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Our five-year quest to acquire and convert a 19th century Victorian home into a Bed & Breakfast passed a major milestone on Labor Day 2004 when we opened our doors to the public.
We went through three plumbers, four electricians, two drywallers, one roofer and four re-fi’s (refinances) to complete the project. Here are some of the things we learned along the way.
As usual, before starting a major renovation project like this, you will need to select a site that will qualify for all of the future activities you plan to conduct. We found the “perfect” house for our Angel’s Lair nestled between two churches within seven blocks of Bay City’s downtown business district. We went to Bay City’s City Hall to verify that the zoning would permit us to open a Bed & Breakfast at 900 5th Street and that parking, signage and neighborhood traffic would allow the business to go on. Once we were assured that all of this was okay with “City Hall” we started making plans for the overhaul.
The first thing our freelance inspector suggested during the buying process was that we install a new roof. After getting several bids that ranged from $20,000 to $60,000, we settled for Sheriff-Goslin because they were the only company that did NOT have to tear off the old shingles and replace half the roof! In our case, the extra roofing would be helpful since we planned to convert the third floor attic space into bedrooms with skylights and whirlpools.
One thing that really helped us a lot was that we spent time getting to know the neighbors because they were going to have to live with the new parking lot next to the house and the additional traffic in the shared driveway. Several of them actually helped with the windows (we have 33) and doors and many other miscellaneous activities we had no idea how to perform! The average home in our neighborhood is over 100 years old—so most of our neighbors had various levels of experience with repairing and hiring specialists in the various fields needed to complete our project. Networking is a great asset to restoring an old home.
The smartest move we made toward assuring our success was to hire a local architect who was also a member of the City Planning Commission. This was good for several reasons, first: his knowledge of the city and its future plans gave us additional insight about what we could-and-could-not do in the area. Second, his experience with old buildings like ours helped us avoid making common mistakes in assuming we would have regretted later in the project—like putting a whirlpool tub in the center of a room on the third floor—the weight could have caused a problem even “if” the city would have approved it. The architect also helped us solve a major problem when the City told us we had to install a sprinkler system or add a second stairway to the third floor. The sprinkler system would have cost over $30,000—the stairwell was less than $10,000. That assistance alone paid for the architect several times over.
As we progressed through the planning stage of the project, we began to solicit contractors for quotes and ideas on how to accomplish our goals. The biggest lesson we can share with you here is that the ultimate solution for a complete renovation of any home is the hire a professional builder! The reason for this is that when “you” hire individual contractors, you represent only a small portion of their income. The builder however, can impact over 50% or more of a sub-contractor’s career for several years. If the contractor makes you unhappy—no big deal—but when the builder is unhappy, he has a LOT to lose.
There are many areas in renovating and converting a house to a B&B that could be discussed, but, in the interest of time, we will concentrate on the big-ticket items here.
Planning and documentation is the biggest part of your project. It also helps prepare a budget. You should try to determine the number of bedrooms and include as many bathrooms as you can. We attended several B&B seminars to learn what our future customers felt were important issues and necessities. In the 21st century, shared bathrooms are very bad for business. The other thing we learned was that hot tubs or whirlpools and shower-for-two amenities were very popular with inn-goers. So with that in mind, we hired our first plumber. But, because the house was so old (built in 1883) and the walls were made of lath and plaster, he would not give us a firm price for the whole project. We had to pay him by the hour—BIG mistake. You should always push to get a FIXED price bid for large projects. By-the-hour bidding is okay for little projects, but, if you are asking a contractor to work more than 200 hours over more than one month, you should be able to get a firm bid on the project (or else they either don’t know what they’re doing—or you are being taken advantage of). This is where working through a builder (sometimes called a general contractor) is best because builders can predict projects at this level (and absorb any extra costs if they occur).
Another problem with individual contractors is that they often depend on each other’s work to complete various stages of the building project. For example, when the plumber opens up a wall, the electrician may want to run some wires before the plaster crew drywalls and covers the hole back up. If one of the contractors misses their window of opportunity—due to another job delay somewhere—the rest of the contractors have to stop and wait to complete that stage of the job. It’s like a string of dominos—when one falls—it knocks the whole row down!
Besides the plumbing, you will want to consider bedroom and dining room layouts. Since you will become a bed & breakfast, these areas of the house will be paramount to your success. We purchased much of our furniture in advance so laying out the rooms was fairly easy. However, since we renovated the entire house, we sure moved the furniture around a lot! You will also need to decide what common areas your guests will have access to—living room, parlor, library, etc. Don’t forget to save some private space for your family. One of the biggest complaints innkeepers voice is lack of privacy.
Here’s a list of specific tricks of renovation we learned:
There are many-many resources available on the Internet and at your local library. If you have a historical museum or society you should try to get information from them, also. Overall it was a very rewarding project. If you are renovating the entire house and have to live in it, like we did, try to finish one or two rooms completely so you have a place to escape from the mess. It also helps encourage you to get the rest done. You can see our finished product at www.AngelsLairBnB.com.
Dan & Linda VanPelt
“A Place to Rest Your Weary Soul, Mind and Body”
900 5th Street - Bay City, MI 48708
[Visit] The Angel's Lair B&B Website.
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