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How To Buy A Holiday Cottage And Setting It Up For Success

Many people dream of owing a holiday cottage, it’s something we thought about for years. It’s a very different scenario to buying a second home, if you are setting up your holiday cottage as a business, primarily you need to think how you can make it work to give you the best financial return on your investment. I have written this guide based on our own experience over the last 10 years, I hope you find it useful!

What should I look for when buying a cottage?

Area

I would say firstly get to know the area really well. We had a static caravan in North Norfolk for many years, and at the time a cottage seemed out of our reach financially. We grew to love and enjoy the area, including finding dog walks, the best beaches and places to eat. It’s advisable to narrow down your area so you can focus on properties in the villages you like. Remember that you need to get the best financial return on your investment, so its not always best to buy in the most popular, desirable villages or right on the coast as prices are often higher making your financial outlay greater and the return on your investment less. A high spec holiday cottage slightly inland, that will cost less, can, if renovated to a high spec, charge the same rental as one on the coast. I spend hours researching property prices and we have sourced and bought our properties ourselves but its always worth contacting agents to help you find your perfect cottage. Big Skies Estates is one company in North Norfolk that specialise in selling holiday lets, they can advise on expected projected returns and bookings of the property, and will be aware of the potential return on investment you will be requiring. You need to have a good relationship with an agent as communication is key.

Kerb appeal

This is essential, we now all make decisions about our holidays based on photographs and websites and so this plays a major role in securing bookings. Competition in the holiday cottage industry is high so make sure the house will look inviting when photographed from the exterior. You really want a wow factor when guests arrive. Steer clear of main roads that can be noisy, remember first impressions count!

Price

Decide how much you want to spend in total, it may be that you buy semi-derelict and spend money renovating, or pay more with less work to do, whichever way you decide, having a budget is really important as its too easy to get distracted, fall in love with a property and spend too much!  We bought Hollyhock Cottage after seeing it up for auction, it was then taken off the market so we contacted the owner directly writing a letter and she got in touch and was happy to sell to us outside of an agent. Whilst we bought our first property at an incredibly reasonable price, it needed completely renovating, had no water or electricity, bathroom or kitchen so you need vision and finances to complete the project. We factored all of the work into the cost.

To renovate or not to renovate?

I think this depends on your skill set, if you are practical and have the time then its a great way of saving money… remember the less you spend the better your return on your investment.  However, do remember the time it will probably take you to complete is time lost letting out for holidays especially if you have a monthly mortgage to pay on it – so sometimes it pays to get a good tradesperson in to do the majority of the work. Hollyhock Cottage took us over 18 months of working at weekends  – it was a long haul but very satisfying.

Is it the case of the bigger the better?

Do not be put off by buying a small property, one bedroom properties let out all year to couples especially if you offer short breaks. As they are smaller, they take less maintenance, cost less to buy, run and renovate. I think the return on investment is often higher on a smaller property proportionally than a larger one. The key is to make it very desirable, cosy and high specification.

Do I need to have a garden?

Try to buy a property that has some outside space so that you can create a sitting area, its always beneficial if the garden or courtyard is south or west facing so your guests can enjoy the sun. The outside space doesn’t need to be too large as remember you will need to maintain it! If you are going to accept dogs with your bookings then you need to make sure the garden is secure and remember that any plants (including grass) will be constantly pee’d on! 

An outside tap is good for washing down muddy dog paws. Proving a nice place to sit in the garden is important, with a table and chairs for alfresco dining. We have even provided a summerhouse for guests at CowParlsey Cottage. A low maintenance garden is a good idea and it’s amazing how easily this can be achieved. We also make sure we have plenty of room for a large log store to feed the wood-burner.

Parking

Off road parking is beneficial near or next to the cottage, remember your guests don’t want to have to carry their cases too far and often ask us if private parking is available. It is also worth looking into having car charging facilities with the increasing use of electric cars.

Setting up and fitting out your cottage

This is where you need to spend time, thought and money on your guests experience. The return on this part of the investment will be in the number of bookings you can achieve and the repeat guests that come back year after year. Aim to make the cottage as nice if not nicer than you would wish your own home to be. I have been asked so many times why we put such lovely items of furniture, curtains etc in the cottages, I would answer by saying that this is why guests book! I know myself I will trawl holiday cottage websites until I find a property that inspires me. You really will reap the benefits of spending money on the interior. Rooms with a View our interior business has experience not only on our own cottages but also we have worked with many clients on making their holiday lets a step above. http://www.roomswithaview.co.uk

Flooring

I would recommend hard floors with rugs where you can, either tiles, wooden or painted floorboards are practical. Hard floors can be easily cleaned, especially downstairs where dirty boots and dog paws are likely. A really good doormat that absorbs muddy paw prints that can be washed is a must.

