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My Vacation Home in the California Gold Country is Officially up for Grabs

Thanks for the emails. I love the love.

What follows is the story and I'll endeavor to make it an interesting story. It begins when we originally entered into a sales contract around October of 2001. Problems ensued. The seller had built the cabin too close to the property line and there's a setback requirement. OK, so we abide, as the R/E agent submits a "variance" request to the county (let is slide). This takes a few months. The request comes back not denied, but inapplicable. Turns out the guy built the place over the property line, in one corner. So what you need is not a variance, but a property line adjustment and this is something you work out with the neighbor. Fortunately, the neighbor had built their driveway over our property line or, future property line, I should say. And they were very nice and cooperative.

Still meticulously holding to the sales contract, we noticed the seller that we were willing to undertake that process as well but, as it was early 2000s and R/E was going crazy, the seller decided it was our fault that he built his house over the property line (and, his mother's ashes were scattered on the property, and, he had cancer and other non-sequiturs), decided to back out of the deal we'd already invested 6 months in, and now the sort of properties we wanted were out of our price range.

I hired a lawyer.

To make a 1 & 1/2 year story short, the seller must not have read or understood anything in the contract we agreed to (reportedly, his girlfriend was a "lawyer"); I had, and after a long process of him ignoring the mediation request (gave up any possibility of collecting attorney fees, if he prevailed), then the arbitration request (now we can file suit), he finally took notice of our notice of imminent filing of suit, per the terms of the contract.

It ended as quickly as it began. The very next weekend we travelled to Arnold, sat across the table with Mike (now dead, succumbed to the cancer), and he only asked if I'd be willing to cover a coupla thou of back taxes and reimburse for the $300 of gas he just put in the tank. I agreed, and he tossed me the key. We closed escrow within a week or two. Upon signing, we made about $80,000 in terms of value appreciation over the term of the dispute.

He literally walked away, leaving everything. He was living on a sailboat the the SF Bay and in the ensuing six weeks we endeavored to sort it all out. We were pleased, and this is what it looked like. But we never finished sorting his shit out. We barely got started. Because...

I burned the place down.

Voicemail, back in San Jose, on my cell upon walking back to the car after a movie: "Mr. Nikoley, this is the Arnold Fire Department. We got a call about 7pm tonight, responded, put out the fire, and have stationed a watch. Please return the call."

My heart sank. I knew immediately. My parents and I had been there over the weekend, watched a movie before departing the in the early afternoon, but had all remarked how it smelled a little smoky.

Fireplace
Fireplace

If you'll notice the basket to the lower right, I'd cleared out that area and used it to hold the ashes I cleaned out daily from the wood burning stove. What I failed to notice is that it was not tiled, but bare wood. How dumbfuck is that?

"So now you know The Rest of the Story." To this day, I've never lived down the fuckup with Bea. Use your imagination. "Well, you burned down the cabin..."

We were up early the next morning; Bea, I and my dad loaded into the Hummer and headed up the hill. I had talked to the fireman on the phone. "It's a very small fire. There's a bit of damage and the hole is only about 2 feet." I took stupid comfort, not realizing "he's a fucking fireman!" What's a "small fire" to a fireman?

When I stopped the car, got out -- and from the driveway could see through the hole and all the way into the upper level -- and my dad -- who'd gone ahead -- came out shaking his head -- I got a bit misty eyed. It was devastating, having just spent a year and a half struggling to get the place.

I began calling contractors immediately. The phone still worked, amazingly. One came out, wasn't interested, but I soon found one who was.

It took almost two years to rebuild: from April of 2002 to December of 2003.

But it tuned out to have constituted my biggest silver lining in the end. I managed every aspect of the design for the rebuild. It took a while because we were dealing with an insurance company based in Florida who, for a $600 fee upon close of escrow, became liable under contract six weeks later for about $170,000. Thems the breaks. The rebuild took about $140,000. The big extra was that as I mentioned, the seller had left everything (including his wedding ring). I was up front with the InsCo: "Look, we just got this place, the previous guy left everything and I don't want any probs on personal property claims." Easy; "You own it, so claim it." Fair enough. We had almost nothing of our own property in there and got $35,000, allowing us to furnish it roughly like a Cabelas.

Cool story, so far?

And so it was that around Christmas, 2003, we got the place back, and far better than we figured we'd ever deserved, only it took nearly four years from the time we first looked at it...and after having looked -- and smelled -- dozens of stinky cabins over a half dozen 3-hr trips to Arnold -- Bea made a few more --  I said to the agent after only a few minutes: let's go write it up.

And so now, after many years of mutual enjoyment of the place by ourselves only, with family, and with our dearest of friends, we're ready to make it into a vacation rental.

