We have drawings!

The drawings for the tiny fisherman’s cottage are back from the architect and we’re impressed. He has really, really listened to us, taken into account my layout drawings, and given us lots of notes explaining his reasoning for where he’s done something differently to our thoughts.

We have a site meeting with him next Wednesday to go through some decisions he needs us to make and then hopefully it’s time to send an application off to the planning department and cross our fingers very hard.

I’ve been thinking about how to furnish this place and while I know I’m going to have to get new sofas and a new bed because of the laws about flame-retardant upholstery, I’m seriously considering going round the local auction houses for some of the rest. Modern furniture isn’t going to look right in this building, it needs a few genuine antiques or good reproductions mixed in to give it the right feel. I’ve been watching the antique furniture and collectibles sale online from a near-ish auction house today (near-ish as in I can get there with my van in about three hours) and although the Georgian mahogany serpentine chest of drawers I had on my watchlist went for £1,650, the Georgian console table went for £85 and a really beautiful carved oak sideboard for just £2! (I’m sure there must have been something seriously wrong with it, but it looked okay from the photos). Next time they have one of these, which is roughly quarterly, I’ll nip down and have a good rummage round on the viewing day.

Also interesting this week was the online conference the holiday cottage agency I’m with (Awaze) did for all its owners, culminating in an hour’s chat and Q&A with Sarah Beeny. Lots and lots of good ideas and I’m particularly intrigued by the possibility of using Tesla Powerwalls to build a modern house that’s completely off grid. One to think about for a future project…

Annual maintenance

It’s time to hunker down over winter here, so I have some weeks blocked off at both houses to get some maintenance done – they’ve worked so hard for us this year.

I have finally managed to get a plumber (hooray!) and he will be stripping out and replacing the whole bathroom at Ethel’s (we did it ourselves originally and it’s not great), so new shower enclosure, tray, shower, loo, sink and two walls are getting wet walled becuase it’s a lot easier to keep clean than tiles and grout. Note to self: I need to buy a nicer bathroom mirror for in there, it’s just a plain square at the moment. He’s also going to put outside taps in both places and the bath tap at Coldbackie needs replacing after the lever that switches it from bath to shower attachment fell off. I’m not sure how easy it’ll be to get the bath panels back on, as Kris made them out of the same wet wall we used in there, but I have the original panels for the bath and can take them out there just in case they’re needed.

Guests at Coldbackie have also asked for an outdoor washing line, so I have a rotary line and pegs ready to go out there, along with a brass fireguard to go over the empty fireplace in the living room, which I bought at the local auction house for £4.50 – they usually go for £35-£40 on eBay, so that was a good find.

My major job out there though is going to be repainting the hall, stairs and downstairs corridor. Much as I love my gorgeous Stiffkey Blue, it’s been bashed by quite a lot of suitcases over the past 15 months and the chips are not pretty. I’m currently thinking I’m going to leave the stairwell blue, but paint the hall and the corridor white and possibly turn the porch white too. I need to go out there on Monday, after the current guests have left, and do a paint inventory – I think I’ve still got at least half of a 5l can of blue and I’m hoping I’ve got quite a bit of Wevet left as well.

Ethel’s is also having some painting done. I managed to touch up the chips in the kitchen paintwork with the remainder of the original paint (which was impressive – less than 1cm left in the can and it hadn’t dried up and blended in perfectly), but I’ve got wood knots showing through most of the white woodwork, so I’m going to bite the bullet and redo it all, possibly going over it with Zinsser first to try and cover up the knots. That’s going to be a fairly big job, all three bedrooms have panelling around them, plus all the windowsills upstairs and down and the top of the cupboard that runs the length of the landing.

Other than that, all Ethel’s needs is a bit of extra oil on the scuff marks on the kitchen floor, as I oiled all the internal doors and the floors during lockdown at the start of the year. We’ve also got a skip coming for a couple of weeks to put the removed bathroom into and have a good clear out in the byres and fields.