Wood-burners

All of our cottages have wood-burners, I think its essential for winter bookings so guests can be cosy in front of a fire. We also supply logs free to guests as there is nothing worse than having a log fire and having to buy per basket or go hunting around garages finding nets of logs. Not what you want to be doing on a holiday! But remember if you take children then you will normally need a fireguard or something similar.

Kitting out the cottage interiors

Spend time getting this right, create mood boards or ask for help on this as the interior of the cottage acts as a showcase on the website and discerning clients will book according to how the cottage is dressed and styled. The money you spend here will be rewarded in the number of bookings you achieve.

Entrance 

Provide somewhere guests can hang coats and put their boots etc, its great if you have a boot room or entrance hall but if not dedicate part of a space for a peg rail and baskets with a seat, its easy to do and keeps everything tidy.

Kitchens 

It’s so easy to spend a huge amount of money fitting a kitchen but it isn’t necessary, a painted kitchen can be easily achieved at a reasonable cost. We have fitted all our kitchens in all of our cottages, you can buy really good quality carcasses and then fit simple wooden doors that can be painted in a tasteful colour or left in raw wood. Adding high quality knobs and worktops , open shelving and good lighting makes all the difference. A dishwasher I think is essential both for your guests and also for hygiene reasons. Add a washing machine and dryer too if you have nowhere to hang clothes outside. Buy decent pans, cookery and cutlery, bear in mind that glasses and plates will occasionally be accidentally broken so make sure you buy spares for replacing when needed. You will need to replace baking trays regularly and frying pans as these tend to get used and abused the most. You will need to purchase all of the usual kitchen equipment including microwaves, bowls, utensils etc We also provide an ironing board, iron, high chair and hoover.  I bought all of the chairs and tables at auction for the kitchens which helped to reduce costs, two are Ercol and one is vintage antique. Make sure that you purchase white goods that are easy to use – there is nothing worse than fighting to work out how to use a strange dishwasher that is not intuitive, has hundreds of various options and has no instructions available. Likewise for TV remote controls!

Bathrooms

Most guests like the option of a shower or a bath so provide both if you can. We fitted out and tiled our bathrooms ourselves, it’s amazing how much you can learn on this journey. Look  out for good quality but reasonably priced sinks, baths etc. Be wary of cheap non-branded taps – they look great initially but after a couple of years when they start to drip you find you cannot get new washers or valves for them. We used Tile Victoria Plumb, Mountain, Topps Tiles and Artisan of Devizes for tiles. 

Furniture

Don’t skimp on the sofa!  It’s going to need to be comfortable and also practical. Think about washable or stain proofed fabrics , spend more now and you won’t need to replace. If the sofa has loose covers buy an extra set so you can clean them. Provide washable throws if you are accepting dogs so that guests can pop them on the sofa because with all the goodwill in the world they WILL go on the sofas! Don’t forget to look at auctions for good quality antique furniture as its so well made – it adds some interest to the cottage and is so reasonable priced. Go armed with a tape measure when buying so that you can get the correct size etc.  It’s also a good place to search for original art to dress the cottage, I have found some wonderful pieces at auction. Perhaps buy an old map of the area and frame it too. Fill the cottage with interesting books, some about the local area can be useful too. Dressing the cottage with interesting beautiful things adds quirkiness and character. In fact I dress mine as though they are my home but without the personal clutter!

Bedrooms

Again, here it’s essential to buy good beds and mattresses. You can’t skimp and to be honest they last longer and guests will really appreciate a comfortable bed. Use good quality cotton or linen sheets and bedding, remember they will be laundered a lot and be prepared to replace them as regularly as needed. The same goes for towels. We replace approx yearly.  I buy three sets of everything for each bed so that there is one on, one being laundered and a spare. Do the same with towels with a large bath sheet and hand towel for each guest at least. A chair in the bedroom is a nice touch, again I have reupholstered antique chairs and bought chest of drawers etc at auction.  Provide hanging space for clothes, we have built in cupboards in the bedrooms with wooden coat hangers. If you accepting babies its worth providing a proper full size cot so that the parents don’t need to bring a full travel cot. We do ask them however to bring their own bedding for the cot. 

The single bedroom at Woodcutters has vintage books for children to read and a full size single bed and cot set up.  We also have stair gates at this cottage. 

Housekeepers cupboard!