It's not that the place is cursed, it's that it's mysterious. It reminds me, in a drunken state, of a woman who's willing to have you, but you're going to give her everything she she thinks she's worth for it.

Back in 2005 we took out a 2nd loan on the place for a townhome development property I was working on with some partner investors. By the time we did the architectural and engineering and took it all the way through the stupid dumbfucks at the city council and got it approved, the project was no longer viable. And so, the money we took out of the cabin that should have been replenished well within the 5-year reset period didn't happen. Consequently, it's plain stupid to retain the place without any income on it.

Consequently, you, if you're in California or are planning a trip there, can rent my cabin. Supplemental pics and history, here.

As an international blog this post has nothing to do with marketing, but about telling a personal story. The good news is that within an hour of posting the listing we booked 4 days, then 3 days, and have a tentative for another 4 days.

I kinda morn the fact and realization that had we made it a vacation rental from the beginning it would have long been paid off. But I was so financially fat that it was nothing to leave it sitting dark 10 months out of the year.

You live, you learn and hopefully, you do a bit better the next time around.

Comments

  1. Stabby says:

    Whoa, I never knew that. Glad that is behind you.

    I don’t have any money, but I would be happy to live inside your wall and steal your food at night :)

  2. Sorry to hear about the escapades – but you at least can still visit it (when it’s now in use).

    I literally laughed out loud at the last sentence. She’ll be paid off (and yours only) again soon!

  3. I’ve been wondering, now that we are no longer “financially fat”, if we should stop leaving a house vacant nine months of the year.

    Good story – makes our real estate nonsense sound a lot simpler. :)

  4. That’s the prime sales point right there: “Hey, go ahead and fuck in our beds.”

  5. Interesting story, Richard. As a fellow vacation rental owner, I have dozens of painful stories myself. Biggest one: if you have waterfront property, be VERY careful that you have all the details on the septic equipment (and local septic regulations) before buying.

    Do you manage the property on your own or do you have a management company doing all of that? If you do it yourself, I’d love for you to try out my software: http://www.ownerrez.com. Sorry for the shameful plug, but a friend of mine forwarded me your blog post and said I should ask.

    Good luck with your bookings! Vacation rentals are much more profitable than residential rentals if you treat your guests right and focus on amenities.

    • Yes, Sam, live & learn. I’m quickly coming to see how vacation rentals are a much better deal than the regular rentals I’ve had. I used managers for those but this I’m doing myself. And yes, I’m interested in your service and will check it out today. VRBO is rolling out their own integrated management tool as part of their service this summer in stages, so I might move to that when available, but in the meantime, I will definitely look onto yours. Thanks.

    • Sam:

      I wanted to let you know that I just finalized setup on your OwnerRez system and throughout the process of getting set up, including getting a CC merchant account established, Tim and Michelle were among the most proactive and professional people I have ever had the pleasure of working with. Every communication from them was mind-blowingly comprehensive, something I find very rare at every level of B2B.

      Bookings have been proceeding briskly over the last week. But now I’ll be using your system to streamline the process.

      • Thanks for the kind words, Richard. We have worked very hard and have a very large developer roadmap in front of us.

      • Sam, first two quotes from your system went out this AM. The second one got his quote within 5 minutes of his inquiry, and I had a 3 day book for $620 within 30 minutes and I spent a ridiculous fraction of the time & effort spent using Echisgn or Docussign and PayPal “request money” as I had been doing.

        The first quote took a while, she just got back, asked a coupla questions and she’s now booking for two nights.

        Not bad. Five nights of bookings in a half day.

  6. David Harreld says:

    How did you get so interest in Arnold, Rick? Is there really gold in them there hills?

    • I don’t know about gold, Dave, but I had a brother during the early 90s who lived both in Murphys for a time, then Arnold and I really liked both places when I’d come up and visit, go skiing at Bear Valley, etc. When I met my wife later on in the 90s, she’d been up here a bunch of times at the vacation homes of school teacher friends, so it just came full circle that way.

      • David Harreld says:

        Looks like a very kewl place. Afraid if I stayed there you may come back to see your foundations severely undermined.

  7. wilberfan says:

    [Somehow isn't surprised that Richard drives a Hummer...]

    ;-)

    • That was a ways back, when the H2 first came out. Since 2005 I’ve driven a BMW X5 with a hefty V8. Coolest, best, most solid, dependable and all around great car I have ever owned. I plan to drive it into until it falls apart.

  8. Stefan says:

    Well, this is interesting. We and two other families (six adults and five kids) have a regular ‘snow weekend’ over Presidents’ Day weekend – in Arnold! We’ve rented different places over the years, and I’m certainly going to add this to the list of options!

    We’ve liked our rental agency – I can find out (another family does the arrangements) if you like.