‘Look after them and they’ll look after you’ is usually heard in relation to livestock, but it definitely applies to houses as well.

So many projects, so little time…

There are so many amazing places for sale around here at the moment that I’d love to dive into, but all my cash is currently tied up, so for the moment I can only drool over them from the sidelines. Here are a few that have caught my eye recently.

St Anns, Cromarty

This is a house with presence.

It’s B-listed, Georgian, 4 bedrooms, 2 bathrooms, plus a separate two-storey west wing and a separate bakehouse, neither of which are currently in use. Plus period features coming out of your ears – 12-pane Georgian sash windows, shutters, fireplaces, take your pick…

Offers over £435,000 with Galbraith: https://www.galbraithgroup.com/property/inv210029-st-anns-church-street-cromarty-iv11-8xa

Milton Villa, Pittenweem

Out of my area, this is near my brother-in-law, and sold very quickly. Usually you see churches that get converted into a house, this is a house that got converted into a church.

Downstairs is a bit open plan.

But still the odd feature fireplace and door dotted around the place.

Again, late Georgian and listed, it was on the market for offers over £400,000 and I suspect will have gone for a fairly substantial amount over that. More pictures here: https://www.zoopla.co.uk/for-sale/details/59867469

Balnakeil Manse, Balnakeil

Now this one IS in my area and I’m totally heartbroken that someone else gets the joy of doing it. Eight bedrooms, if you count the attic rooms, two kitchens and 1.8 acres, tucked away behind the Balnakeil Craft Village, this is going to make a gem of a B&B for someone.

Albeit after a huge amount of work.
It was on at offers over £250,000 and the home report said it wasn’t mortgageable due to condition, so someone with pretty deep pockets has snapped this up. Again, more pictures here: https://www.rightmove.co.uk/properties/113563511

Project 3 is moving forward

I can’t believe it’s now over a year since the idea of going into partnership with Pete was first brought up, but we are finally there and setting off on building our business together. We have a limited company and a business bank account and our solicitor is now getting going on transferring the fisherman’s cottage into the company while I transfer the cash across into the account.

We also have an architect on board, which is a relief, because they’re all incredibly busy up here at the moment. Architect number 1 came to have a look over the summer when we took advantage of an offer he was running for a two-hour site visit and some advice, but was too busy to take us on. He recommended Architect number 2, who said he was delighted to be recommended but felt that because it’s a Grade A-listed building we needed someone with conservation accreditation and he didn’t have it, so he recommended Architect number 3, who came out, had a look and happily bonded with Pete over a love of motorcycles, so has agreed to do it.

(I’m well aware that a love of motorcycles is not one of the key criteria you look for in an architect, but in this case it turned out to be helpful!)

He came back last week and spent five hours on site taking measurements and notes, he’s tied up this week and next, but with a bit of luck and a following wind we should have some initial drawings by the end of the month. He does have a very blank canvas to work with, the house was stripped out decades ago, long before it was listed, and has been used for storage. And when I say stripped out…

It doesn’t even have staircases at the moment, there are entrances at ground floor and first floor level because it’s tucked into a bank, but we’re on ladders between the first and second floor and the ground and first and I HATE ladders. I’m getting better at going up them, but I still hate climbing onto the top of one to go back down. Fine if I’m on the middle floor, I can wimp out and go outside and walk round, but it’s a little bit more of a problem if I’m right up top.

This is what it currently looks like from the outside. It’s a row of three terraced cottages, ours is the one on the right with the cream block-built porch in front of it, which is where the front door is. Lots and lots of work to do here, but it will be beautiful when we’re done.

Tor Aluinn – the costs

When I did the post last year on the costs of renovating Ethel’s House, I knew at some point I was going to have to be brave and do one for Tor Aluinn, and I’ve been putting it off because I absolutely knew I’d overspent on it. Well, I can’t delay it any further, so here we go.

