 Watt Ultraviolet light (UVc) for an average 30 minute exposure.

Thursday 22 July 2021

Increased pricing at our Holiday Home

 Our current pair of guests are the straw that broke the camel's back. Their behaviour has been poor and they've made unwarranted complaints to our rental agency. We'd offered them a full refund provided they left immediately, but they chose to stay. We dread to think what we'll find when we go to the cottage tomorrow for handover cleaning. No doubt they'll leave a lousy online review. The previous couple loved our cottage and left a good review. Our first action on arrival will be to make a full video of the state of our cottage.

It seems that many other holiday home owners have had similar problems with "Marbella" guests displaced by the Covid-19 travel restrictions. There seems to be little respect for the owners from people seeking the cheapest available holidays online. For the past few years, we've subsidised guests staying at our property, mostly because we treat the property itself as the long term investment. However damages caused by guests abusing our facilities have all but wiped out any profit.  In addition to the subsidy, we effectively give each pair of guests four hours of our life free of charge. We also provide free of charge release from pet boarding fees for the holiday makers.

We've instructed our agency to increase prices by 25% with immediate effect, and to also add a £250 Good Housekeeping Bond per stay.  If the guests leave the cottage in good condition the GHB will be promptly refunded in full. This will price our cottage a few pounds per night over the previous rates, but hopefully people just looking for somewhere cheap to stay will go find their bargain elsewhere.  For regular guests we'll look at some kind of loyalty bonus to reduce their costs.

If this reduces the number of bookings, so be it. We're not in the business of receiving abuse as a reward for our time and efforts. I've seen reports from several owners recently that they've decided to pull their property from the Self Catering homes business.

Saturday 10 July 2021

Weeding the back yard

 Our guests expect the back yard of the cottage to be tidy on arrival. The garden and yard soon become covered with stray grass and weeds during the summer period. The brick surface of the yard has small gaps between the bricks. These gaps become filled with soil in which weeds can take root.  Weeding by hand takes a couple of hours, and during changeover between guests we don't have the time to undertake weeding. So I make use of a paraffin fuelled flame gun. This burns off the weeds in approximately 15 minutes for both the garden and the back yard.

It needs careful preparation to ensure that the gun is operating safely and that it does not melt/ignite fencing and garden pots. The visible flame is about 60cm long and is pretty ferocious. In the above picture you can see the grass/weeds growing in the yard of the adjoining cottage. The owner is quite old and lives about 100 miles away so his yard tends to be neglected. I help him by occasionally killing the weeds in his area too. 

This is what the yard looks like after the work is done: 

I'd noticed that the hedge of another adjoining property was overgrown and projecting into our garden, making it difficult to follow the path and steps. A flame gun is no use with the hedge, so I also brought my petrol powered  long reach hedge cutter to the game during this visit.

This shows the path/steps before I tidied:

This is after cutting the hedge:

And, this is after the final hedge tidy and weed burn off:

It was a good job that I'd finished the work promptly because our next set of guests turned up five hours early asking to get access to the cottage. Fortunately, this time, I was able to oblige.

Wednesday 7 July 2021

Road in to Wirksworth

 Some of the people reading this blog may be curious as to the countryside around Wirksworth.  Here's a video from a summer evening drive into town from the South. I was visiting the cottage for maintenance jobs.

Tuesday 6 July 2021

Humid Summer Guests

The Victorian walls of our holiday cottage a solid and have no air gap, there is no damp course in the brickwork. Previous owners have used chemical injection in the brickwork and also ceramic vent tubes, but this has not been effective in controlling the damp rising on the interior plaster. Last winter by way of experiment we installed an automatic dehumidify machine and it was very effective at reducing the damp. We were keeping the house at 43% Relative Humidity. This makes an enormous difference to the house for relatively low power cost. The low humidity helps to prevent black mould on walls and insect infestations. As we allow guest pets we have to be careful about mites and fleas, this had been a problem in the past requiring fumigation and temporary cottage closure.

We also installed a remote environmental sensor which allows us to monitor temperature/humidity via the internet. We are also alerted by SMS when limits to temperature/humidity are exceeded.

When guests are present in our cottage, we remove the dehumidifier relying on them to open windows as necessary for comfort. It is also one less machine for them to tinker with and break. We soon learned to keep everything as simple as possible for guests, or things get broken.  We leave the unobtrusive environmental monitoring running and check the reports occasionally.  

