Once upon a time I was a night manager at a seedy backpackers’ hostel in notorious Kings Cross, Sydney. So it wasn’t a big leap when, years later, I found myself single and in a tight rental market to rent out a spare room in my house to backpackers. A trip to IKEA and six hundred dollars later had a guest room to rent for a few hundred a week. Then I got a little more creative. Bunk beds made it a twin dorm. Renting out my own room occasionally and ME sleeping in one of the bunks made me even MORE money.
I upgraded when I fell pregnant — I was going to need a bigger house as a single mama, and I needed more rooms to rent to survive. I found an old house on a cliff that could be split up into five rooms if needed. With a bit of creativity, I converted a formal dining room into a bedroom and a walk-in closest into a nursery. Christmas rolled around and I discovered that backpackers’ hostels were charging stupid prices. So I got a bunch of camp beds from eBay, converted the rooms into three bed dorms, and advertised. New Year’s Eve I had twelve people in the house — including a couple enthusiastically having sex in my own bed while I slept in the walk-in closet nursery with my son!
There had to be a better way to keep this stream of income but keep space for myself! And then I found it: an old hospital building, converted into a boarding house, and with a history as a group home for the developmentally disabled. It was creepy as all get-out and falling down — badly in need of work. The owners kept lowering the rental price, but no one wanted it. It had six bedrooms, two living rooms, and four bathrooms, though two of them were almost unusable and looked like they should have been in a Saw movie.
I couldn’t get the place out of my head. Apart from my homestay and government help, I had no real income as a single mama. I decided to risk everything and I wrote a proposal for the owners, outlining my idea to run it as a traveller’s house, a student house, a guesthouse of sorts for the transients of the world. I offered three months’ rent up front (my son’s entire savings account!) and offered to be caretaker, cleaner, gardener, and security for the old place. I put cute photos of my son and I throughout the proposal hoping to tug at their heartstrings.
They agreed to my entire proposal. It was a scary, exciting day!
From the day I decided to apply to the opening day of the guesthouse was less than two weeks. I couldn’t afford to open without a full house or I’d sink fast.
The house was entirely unfurnished. I needed at least six beds, common furniture, whitegoods — and I couldn’t afford to buy much. I appealed to the Freecycle community. I dragged in one of my homestay boys — a strapping gorgeous German — offered him a free week’s rent in my main house to be removalist and truck driver, and we were off. Twelve-hour days while my son was looked after by friends, neighbours, and day care! I developed biceps for the first time in my life because I was too broke to afford any other help! I bought a furniture trolley!
After exhausting myself doing Freecycle pickups during the day, I hit the interwebs hard at night, advertising rooms that I couldn’t actually show yet! I had anxiety attacks at the risk of it all. Between the guesthouse and my own house I was up for over $1000 rent every week with no permanent income. But I know if I could get it to work, I could stay home with my toddler, manage the houses and not have to dump him in full-time care to go back to an office job.
There were unexpected expenses, like linens. I couldn’t get enough. Eventually I found a charity warehouse selling by the kilo. I bought 40 kilos (88 pounds) of quality donated bedding. It took a full two weeks to wash, press and sort at home, and it filled my lounge.
My brother-in-law worked at the guesthouse and we converted one of the lounges into an office for me to manage from. It was also set up with a day bed and spare cot for my son, so he could nap while I cleaned and met tenants and guests.
Opening day rolled around and the first short-term tenant — a Russian guy who’d just been kicked out of his girlfriend’s house — turned up before we’d even got the bed set up in his room. More quickly followed. And then… a circus troupe of sixteen booked the entire house for a few weeks. And after that a group of actors travelling and performing at schools. And then a bunch of international students… and some gay boys leaving the Philippines to start a life together… and an Italian stripper who was paying her way through school… and on and on and on…
This guesthouse is turning into one of the most amazing adventures of my life. My son and I are mostly self-sufficient now and I’m in the process of registering it all as a business. I’ve employed a cleaner and a gardener and an accounts assistant. And just today I saw this other house for rent. Huge, run down, potentially eight bedrooms, and since it’s on a main road, it’s not looking like anyone wants it…