Tor Aluinn was purchased officially for £110,000, but because the problem with the garage being over the boundary was only discovered after this price had been agreed, our solicitors advised that keeping a retention of £1,000 to be paid back to me after I’d produced an invoice for creating parking space was the easiest way of sorting it out, as it wouldn’t affect my mortgage. So essentially we paid £109,000 for it.

Bills – £10,025.57
This was a very, very big ouch and most of it came from 200% council tax on a high band house – that was £6,893.08 over the renovation period. Insurance and heating oil were roughly £1,000 each and the rest is made up of electricity, insurance broker fee, boiler service and keeping the garden in check.

Interest – £5,329.44
As, technically, what we were doing counted as a light refurb (new kitchen, new bathrooms, update the wiring, decorate) we were able to get a mortgage on it from day one.

Materials – £12,231.16
Amazingly, not as high as it was for Ethel’s, although if we’d gone back to brick on all the external walls instead of just the kitchen gable and the front walls in the kitchen and living room it would have been a lot, lot higher.

Tradesmen – £67,121.80
And this is where I start sobbing! The biggest costs in this were new windows throughout £14,199, a full rewire £7,928, plumbing £9,949, roof insulation and oil tank move £3,543, painting and decorating £3,345, carpets and flooring £7,818 and a few other bits of general building work and tree surgery. To be fair, I could have done the decorating myself and saved here.

Subtotal – £94,707.97

Furnishings – £24,904.41
A much bigger bill than Ethel’s, as in nearly £10,000 more when they’re both three-bed houses, but I had three bathrooms instead of one, plus a utility room and we were going for a five star grading, so we needed dressing tables in all bedrooms, a spectacular dining table, more kitchen equipment, champagne glasses, whisky decanter and so on.

Total spend – £119,612.38

And the valuation? Well, by the time I was ready to remortgage in May last year we were in lockdown, so instead of getting someone to come out and tell me what it was worth, I got a desktop valuation done and it came back at £200,000. My plumber, who is also a property investor himself, reckoned that was rubbish and it was worth at least £220,000 if not £240,000. With the way the market here has boomed post-Covid it would be an easy £240,000 now and possibly a bit more – so result somewhere in between a loss of £28,612.38 and a profit of £11,387.62, depending on which figure you take! That’s with furnishings left in, if you take those out it changes to between a loss of £3,707.96 and a profit of £36,202.93.

I’m honestly pretty happy with that entire range, it’s a beautiful house, guests are leaving it great reviews, and over the years that overspend will be inflated away.

What. A. Year.

I really thought I was going to be a better blogger in 2021, but here we are at the end of September and this is the first post I’ve made all year. So what have I been up to?

Well, 2020 ended with us all going back into lockdown, Christmas and New Year bookings cancelled and, initially, no word from the Scottish government that self-catering would be supported, even though we were required by law to close, so I panicked a bit and took out a bounceback loan that would cover the mortgages and bills for a few months. As it was, government support did come through for us, and we were able to have a quiet few months getting the houses in order and wondering when we would be able to open.

It turned out to be the last week of April, at which point things went utterly crackers. This is the 2021 booking calendar for Ethel’s – green is a booked night, dark green is an arrival day, orange is departure and arrival on the same day, blue/grey is where I’ve blocked a day off.

As you can see, barely time to breathe in all that lot and the one for Tor Aluinn looks exactly the same – I have been more grateful than I can possibly express in words to have Emily looking after that house for me, because she does such an incredible job that I don’t have to worry about it.

We’ve also been very lucky in that not too much has gone wrong. A few wifi issues at Tor Aluinn, but I’ve now written a simple troubleshooting guide to the network and put it in the information pack and Emily hasn’t had a call about it since. The only major issues have all been boiler-related – one leaking heating manifold which turned out to be because the expansion vessel in the boiler had filled with water, one cracked oil tank that had to be replaced (did you know you can temporarily plug a small crack in an oil tank by rubbing a bar of soap over it? Neither did I!) and one broken circulation pump.