We noticed with the last set of guests, during June, that the Relative Humidity had risen from 45% to about 65%. We're not sure why, but it is probably a good indicator that they kept doors and windows firmly shut during their stay.  This figure is unusually high for a guest stay.   There's a booking gap of one week before the next guests, so I reinstalled the dehumidifier during the gap to reduce humidity.  At the moment we are extracting over 5 litres of water per day from the air in the sealed and unoccupied cottage. I'd love to know how they so saturated of holiday home, during the summer rising damp is not normally an issue.

In the above monitoring chart you can see the sudden drop when we started the dehumidifier located close to the sensor.  It will take a while to extract the excess moisture from the walls, carpets and furniture.

Monday 28 June 2021

Goodbye Sykes - we're giving notice!

We've finally tired of Sykes' games. They provide poor quality guests, and don't help when things go wrong. The term "Teflon Shoulders" comes to mind.  They've made a lot of money on the back of our capital investment and free labour. We're tired of subsidising guests stays in our property for Sykes profits. 

They now appear to be tinkering with contractual terms and conditions. A contract should document the business agreement and relationship between the parties. It is a document of last resort to be used when things go wrong, but when one side attempts to unilaterally change those terms and conditions to their sole benefit it is a sign that the original business agreement has broken down. Our guess this is largely due to the change of ownership of Sykes and the need to recover the massive sums borrowed for the purchase.

Six more months before we are finally free.

Saturday 26 June 2021

Pensioner atop a 30 foot ladder

 Our holiday cottage is in a terraced row of houses. Access to the back garden is either through the house, or through the back gardens of adjoining houses. There's an alleyway at the end of the row of gardens.  Access is not easy, as there's a busy road to the front of the cottage and parking is not permitted during the day. 

When I saw plants growing in the roof gutter at the back of our cottage I knew that we had to take action otherwise in the next heavy rainfall the gutters would overflow. This would affect not just our property, but also adjoining ones. If the blockage was on our property we'd be liable for damage to the other houses. The gutter is about 20 feet (6 metres) high above the brick surfaced courtyard and it needs a 30 foot ladder to access the gutter. There's no space at the cottage to store a large ladder, so I had to transport one on the roof rack of my car (3 x 3.4 metre sections). I also needed a ladder "stand-off" at the top end of the ladder to prevent any damage to the plastic guttering.

It was quite a struggle carrying the 3-section ladder from the car roof through the narrow alleyway to the back of the house. Meanwhile the crazy Derbyshire drivers had managed to create a traffic jam around my car in the few minutes while I was moving the ladder. It was soon relieved when I drove away to park safely in a side road. Erecting the heavy ladder was a bit of a struggle. At age 70, the weight is close to my lifting capacity in the narrow space of the backyard. However with a bit of careful patience I succeeded in getting the ladder in place without causing any damage. As you can see in the picture above, the stand-off keeps the ladder clear of the guttering while allowing the end of the ladder to project above the roof edge. 

The tools needed to clean out the guttering are simple, some drain rods and end attachments, a bucket and a trowel. It was then just a matter of climbing the ladder with the tools and performing the cleaning. Fortunately I have a very good head for heights, a relic of my rock climbing days, though I'm not too keen on ladders. After 10 minutes of work I'd cleared the gutter and removed about half a bucket load of debris and plants.  The actual blockage was in the gutter section belonging to the neighbouring property, but I cleaned it anyway.  Then it was the dreary process of removing the ladder, strapping it on to the car roof and transporting it home. Easy, but quite physically demanding work, made easier and safe by having the right tools. Our next guests were due to arrive later that afternoon.

I was planning to produce a video of the activity, but it was raining and things were slippery. I didn't fancy holding a camera atop a wet ladder.

Monday 21 June 2021

Stubborn carpet stain

 We've noticed a carpet stain on the front room of the holiday cottage. It appeared some time ago after one guest check out, but we are not sure what caused it. Following this we had all of the carpets cleaned by a professional cleaning company. However they were not successful in removing the stain. After the most recent guest we noticed the staining was looking particularly bad.

Carpet stain by front door of cottage

We were coming to the conclusion that we might have to have a new carpet laid in the lounge. This would have been annoying as the carpet is only a couple of years old. I thought I'd give one last attempt to clean the stain myself and after some research I settled on a Karcher Carpet Cleaner (Puzzi 10/1 model) on hire from Brandon Hire Station. Once all of the extras, such as cleaning solutions and tax, were taken into account the bill for a day's rental came to 39 GBP. Not cheap, but an awful lot less than buying a new carpet. The cleaner is professional quality, but small enough to fit in a car boot/trunk for transport.

After 30 minutes of cleaning work, we had a pretty good result. The cleaner left the carpet fairly dry. We only needed to close the cottage to rentals for a day. The water in the waste bucket of the cleaner was quite dirty after the process.

