My first foray into the vacation rental world started with a dumpy flophouse in Thousand Oaks, California.
Walking in for the first time, my gut impression was that nobody had cleaned in months, maybe even years! Furthermore, the paint and carpet had not been replaced in at least a decade. Not surprising – it turned out the rooms in 31@CalLu, a quirky 1950’s California Ranch house, were rented to a constant recycling of college students. California Lutheran University is a mere two blocks away, making it a highly desirous choice for Cal Lu’s walking and biking co-eds. Unfortunately, typical of college town rentals, the house was ill cared for; raucous house parties and lack of housekeeping had made a big dent! However, after a thorough walk-through, I was excited. The house definitely had good architectural bones and with a little design mojo would make a kick-ass vacation home stay.
Before calling in contractors, I spent a whole day in the house brainstorming a design concept. I consider the architecture, the neighborhood, and general character of the house, and go from there. Once I sink my teeth into a feel or vibe, all design decisions are pretty easy. In this case, I came up with “Gingerbread Mid-Century,” and consequently kept all the original, cutesy details – like the Danish shutters and window planter, brick and original bottle glass front door. After all, a good portion of the neighborhood consisted of these original houses and it gave the street a lot of overall character. On the other hand, to keep it contemporary, I needed to tone down those same elements. It was a balancing act.
The remodel also had to address various design challenges, and the biggest one for 31@CalLu was the low ceilings and dark interior.
It was imperative that the house feel bright and open, so bringing more light into the house was essential if it was going to spark as a vacation home stay. A simple solution- which works 95% of the time – is buckets of white paint. The impact is almost like adding windows. We painted the inside the whitest white available (Super White from Benjamin Moore), and then, to gain contrast, we put in dark, wide-plank hardwood flooring. People think dark floors make rooms darker, but the opposite is true: their reflective quality brings in more light and makes a room look bigger. Furthermore, black and white color schemes add instant pizzazz to almost any space and best of all, are easy to maintain: fingerprints can easily be painted over with white paint without leaving brush marks. Likewise, dark floors are forgiving of spills and dents and look all the more charming as they age.
To solve the low ceiling issue, I chose flat matte finish. Matte paint is a lot like clouds, you don’t see where they begin and end. Low ceilings look higher painted matte. It’s a simple and cheap design solution. Another tactic is to hang curtains at ceiling level rather than right above a window. The eye is drawn up, rather than down.
Furnishings were a combination of new and used. My mantra with vacation rentals is to never spend too much money on anything! The goal is always – always! – buy high-end items at low-end prices, doesn’t matter if it’s a cottage or palace. It solves the paradox we all face in this business: guests demand luxury, but can be hard on furnishings. My most spectacular bargains: a Donghia ceiling fixture, retailing at $3,000, for $155 on eBay and a brand new $1,200 Perrin and Rowe bathroom faucet for $125 on Craig’s List! I paired the nickel plated faucet with an Ikea vanity and the combination was stunning. Combining high-end items with cost efficient ones is a winning design formula. I jokingly call it “Marrying Up.”
Old and new was also considered in the furnishings. Mixing antique and vintage with new things causes a dynamic interchange for the eye. If we see everything with the same patina, we get bored; but if there is a mix-up, the senses wake up and feel engaged. 5 Star hotels have always known this, which is why you find antique or seemingly antique furniture mixed in with contemporary ones in their public and private areas. Word of warning however: this does not apply to anything touching the skin. Newer sheets and upholstery are a must.
Our guests’ tactile senses are especially awake during their vacation time. They seek beauty and comfort.They want to be embraced and it is our job to pamper them. They will appreciate it.
With that in mind, both living areas received plush sofas with especially soft upholstery. I always brush my hand over upholstery to feel if it is pleasing. In order to keep it practical, I had them both slip-covered, and even made up extras in case one were to receive a permanent stain. It’s always good to be prepared for accidents. Carpets were placed in gathering areas. You must assume people will want to sit on the floor and you should anticipate this with a soft carpet or rug.
In order to keep costs down, we did not change the footprint of the house too much. Other than taking down one pointless pony wall to open up the living and dining room, we kept things as intended. For example, the kitchen was not torn out, saving us thousands, and the basic bathroom plumbing cutouts stayed put. When you start reconfiguring gas and plumbing lines, it gets really expensive, and it’s probably not necessary for a vacation rental.
In approaching the bedroom design, comfort was an obsessive concern and there are three absolute musts: a soft surface for the feet, an awesome sleeping experience for the body, and good reading light for the eyes.
To save costs, we put in wall to wall carpet. Why? Well, despite the general consensus among interior designers that wall to wall carpet is the enemy of good taste, I think it often makes sense in vacation rentals. I admit that an even better choice would be a big plush area rug on top of wood flooring, but that did not pencil out in my remodel budget. Instead, I found some gorgeous commercial-grade carpeting in a warehouse specializing in hotel carpet remnants and installed it in all the bedrooms. As long as you put in a chic wall to wall – stay well away from cheap carpet! – it works beautifully.
Comfortable mattresses are key to great guest reviews so I bought the Lucid by LinenSpa memory foam mattress from Amazon for $399. It delivers major bang for the buck because it feels like a much more expensive mattress than it is and is extraordinarily comfortable. I used an antique Chinese folding screen for the headboard and John Robshaw (on sale) bedding for eye candy. Lastly, I bought some very good dimmable bedside tables for reading, an antique bureau lamp for ambience, and replaced the ugly ceiling fan with a diffused light ceiling fan. Having both side and overhead lighting is essential. It is much more restful to have a combination of both. Never hang glaring ceiling lights in a bedroom; it’s a guarantee that guests will be unhappy.
It took four months to finish the remodel and as soon as the finishing touches were added, I listed it on Craig’s List, Yelp and on Cal Lutheran’s bulletin board. We received our first booking three days later from a family looking for a place to stay while touring the college with their twin daughters. Then almost immediately afterward, a lady booked it for visiting her son at the college. From that point on, we had a continual stream of guests – lots associated with the college – all leaving glowing reviews. However, two months into the vacation rental scene, we got an offer from a couple from Chicago who wanted to buy the place after staying for only a weekend. We almost said no, but the offer was too good, so we accepted.
The question is: will I buy another and do it all again? Of course! Just as soon as I find another flophouse!
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