So what’s coming up next? Ethel’s needs her bathroom replacing and I think I have finally got a plumber lined up to do it in that blocked-off period in November (we would normally be on holiday ourselves then, but we’re not risking it this year). Project 3, which I wrote about here, is now a go – I’ve got the money, we’ve formed a limited company, engaged an architect and we’re just waiting for the bank account to be opened so everything can be transferred into it. I’m really looking forward to getting going on this one, it’s such a beautiful little house, and Pete and I are very much on the same page when it comes to what we want to do with it. I’ve also got the drawings back for our own extension at home and they’re currently with my builder to get an estimate of costs – fingers crossed we can afford to get it done!

Ethel’s House – the costs

I’ve just realised that I never did a post about what it actually cost to renovate Ethel’s House. And this one is only happening today because I’m procrastinating about doing one for Coldbackie, because I know I’m not going to like the result!

So, Ethel’s wasn’t a traditional purchase in the sense that we were buying two croft tenancies that happened to have a house on one of them, rather than buying an actual house. We paid £95,000 and at the time of purchase the croft with the house on was valued at £75,000 and the bare croft at £25,000.

Our first purchase on the project was in October 2015, two months after our offer was accepted but four months before it completed, when Mr J got a bit overexcited on Tooled Up and bought himself a pair of plasterboard props. We finally got the keys at the beginning of March 2016 (nothing involving crofts ever happens fast) and the spending started in earnest. We had our first guests at the beginning of March 2018, so the figures below cover pretty much exactly two years.

Bills – £3,311.02
Two years of electricity, oil and council tax when I ran out of exemption time.

Interest – £9,933.31
You can’t get commercial lending on a croft tenancy unless the house site has been decrofted, which it hadn’t. We were exceptionally lucky in that family members were prepared to lend to us, but we agreed it was only fair that interest should be charged.

Legal – £766
Fixed-fee conveyancing from our lovely solicitor.

Tools – £618.94
Mr J was relatively restrained here, for him! (This is a man with many, many sheds…)

Materials – £16,648.76
Now the numbers are getting bigger. This covered things like insulation, flooring, plasterboard, internal doors, carpets, the kitchen units and so on.

Tradesmen – £56,349.27
Wallop! This was the painful one, although it does include a lot of tradesman-supplied materials as well. Top of the list, a brand new roof in slate, £19,367.80. £9,000 for totally rewiring the house, £8,300 for the underfloor heating system (and that didn’t include a new boiler) and £9,300 in total for joinery work.

Subtotal – £87,627.30
I’m subtotalling here because if we’d decided to sell the house, this is where we’d have stopped. When we bought it, the croft Ethel’s stands on was valued at £75,000, that included the stone byre outbuildings and about 6 acres of fields. We got a £5,000 discount from asking price, so take £2,500 off each croft, bringing it down to £72,500. When we got a mortgage on it, in May 2018 (after doing all the required paperwork to decroft the house and a very small piece of garden ground behind it), the house and little bit of garden were valued at £165,000. So add, say, another £10,000 on for the rest of the six acres and the four stone outbuildings to give a finished value of £175,000. Subtract the original £72,500 and the £87,627.30 spent and you end up with a profit of £14,872.70. Not a lot for two years of hard work if you divide it up by the hours we put in, but at least it was a positive figure!

Furnishings – £14,627.95
But of course we didn’t sell it and I underestimated how much it costs to kit out a house from scratch! Furniture and white goods were, of course, the major part of this, coming in at £11,105.78, but then you’ve got cushions, duvets, pillows, pictures, curtains, table lamps, log baskets, all the kitchen equipment, cleaning stuff and three complete sets of bed linen and towels (one in use, one in the wash, one ready for changeover). Take all that off and the profit comes down to a tiny £244.75.

But we now have a wonderful warm house that guests love to stay in and in non-Covid times it’s producing a decent income, which was the ultimate aim. Looking at local prices, I would say it would now value £10,000-£15,000 more than it did in 2018, so as long as we keep it well-maintained it’s acting as a savings account for my retirement.