When fitting out your cottage if there isn’t a large cupboard then build one as its essential to have a lockable storage space for bedding, towels, cleaning products, loo rolls, items for the welcome packs etc. It’s surprising how much you need to store. We also keep some paint in this cupboard so we can easily touch up any marks or knocked paintwork. We visit at least once per month to restock so that our housekeepers have everything that they need.

Cleaning

If you aren’t able to do this yourselves its essential to have excellent reliable housekeepers. There are companies that provide a full service for holiday cottages, its best to ask for recommendations in your local area. Reliability is key as you can often get last minute bookings.

Marketing your holiday home

Bookings and management

We offer changeover days on Fridays or Mondays so that guests can book short breaks as well as full weeks. It’s a very flexible system and can mean that you achieve the maximum bookings.  We take bookings from our website, ( forevernorfolk.com )guests can pay via card or BACS and use an excellent system called Bookalet. It keeps track of all payments, bookings and sends out automatic emails etc, It is essential really, especially if you have more than one cottage to manage.  Taking card payments is pretty much essential nowadays. The systems keeps track of all payments made and also notifies the cleaners of changeover dates. Obviously you can pay for a management company to take your bookings for you but they can charge up to 25% of your booking so its more cost effective to have your own system if you have time. You can still advertise with companies that charge a one off fee such a Cool Stays and Independent Cottages as you pay once per year and then their website links to your own and you take and manage your bookings yourself. Don’t underestimate the power of social media, create an instagram page for your cottage with good photography of the local area, its a great place to advertise last minute special offers or cancellations.

Maintenance 

All properties require regular maintenance especially old houses so once you have finished renovating its only just the start!! On a regular basis you need to visit and check, arrange window cleaning, garden maintenance, paintwork etc. Simply things like cleaning out all the hair from shower traps or refilling the salt and pepper pots is very easily overlooked. It’s always worth remembering how important first impressions are and that standards have to be high consistently to get repeat bookings and recommendations. It’s worth booking out the occasional weekend to stay yourselves so that you can really check everything thoroughly, there are always plenty of jobs to do.

Welcome pack

We like to provide a welcome pack for a guests which usually includes a bottle of wine, biscuits and nibbles, dog treats for a furry friends, fresh milk and bread. We supply tea and coffee too. We also provide a file with all of the cottage information and guides to the local areas. Good WiFi nowadays is essential.  Ordnance Survey maps for the cottage is a nice touch together with recommended local dog walks. Its nice to be able to recommend good pubs, restaurants, days out, bike hire etc.. National Trust properties are always popular too. Basic information about doctors, dentists and vets, plus any instructions that you may need for wifi codes, dishwashers, washing machines etc . We also have a visitors book in each cottage so that guests can recommend places that they have found to visit. 

Pets

We decided from the start to accept dogs. Having dogs ourselves we knew how nice it would be to provide a lovely holiday cottage and welcome our furry friends too. I would say that well over half of our bookings included dogs. In 9 years of bookings we haven’t had any damage from pets. If you kit your cottage out accordingly from the start then it really helps. So be aware that you can lose some potential bookings if you don’t accept dogs especially if your cottage is in areas such as National Parks, scenic coastline, etc.

Pricing

I would advise checking and setting prices according to the local market, check holiday cottage websites to see if your prices are inline with other cottages locally. Of course its up to you what to charge but remember not to underprice yourself but remain competitive too. Remember this is a business and you have invested time and money so you need to make a decent return financially. Factor in ongoing costs including electric, heating , wifi etc. Make sure your insurance company knows that you are letting the property out as a self contained holiday let or you could have problems if you ever need to claim on your insurance for damage. The cottage will need to be regularly maintained and you need to factor in costs such as insurance, public liability, advertising, cleaning costs and ongoing maintenance. 

If you do decide to take the plunge and buy , remember to enjoy the process. I have loved the process of creating the cottages, it gives me so much pleasure reading the lovely comments in the visitors books knowing that guests have appreciated the finer details. Our cottages are all available at our own website ( forevernorfolk.com ) so please do take a look.

I hope that you have found this little guide helpful, I would love to know what you think.

