When a bizarre set of circumstances led my husband and I to visit Prince Edward County on a dreary day a couple years ago, I never guessed we would suddenly embark on a new creative project together.
Prince Edward County is about two hours outside of Toronto, and is known for boutique, organic, and estate grown wineries, as well as a farm-to-table food scene, and incredibly charming lodgings. Branded as the “new” wine country, it’s the place where many of my friends were suddenly flocking to on summer weekends for leisurely bike rides and glasses of wine by the BBQ.
Having never been there myself, I was up for the drive on a day that I ended up being sent home sick from work.
I fell in love with the county as soon as we approached its elegant, leafy lakeside passage. The house we toured was a hundred-year-old farmhouse, original to the area, and neighbored several other AirBnB’s and a small hotel. It was in decent shape; no structural damage, just minor repairs needed and a decent paint job. We bought it that weekend, and immediately set out to renovate it so we could open as an AirBnB in time for the summer season.
The first lesson I learned was how important the summer season is for a vacation rental. Nearly 75% of our annual earnings are acquired from June – early September. Having purchased the house in June of that year, we were in a real time crunch to get it done. And did I mention we already had guests booked for the first weekend in August?
I did some research into what the other local AirBnB’s were offering in order to determine how to brand and decorate our house, and what amenities were most important. Each house seemed to have its own unique, charming look and name to convey a particular experience to the guests. I wanted our home to attract bachelorette parties, book club-ers, and groups looking to have a relaxed and leisurely time. Getting the aesthetic nailed down was important, so I visited lots of different affordable furniture stores (like IKEA, Structube, and Urban Barn) to piece together the look I was after. I knew I wanted lots of clear white space, leafy green accents, and plenty of linens and pillows for an earthen feel, with eccentric pops of colour.
We set to work on the revamp straight away. One thing I quickly learned was that since the area is considered remote, I had to pay nearly $100 extra for furniture delivery in some cases, had to wait longer for my orders to arrive, and wasn’t able to order in certain furniture items as the house was outside of delivery zones. We had a lock box on the door, which was a lifesaver when it came to deliveries as we live and work in Toronto and could not be there to receive anything. Ensure you note that on your delivery as some companies will not deliver without a signature. By the end of the reno I was on a texting basis with many delivery companies who would send me photos of the items inside the house.
The next big lesson was that it’s much more difficult to move in a hurry in a small town where labor is difficult to find. Cleaning services, painters, and other trades were nearly impossible to book, especially at that point in the season. Some of the ones that were available were charging ghastly prices as they knew we were in a pinch. We finally brought painters up from Toronto after the reno had been too long delayed. They did a swift coat of white paint, allowing us to unpack the furniture from its bubble wrap, hang the window coverings, and get the house in an inhabitable state. About a year and a half later, during the down season, I had it painted again for a refresh.
Once I had settled on a name and aesthetic for the home and we had some decent photos, it was time to market it on AirBnB. How you market your home is crucial to securing bookings. Due to the high volume of tourism in the area, the house immediately gained tons of views and many bookings. But it wasn’t until the following year, after we had a number of positive reviews under our belt and a great rating, that the bookings started to file in well in advance of the season. Be diligent about how you market your property on online listings, and strive to maintain a high rating. What are the property’s most notable and unique characteristics? Does it boast an incredible location, or have fantastic amenities? Think about what you would want to know if you were a guest, and work from there.
On the first night that the house was rented, I got a phone call at midnight on a Saturday. As I came to learn, this is not unusual or unexpected behavior as guests will call if they are uncertain about something. That’s why a house manual is so important! Guests don’t want to have to call you, and the way to mediate that is to create a comprehensive guest manual that answers their questions. The things that people have issues with may not be what you expect, but always leave them with a solution, never with a shrug.
Always value good neighbors; they can be total lifesavers, and can act as your eyes and ears when you are away from the property. If your vacation rental is not within a forty five minute driving distance, you likely won’t make it up there often and won’t be able to drop in if an issue arises. It’s so important to know someone nearby who is trustworthy and can step in on your behalf. There are so many day to day odds and ends to take care of that you might not even consider, like ensuring things are neat and tidy, that standards are being upheld, guests following the house rules, and to pinpoint areas for improvement or repair. I can’t imagine our house running as smoothly as it does without the diligent assistance of one of our neighbors.
Opening a vacation rental is not without its challenges, many of which will be unexpected and totally take you by surprise. If you are prepared to deal with what it throws at you, running a vacation rental can be a fulfilling side hustle, and even a creative endeavor.
Freelance writer and photographer living in Toronto. She is the author and photographer of two cookbooks, Everyone’s Welcome (2019) and Allergen-Free Desserts (2015).