Getting through Covid-19

It really has been a funny old year to be in the holiday letting business. What we thought would be a brief shutdown to get things under control quickly turned into a major issue. I’ve been thanking my lucky stars that (a) we’re in Scotland, where things seem to have been handled a bit more efficiently than England and (b) we’re in the Highlands where infection rates have remained very low.

I was lucky in that Ethel’s was on business rates and therefore qualified for the £10,000 Covid grant (although initially the Scottish government wasn’t going to give it to self-catering accommodation, unlike the English holiday lets). Coldbackie was supposed to open in May, but couldn’t go onto business rates until it actually did open – all work ground to a halt there and it eventually opened in the last few days of August.

I was initially cheered by the extra cover on my insurance policy, which had a clause that covered me for business interruption caused by “an occurrence of any human infectious or human contagious disease, an outbreak of which must be notified to the local authority” – which you might have thought covered Covid. The insurers disagreed and said that since my premises weren’t themselves affected, just people’s ability to travel to them, no claim was allowed. This has now gone through the courts, fronted by the FCA, and is still rumbling on.

Officially Scotland was allowed to open up its self-catering facilities again at the beginning of July, but our village was extremely nervous about tourists coming back to the area (on the North Coast 500 route, we were flooded with campervans as soon as restrictions lifted), so out of respect for our neighbours we kept Ethel’s closed until the beginning of August, losing another month of what would have been peak income.

Through August, September and October we were packed, back-to-back weeks at Ethel’s and mostly full at Coldbackie even though it was a new launch. We decided not to go for our booking agent’s Safer Stays badge, as one of the criteria for getting it was moving check-out time to 9am and check-in to 5pm – and reading through a couple of Mumsnet threads full of outrage about the idea from people trying to book holidays, we decided we’d stick to the rest of the principles but keep our original times. The extra clean-down with an antiviral spray added about an hour to the turnaround time, but we bought second sets of things like handwash, washing up liquid and so on and just swapped them out each week to quarantine them rather than having to wipe them all down.

And now we’re in November, England is back in lockdown, most of Scotland is in tier 3 and I’m sitting here in tier 1 having gone from a completely fully booked November to a grand total of 12 nights. My two-week Christmas and New Year booking has cancelled (and bless them for cancelling it early and not hanging on, because I might pick up another one from someone within the Highlands) and essentially I’m expecting no money from now until March (which is already full at Ethel’s bar the last few days that start the week going into April!).

That said, if no income over winter, when I’m losing about £290 a week, means I can open all summer in 2021, when I make about £900 a week, I’ll take this current shutdown. With the news about the Pfizer vaccine breaking a few days ago, I’m hopeful that 2021 will be a brighter year for business.

Some potential renovation projects

One of my worst faults is that I have a constantly roving eye for a house in need of a bit of TLC.  Here are a few that have caught my attention recently, though they’re all either sold or probably will be before long!

The Old Schoolhouse, Halkirk

Lovely traditional house in Halkirk, packed with period features – just look at this staircase!

Formerly inhabited by a heavy smoker, this would need stripping right back.

It’s got damp issues and I’d want to get a loo/shower room in downstairs somewhere (possibly by taking a bit off the dining room), but this house has amazing bones and has an enormous back garden that could potentially provide a plot to build another house on.  Was on at offers over £115,000, went to fixed price £103,000 and is currently under offer.

St Andrews Church, Thurso

Pete tells me I am not allowed to buy this until I am making more money than God.

The roof is shot and has been for years and a lot of the glass is broken.  But what’s left is beautiful.

And yet again, a wonderful staircase.

I think it would make a fantastic space to show off the area’s artists and craftspeople – turn the downstairs into cubicled work areas for creatives, turn the upstairs into a gallery/showroom to sell their wares. Downsides are the lack of parking and the fact that just sorting out the roof is going to run into six figures.  Also B-listed.  Currently under offer for the third or fourth time at £50,000.

Adastra, Wick

This is a former drill hall, used by the Territorial Army from 1890 to 2018.  Gorgeous proportions.

