Buying a holiday home in south Devon seemed a good idea. I’ve holidayed in the area from childhood and loved this three-bedroom cottage. We couldn’t really afford it, but, if it was let out during the season, it could work. One year on, we’re much wiser and a bit poorer. The first rental firm quoted £250 for a changeover clean: ‘That’s the basic fee-there are extras, of course.’

Of course, there are! These included cleaning windows (recommended by the company to be done fortnightly) and even the utility room (weekly). As the agency was already getting 20% plus VAT of the booking fees, I realized I’d have to wait a few weeks to see a profit. In fact, it soon became clear that the only way to make a profit was if no one stayed in the cottage. I interviewed three cleaners. The firm whose complex equation for a spring clean came to £749 was rejected, as was a lady who appeared faintly mad. Unfortunately, this led to an even greater mistake. After the chosen cleaner did the spring clean, I discovered much of the house’s contents- books, instruction manuals (some left crumpled at the bottom of a cardboard box of oily rags), wine glasses and a waste-paper bin-left outside in the rain.

When we complained, she said indignantly that it hadn’t been thrown out, but left for us to go through next time we were down. Some possessions seemed to have disappeared for good. The cleaning itself was erratic -especially in the sitting room, where she appeared to have been distracted by her self-appointed task of rearranging all the furniture.

Our caretaker, recommended to us by the letting agency as ‘very conscientious’, phoned on the Friday of the first bank holiday: ‘Guests say there’s no oil in the tank.’ We asked how much was there when he last checked:

‘I don’t check that; I don’t know where the tank is.’ As the garden is the size of a squash court and dominated by the tank, this seemed an odd admission from someone who claimed to check every square inch of our property fortnightly. Holidaymakers get through oil quickly: they don’t pay for the heating, so some pump it out full blast and leave all the windows open. Getting an emergency oil delivery on a bank-holiday weekend was challenging. Most firms didn’t even answer; one would come for a £1,000 delivery fee; another would charge £200. We discovered that premium paraffin can be used as an expensive substitute and also that almost no one stocks it. After we’d phoned every garage in the surrounding area and beyond, we found one that had four cans left.

 
The South Hams area is a honeypot for holiday lettings, so this

six-bedroom house in Torcross near Kingsbridge (beach: 400 yards) would 

be a good bet for rentals.
£875,000 through Savills (01392 455 755)

Big things go wrong on bank holidays and minor things constantly- in six months, we’ve had to repair three taps, a light switch and a lock. In the run-up to the following bank holiday, the guests reported the downstairs loo to be ‘dangerous’, but didn’t divulge why. It much intrigued us-was an alligator loose in the bowl? It turned out that they’d broken it by sitting on it. Not the seat, but the whole column. My caretaker, who met them, said he was surprised they could have even squeezed inside that room. As this counts as ‘fair wear and tear’, we had to stump up to repair their damage.

People who booked for a fortnight were a godsend: two weeks’ rent for only one changeover fee. We also saved a fee by cleaning the cottage ourselves after a long weekend, only to get an email from the cleaner detailing the imperfections of our clean. Bookings were sparse outside peak season, so we offered a hefty discount on second weeks for the rest of 2013. No one took up the offer. When bookings for 2014 opened, our peak season sold out rapidly. These were all fortnight bookings, providing a rare moment of elation-until we realised the agency had given the discount on these.

As their website stated the offer was only for 2013, we pointed out the error, but were told: ‘We roll all offers forward unless you stop them.’ We reiterated that the offer was for 2013 only. The lady agreed, but explained patiently, as we were clearly a bit dim, that we had to specify the offer didn’t apply to 2014 and we hadn’t.

As a result, it looks as if we will be unlikely to make a profit this year, either. Still, we’re not put off. Devon outside the holiday season is wonderful. We were just a bit naïve.

Make holiday letting work for you

Do
* Accentuate the experience-if you’re offering seaside holidays, perhaps decorate with a nautical theme
* Spend your budget on decent beds. A good night’s sleep keeps guests happy and, if your place is simply a base, many will do little more than sleep there
* Encourage guests to report problems when they occur, not at the end of their stay when it’s too late to organise repairs in time for the next arrivals
* Work out profit margins-winter weeks might not be worth renting out when heating and wear-and-tear costs are higher. And you need to ask yourself whether that expensive new bathroom will really bring in enough extra income

Don’t
* Be cheap about the quality of photos you use in your marketing, especially of the interior. People need to be confident of the place if they are going to rent it
* Overtly personalise the house: no one wants to look at your family snapshots. It has to feel like it’s their house for the week
* Clutter surfaces-guests want to use the place with ease

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