  9. Richard, how do the logistics of this work — who handles the keys/cleaning/etc?

    Also, in the years you’ve owned it, have you had any problems with leaving it vacant often? I have a rural property which may end up empty for a while, and am wondering what others have experienced.

    Thanks for the great read!

    • Lynch, the tools out there are amazing now. All my regular rentals I have always used property managers. Never even knew who the renters were. This one I’m managing details and selling the thing myself and am having a blast talking to people. In just two days we have two solid bookings and two tentatives. We did talk with a manager but they want 25%. I don’t want to deal with a long term tenant but in a vacation setting the whole ethic is completely different, with an element of excitement I can feed on.

      Everyone I know who uses VRBO has zero problems with using a keyless entry and giving the code, or a lockbox on the door with the keys (what we’re doing). We have a neighbor who has lived up here forever, is a super-chic, and has basically done everything from house cleaning to catering to bar tending. She wants to handle it and when I saw how much her kids adore her, I was sold. She’s just one of those people who knows how the fuck to live a life, if you know what I mean.

      Over the years we have never had a break in. I have one of those mercury street lights that comes on at night automatically and lights the whole surrounding outside. Plus, my neighbors chase away kids who hang around, looking a little too curious.

  10. Pauline says:

    Hi Richard, I am in the throws of moving house and all its excitement and torment. Your story sure puts things back in perspective. I read this saying recently, when you fall on your face, at least you are pointing in the right direction. You are a wonderful storyteller, and having just read Broken by Lisa Jones last night, the theme of the story is there is no good and bad, things work out if you can find your centre in it all. Good luck with the holiday, I am almost tempted to book a flight out from the UK to enjoy a stay there with my partner. Your blog continues to provoke and inspire. Thank you.

  11. Pauline says:

    should read good luck with the holiday rentals…

  12. Maybe it’s the engineer in me, but how can a person build a house over a property line? Wouldn’t a builder check? Wouldn’t it have to pass inspections?

  13. Looking forward to your take on Don Mataez’ flip. He’s not only advocating for some specific grain consumption, he’s singing the praises of Ornish’ ultra low fat approach. WTF?

  14. Chigins says:

    Very nice property! I showed it to the wife. We may actually be reserving if for a week soon. I love this blog. Very informative. If I could just get off the SAD chuck wagon I might actually improve my health.

  15. AJ Wow says:

    I see the cute little thing over at http://girlgoneprimal.blogspot.com/ took a little swipe at this post.

    “I’m not going to waste your time with ‘filler’ material like how to steam a fish. Seriously. When I see that stuff popping up in my feed, it’s unsubscribe time. If you haven’t got anything interesting to say, don’t tell us about your vacation rental.”

    • Is she the one with the most unappetizing food pics ever? I recall her lamb chops made me want to barf. Anyway, hadn’t seen that blog in months. Good riddance. Reason she’s quitting is because she’s always been fucking boring and almost nobody looks at her boring crap.

      • LisaW says:

        You should see the latest pics of ‘food’ on her site. It doesn’t look good or primal.

    • That was funny. She’s not gonna say anything if she has nothing to say. Except of course in that post where we learn of her jewelry making and guinea pig care.

      I’m sure sure she’s having a little google analytics celebration because of her blog being referenced here. That’s why Durian shows himself here now and then. Marketing.

  16. Nate Reik says:

    Richard,
    Of course it’s been doing well! It’s priced too low! It would be a reasonable rate for rural Wisconsin, but if the rates around here are any indication, you’re charging less than market. Which in this kind of business you may very well make up for on volume.

    • I hope you’re right about that, Nate. Right now I don’t know because what’s driving my bookings is I’m the only place with vacancy. Once all is booked, if I keep being competitive on the farther out bookings then I’ll conclude I’m leaving money on the table.

    • I have to agree. I took a sneak peak at your price and the competition and thought the same thing. You’re anywhere from 15-35% below market average, depending on your amenities. In the “on season” – in VA that’s April through September – you don’t want to lower your price or offer many discounts, particularly if your neighbors are already booked. The demand should only raise your price, not lower it. My two cents…

      • Thanks Sam. It is an issue we have been dealing with and I’m happy for all the experienced input I can get.

        Your service has made my life boring, Sam. It’s too easy to book, now. I’m missing out on all the fun. :)

      • Thankfully, we have two on seasons per year, mem to labor day and owng to the mo the mountains, thanksgiving to mid march. They tell me that mid Jan through mid march is booked solid.

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  2. [...] ago after working overhead for a day cleaning ceiling fans and lights getting my cabin ready to be a vacation rental (which is going very, very well in terms of bookings). I didn't freak out, and it gets better by [...]