Needless to say, the earlier mentioned professional cleaning company will not be getting any repeat business from us. They should have been able to deal with those stains. If only we could have identified which guests caused the stains so that we could bill them (£47) for the cost of stain removal. Essentially they must have spilled something sticky, on the carpet, that was accumulating dirt, probably a sugary soft drink.

Saturday 5 June 2021

A routine Covid-19 Changeover cleaning session

 My wife was indisposed yesterday when it was time for guest changeover, so I had to work alone. I started at 10:30 am and the work was completed by 16:30 in the afternoon. The departing guests had a dog with them and had not reported any problems during their stay.

On checking the crockery, I found a dinner plate missing from the matching set. We keep four place settings for the crockery in the cottage. There was no note left to explain the missing plate. Fortunately we keep a full duplicate set of the crockery at home, but it meant I had to undertake an additional 16 mile roundtrip to collect a spare plate in time for the next guests.

The crockery at the start of cleaning
One plate missing

A replacement dinner plate .
The missing plate restored

I later found the missing plate in pieces in the General Waste bin when I was cleaning the bin as part of the Covid-19 safety procedures.

While making up the bed I found that our guests had managed to stain the mattress cover with tea. Once again no mention of this issue. Fortunately I had a spare on hand in the cottage linen cupboard to provide for the guests due to arrive three hours later.. (Edit note 7th June 21: This was a brand new John Lewis mattress cover. The stains have not come out after washing. Effectively it is a total loss so far as use in the cottage is concerned.)

Tea stain on mattress cover
Ruined mattress cover

While I was cleaning the shower, I noticed that the water was slow to drain from the shower pan. On investigation I discovered the drain trap was clogged with dog hair. It was the same type/colour of  dog hair matching the previous guest's dog.  They'd used the shower for their dog, even though the handbook forbids this.  Maybe we should charge extra for pets staying with the guest?

Dog hair in the shower
Dog hair blocking the shower drain

Sunday 2 May 2021

"Booked last minute as a cheap few nights ..."

 The title says it all. It is part of the title of a comment from a "guest".  That person then goes on to moan about the cottage in the comment section. Most of the person's comments are unjustified but difficult to disprove, such as the cottage smelt musty.  The cottage had just undergone full deep cleaning including carpets, plus a Covid secure clean a couple of hours before their arrival. Prior to the deep clean, the cottage had been fully redecorated on the interior. We've since taken to videoing the entire interior of the cottage after each cleaning session to help counter these types of allegation. Cleaning for "Covid Secure" adds four man hours to each turnaround cleaning session. Guests are not currently charged for cleaning man hours.

The person fails to mention in their comment that they'd demanded  a discount on the already discounted price. We'd turned down the discount demand. The comment was posted after the rejection, but as their title says, they wanted "cheap".

They probably don't realise that we effectively subsidise every guest stay as annual expenditure on the cottage exceed the income at the rental rates charged by Sykes. That expenditure does not include the cost of the capital invested in the property, in effect a nominal interest rate. Over eight years we have yet to break even on the cottage. Indeed, if we'd taken the capital we've invested and put it into financial investments over the same period we'd be about £80K better off without the hassle of rude guests who expect discount on a holiday home rental at half the price of the nearby Premier Inn. We also let guests bring their pets for no extra charge, resulting in them saving on animal boarding fees too.

Holiday home owners really need a reverse Trip Advisor where we can pass comment on how good/bad the guests were during the stay.

Thursday 22 April 2021

Painting the front of the cottage

 Our holiday cottage  was built in 1905, probably as low cost accommodation for a local quarry worker family. It is part of a terrace (row) of cottages on what would have been the Southern edge of the town on the road leading to Derby. It was built with solid brick walls that have no damp roof course of slate or engineering bricks. As a consequence of the cheap construction method we get some rising damp at the front ground floor room of the house next to the road. 

The original plaster on the walls in the lounge has probably been replaced during the early life of the house. It was probably originally gypsum based rather than lime plaster, and gypsum plaster does not cope well with rising damp.  There is a plenty of evidence that previous occupants have tried various measures to reduce the damp, including injected water repellent cream and also ceramic breather tubes embedded in the wall. The real solution is to cut through the base of the wall and install a proper damp course layer to break the water path, but this would be a very expensive process.