Lovely old stone floor and upstairs, the drill hall and those amazing windows.

It has three entrances at the front and looks from the floorplan like it would split vertically into three houses fairly easily.  The problem is that they’d be pretty big family-sized homes and there’s no garden.  Currently on at a fixed price of £120,000, down from its initial asking price of offers over £150,000.

I have a load more I’m keeping my eye on, but that’s probably enough for this evening, I’ll save the rest for another day.

Side project – the village hall

Another thing that’s been keeping me occupied for the past year or so is our village hall.  Our village had an old hall, built by subscription in the 1920s, and in 2018 a newly-formed committee decided to try and raise some money to renovate it for its 100th birthday as it was looking a bit sorry for itself and was barely being used.

We’re lucky in my area that community projects have the opportunity to apply for money from SSE’s windfarm funds, thanks to having one a few miles away.  And we did some fundraising ourselves, including a very popular bingo and cake night that proved to us there was a demand for bringing the hall back into full use (any health and safety officers, please look away now!).

We were awarded an initial £11,500 to employ an architect to do a feasibility study for us and he came up with a plan of taking down the kitchen and toilet extensions and the porch and then building a big steel-framed building over the top of the hall itself, retaining the original heart of the building and putting new loos, kitchen and an entrance hall around it.  Then one day we turned up to a meeting to find him waiting for us, wearing a boiler suit, with a pile of floorboards lifted, looking rather ashen.  This is all that was holding the main floor up – the whole length and width of it was propped like this.

It could obviously take some weight, as evidenced by the amount of people at the bingo, and many people in the village had fond recollections of how well-sprung the floor was at dances, but from a public liability point of view, as well as building standards, it was a non-starter.  So after a lot of drawing and re-drawing and an unexpected large legal bill when we found out the hall actually belonged not to the committee but to six trustees appointed in the 1930s who were all dead, meaning we had to apply to the High Court in Edinburgh to confirm new trustees, the old hall was carefully taken to pieces and taken away to start a new life on a nearby croft as an agricultural shed.

In March this year, the builders started on the groundworks.

They were making great progress – in three weeks they had the foundations complete and inspected by the council, poured the slab, laid out the pipework for the underfloor heating system and poured the screed over the top.  The day the first half of the kit frame was delivered to site, Nicola Sturgeon shut down all construction sites due to Covid.

It was three months before we were allowed to commence work again, but I’ll say this: a kit frame building goes up flipping quickly!

Currently we have the roof on and we’re waiting for the exterior cladding, which has made it as far as Inverness and hopefully will turn up on site this week – it’s large sheets and nobody wants to be fixing them in winter winds, which can gust to 100mph here and may reach 45-50 as a base speed.  The guys have been sorting out the inside in the meantime and it looks amazing – just look at the new main hall.  Doors at the back lead to storage area and a green room which will also double as a drinks serving area for functions etc. (if and when we’re ever allowed to do them again!)

We’ve got a bigger kitchen with yards and yards of storage space, plus the island in the middle to plate up on and a serving hatch through to the main hall.  A double Rangemaster is going into the blank space on the right of the picture next to the door.  The kitchen has a separate handwashing sink to comply with the council’s environmental health standards and we’re exploring the option to let anyone locally who wants to have a crack at starting a food business use it for a while to test their market, so they don’t have to get their home kitchen certified straight away.

The entrance hall has an office with a ticket window, the loos are to the other side and we’ve also got two shower rooms – being on the North Coast 500 we get a lot of passing tourists and the hall is opposite the path down to the beach, so we’re hoping to raise some income from opening the loos and showers to public use every day.  Initially it’ll be on a donations system, but we have the option to add pay-per-use locks at a later date.  (I have no idea why this picture has come out so small!)

It’s been my first involvement with a new build and it’s been FASCINATING.  Whilst old buildings are always going to be my first love, this has really whetted my appetite to do a new build of my own in future.  Or two.  Or three.  Or more…