Best wishes

Debbie

Comments

the guests get a full set of towels each but don't have access to any extra linen/towels - they should not need it. it they stay for 10 days or longer then they get a full changeover half way through their stay.
by dave down
Hi thank you for taking the time to write a really informative piece! One question I have do you leave extra linen or towels accessible to guests? Something I’m pondering over (newbie to holiday letting!) Kind regards Jo
by jolene armstrong
Hi Laura How exciting, Suffolk is beautiful! Im so pleased that you found the guide helpful. Good luck with your new venture! Best wishes Debbie
by dave down
Hi Lyn I think there are specialist mortgage companies who deal with holiday cottage mortgages but they are slightly more expensive. You could make it pay if you are booked well throughout the year.Debbie
by dave down
Hi Louise Well done for renovating your cottage, its hard work isn't it but so rewarding. Best wishes Debbie
by dave down
Hi Lori Thanks for your lovely comments, so pleased you found the guide helpful, I have learnt as we have renovated each cottage so its nice to share with new cottage owners. Its a great investment and you can get a very good financial return, hard work but worth it! Good luck if you decide to go-ahead, Best wishes Debbie
by dave down
Hi Tiffany Im pleased you enjoyed reading the guide. The Ikea sofas are fab, I haven't got them at the cottages but have them at home, so comfortable and the loose covers are fab! Best wishes Debbie
by dave down
Hi Mandy Im pleased you found the guide helpful. Im sure you will be very busy with bookings, the broads are so beautiful.Good luck and best wishes Debbie
by dave down
Hi Sharon, it takes time to find the right cottage, especially when the market is quite hot. It might be worth contacting several agents to let them know you are seriously looking, also check auction sites. If you have your finances in place it really helps. Good luck with your search Best wishes Debbie
by dave down
Thanks for your lovely comment, the woodburner will be a huge asset for Autumn and /winter bookings. Wishing you lots of luck with your venture!
by dave down
Such a helpful guide - thank you for taking the time to share. We’ve just embarked on holiday letting and the options are overwhelming. We’ve been umming and ahing about whether to invest in a wood burning stove so your advice was just what we needed. It’ll never be quite as beautiful as yours but you have a gift! Thank you.
by Catherine
Hi Debbie I was delighted to read your blog as this is something I am thinking about doing and have recently began my search for the perfect place. I am, however, a little anxious about housekeeping duties and managing the property myself from afar but you seem to have made my concerns less of a worry and if dealt with properly in the first instance shouldn't be as difficult as I imagine it to be. It is so lovely for you to share this information and help others follow their dreams and I just want to say thank you. I feel a little deflated in my search for my little cottage near the sea as it doesn't seem to exist (even though I can see the bigger picture & how an existing interior could be). Is this something you have experienced or am I being too cautious or too picky maybe? Hopefully it will be there some day & thanks again for your blog. Sharon x
by Sharon
Hi Debbie, thank you for posting your journey, we are about to embark on renovating our recently vacant granny annex, whilst it’s not a cottage, it is the equivalent of a single bedroom bungalow, we have given ourselves a year to renovate and maximise our space and hopefully by this time next year we will be able to offer the annex as holiday let close to the broads. Please keep posting, your cottages are beautiful. Mandy.
by Mandy
Hi Debbie, this is a great help thank you. You’ve been so supportive over the last year when I was getting my cottage renovated & set up! I got an IKEA sofa you recommended too! All in all we’ve ticked all the boxes you recommended! Phew! Just need to work on possibly taking my own bookings. I didn’t know you could advertise for a few with those websites! Again, thank you x
by Tiffany Booth
Thank you Debbie for posting the guide we’ve found it helpful & informative. We’ve been thinking about buying for the last couple of years but being novices it’s a bit of a minefield & end up getting cold feet but we’ve definitely learnt some things from your guide ie dogs & locations amongst others tips you given...also it’s the first guide I’ve read on buying a holiday cottage so again thank you!
by Lori Ellisdon
Really helpful thank you. I am buying a sea view lodge and plan to rent it out.
by Debbie
Very helpful insightful advice. We stayed at Hollyhock cottage twice about five years ago and were inspired by your book detailing your renovation story. We thought if you and Dave could do it so could we, so we set about looking for a cottage. We found a rather neglected cottage near Mundesley and so the work began. We drove from Essex every Thursday evening for two years whilst we pulled it apart and put it back together. We thoroughly enjoyed the whole experience. We are now in our third year of rentals and continue to enjoy the wonderful Norfolk coastline when we can. So thank you for giving us and I’m sure many others the inspiration and confidence to embark on this journey.
by Louise
This is very useful thank you. It’s been a dream of mine since being a little girl. Still haven’t managed it, but getting closer! Could I ask? Is it possible to make it pay with a mortgage. I know that depends how big a mortgage but for example if your mortgage payments were £650 per month ish do you think you could still make it pay?
by Lyn
Thank you for this - we’ve just bought a holiday cottage in Suffolk and are just starting the process of furnishing and kitting it out. I found this incredibly helpful! X
by Laura Gray

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