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.
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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…
Comments on Kindlewood: An old hospital building becomes a single mom’s adventurous business
How thoroughly inspiring.
Love this story! I wish I had the courage to do what you did!
That’s amazing! I could never ever — I’m not very risky and I have major personal space issues — but watch a ballsy, bad ass business you’ve built! 😀
I’m with you there. That bit about a couple having sex in her bed had me almost crying at the thought of someone ELSE doing THAT in MY bed. -shudder- No, sir. But kudos to her for being able to handle this.
And who’s to say that if I was in that exact situation, I might not have done the same thing and just dealt with my issues.
Amazing!! You make me wish I lived in a state with more traffic than here!! And the stories you will hear and tell! Awesome!!
Love this story! I lived for a while in my friends’ schoolhouse, where they do a similar type of rental arrangement. It makes for a very lively household. Congrats on having the ovaries to do what you love and what works best for you and your son.
That is totally amazing! You rock!
This is where you chronicle the events and use it in your memoir to make even more money. 😀
Great idea, I’m glad the house was “rescued” and used!
This is so cool!
I had a flatmate drama about 8 years ago when I lived in a house in Balmain and I had 3 backpackers move in to my flattie’s room when she left – an American guy and two Scandinavian girls. It worked out really, really well.
Hey Jody, if you need an assistant for your new property… I’m a good babysitter too! 😉
Thanks for all the positive comments! And Alice, if you are in Sydney I’d totally take you up on that offer 😉
I *am* in Sydney — inner west, to be exact, but can travel! my email: a_coltheart at yahoo dot com dot au 🙂
This is excellent, and just what I needed to read! The husband and I are considering a similar venture in Brisbane, and it’s great to know that this worked for you. Thanks for the insight 🙂
I grew up in a backpackers hostel (parents own/run/live in one) and think it really helped shape me into a well rounded person from a very young age. I could talk to anyone, i was used to different nationalities / cultures / race / sexualities from a toddler. Now at 30 I still have hundreds of offers of places to stay internationally which has helped me traverse the world a few times now!
I just also wanted to add that why i’m sure you are doing everything above board that there is a fine line as to when subletting rooms becomes an illegal backpackers hostel. There are real dangers associated with it, fire being one (Childers 2000, 15 people died).
Hey Stella – I totally understand your point – since the building has functioned as a group home before it has a functioning fire panel linked direct to fire brigade. It has monthly fire inspections, working fire alarms, extinguishers and blankets, exit signs, opening windows and doors that don’t need keys to unlock from inside. I’m paranoid about safety – last week down the road an illegal boarding house went up in flames and one person died, one seriously injured! The best thing is I got all of that covered in my rent too!
This is totally awesome. I told my husband I would like to do something like this. In my mind I always thought we would have to buy the place in order to work out what we wanted, which is such a huge hurdle, but you’ve shown me that renting from the owners is totally feasible too, especially in this market.
Good luck on everything! If we ever get the chance to visit Sydney I’ll know where to stay!
I love this story and it sounds amazing. Are you/have you/will you blog about your adventures and all the amazing people you run across?
I would love to follow your adventures in a blog too. However, I realize you may not have time to write on top of everything else you do…
Woo. Found you! http://solomamatravels.wordpress.com
this was awesome,
i have to say i am love your use of the term “fell pregnant” lol
Fell pregnant must be one of our quaint Aussie terms then lol? Got knocked up? Bun in the oven? Up the duff?
I’m a new-to-Australia Canadian and I was surprised to hear “fell pregnant” in a documentary several times last night. My Aussie partner suggested it might be a carried over British saying. I thought it sounded amusing until he asked the difference between someone falling pregnant and falling ill. I conceded!
Yep, it’s a British saying.
LOL! My favorite euphemism was “A cupcake in the EZ-Bake”
What a delightful story about working hard to make a better life for your family!
Wow! What courage and determination you have 🙂