Road traffic splash and rising damp have also damaged the brickwork at the base of the wall as frost action on the damp bricks and road salt have cause some brick crumbling and salt efflorescence. A previous occupant attempted to reduce the amount of water entering the the brickwork by painting the surface of the bricks with an oil based paint. This is probably the worst thing they could have done, because all it does is to prevent the evaporation of water from the exterior brickwork. Cracks and holes due to the paint flaking and salt efflorescence soon let water trickle in to the bricks. The only escape route for the water is to the interior walls and plaster.  After running a dehumidifier in the lounge over the winter we discovered we were extracting litres of water from the room every day, we decided it was time to fix the problem.  The external oil paint had to be removed!

The oil based paint sinks into the porous brick surface making it very difficult to remove. After talking with the neighbours we discovered that the paint used was a cheap interior quality paint used to paint ceramic clay tiles. We have the added complication that the property is within a Conservation Area which is quite rigorously policed by the local authority, so changing the appearance of the house is not a real option.

We investigated the use of paint stripper to remove the paint work. We had to be careful, a solvent based stripper such as Methyl Chloride might dissolve the old paint and force it deeper into the brick work. Eventually we found a product designed for use on painted brickwork so we purchased 5 litres and set to work. Initially on the badly flaking areas it worked well, and we were able to remove the treated paint with a stripping knife. However an underlaying layer of paint proved quite resistant, and also other areas of the top coat were not stripping well. It was not leaving a good surface for subsequent treatment. Using a wire brush was unsuccessful and a blow torch caused damage to the fragile bricks. 

Paint stripping commenced Warmbrook cottage

After research, we found a "scotchbrite" nylon pad disk that can be mounted on a powered angle grinder. It is designed for paint removal. We used these, about 15 in all at a cost of £2.50 per disk, to remove the paint and the surface of the bricks where paint had penetrated the porous surface. The objective was to leave a porous brick surface which would allow water to evaporate into the atmosphere. This would allow the wall to dry out. The process took several days to complete as we had to choose times when few people were using the narrow footpath and when the noise of the professional angle grinder would not disturb others.

We found several horrors during the course of the work. In several places the original lime mortar between the bricks had failed and previous "workmen" had used some kind of plastic filler to fill the holes in the mortar. In those areas the brickwork was sopping wet. There was substantial salt damage and flaking to the brickwork in other places, again a mastic or plastic filler had been used to "repair" the brickwork, but this just trapped water and would worsen damage.  In any event after we completed the stripping process and cleaned off the mastic, it was obvious we couldn't leave the brickwork bare. It was just too unsightly and in places too crumbly to leave untreated.

We spoke with several paint vendors to find a paint that would be porous to allow evaporation and was also suitable to protect damp brickwork. We had wanted avoid using plastic/latex based paints, but to use a limewash paint to give a traditional finish. However we couldn't find one with pigments that would match the existing wall colour. We settled on Hydron Nu-guard, from Rawlins Paints, which is a porous water based paint and had a 5 litre can tinted to BS04D45 colour. It is not a cheap paint, coming in at about 100 pounds for the 5 litre can.

To harden the surface of the crumbling bricks we sprayed the brick surface with two coats a 5% solution of Sodium Silicate (water glass) in water. This is absorbed into the porous brickwork and gradually hardens by chemical reaction by absorbing Carbon Dioxide from the air. It does not produce an impervious barrier, but stabilises the brick surface to accept a coat of paint.

To repair the wall pointing we sourced a traditional lime mortar, suitable formulation for a mortar gun and tinted to match the existing mortar.  We raked out the dead mortar from the wall and then repointed the joints with lime mortar using a combination a mortar gun, of specialist trowels and a hard brush to pat the mortar down hard in the joints. We left the wall for a couple of days before painting with the Nu-guard paint. Being water based and porous it will not affect the hardening of the mortar. After two coats of this paint we now have a reasonably good looking but porous surface.

Paint front wall cottage

Edit: 23 July 21

I was cleaning the street windows at the cottage in preparation for the next guests, when I noticed damage to the paint and brickwork on the neighbour's cottage. He was the guy who originally recommended the tile paint to cover the brickwork.  The damage looks bad and makes me glad that I put so much effort in getting Nu-guard paint on our brickwork.

UV-C Dosimeter badges for use in Holiday Home Covid cleaning

 I've had an update email from one of the suppliers that we contacted when we were seeking UV-C dosimeter badges.  These work by changing colour when an appropriate level of exposure to UV-C radiation hits the surface.  More detail can be found here:

We use this type of tool when we use our UV-C lamp to sterilise the rooms in our holiday cottage after guest departure.  The photochromic patches can be used to check the effectiveness of a UV-C lamp if you do not possess an appropriate UV-C meter. Given the large number of fake Chinese LED UV-C lamps on the market it is worth running a check if you buy one from Ebay or Amazon.