April 2008

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A perfect house fell from the sky into my lap

After running Fay’s Rooms for 8 months, I decided that I should look for a single location with multiple rooms rather than trying to look for more apartment units scattered around the city.  While the demand for short-term rentals is high and growing, I see that my major bottleneck is in acquiring more units.  I thought, wouldn’t it be great if I can find an old house with character and run a bed and breakfast from it?  Then, the whole thing came together miraculously.  Everything started when I casually mentioned to my Shanghai relatives that I wish I had a lane house from which I can run a B&B.  Surprisingly, my cousin Weiwei mentioned that his college friend’s family owns a house on the same block as where I live and has moved out last year.  I urged him to contact his friend for me and he did.

6 bedrooms with 2 1/2 bathrooms

The following week, I met with his friend Jim to see the house.  This house has belonged to his mother’s family since it was built in 1939, and was given to his mother as a wedding present.  However, the house was confiscated during the Cultural Revolution, when strangers moved in to the house and shared the space with Jim’s family for nearly 20 years.  They finally got the house back in the 80′s and continued to live in it until last year.  After years of heavy usage and minimum maintenance, the house is understandably run down.  The house is a 3-story garden lane house with 2 bedrooms facing the garden plus a bathroom on the 2nd and 3rd floors, and 2 “tingzijian”, or mezzanine rooms on the 1.5 and 2.5 floors.  The ground floor has a living room, a dining room, a kitchen, and a half bath, which is a classical double-width lane house layout.  There’s a sizable garden facing Changle Rd with some beautiful Japanese maple trees.

I liked the house a lot but the immediate problem I saw was that there were 6 bedrooms but only 2 bathrooms — not ideal for an upscale B&B where most guests would probably want to enjoy the privacy of having their own bathrooms.  I left the house thinking:  too bad.  A couple weeks went by, and I was still thinking about the house.  Then, when I talked to my architect friend Ken about it, he mentioned that he has a former colleague, Don, who’s done several renovation projects on old houses and may be able to help me take a look.  So I eventually met Don and took him over to the house to take a look.  He thought the house was in great condition structurally, and it wouldn’t be very costly to do it up.  We then discussed the possibilities of adding more bathrooms to the house, as it was key for me to decide whether I can take up the house or not.  We first wanted to add a big communal spa tub and a couple showers/toilets on the rooftop, but felt that the house would still feel like a hostel rather than a nice B&B.  We then came up with a interesting solution:  why don’t we convert one of the mezzanine rooms into 2 bathrooms, and connect the 2 bedrooms 0.5 floor above and below to each of the new bathrooms?  After some excited sketching and validating, we decided that it was doable!  This gave me the confidence to pursue the project further.

Cafe + B&B:  Win-win proposition

While Don and his contractor set out to put some estimates together, I started thinking about how I’m gonna provide breakfast for my guests.  Also, with only 5 rooms and a handful of guests at any given time, the ground floor dining and living rooms will be empty most of the time.  Immediately, I thought of my friend Kelley, who runs iiiit cafe nearby in the Summit Clubhouse.  I gave her a call to see if she’d be interested in running a cafe out of the ground floor and the garden.  Guess what, I found out that her lease is up end of June!  I described the house to her and right away she took interest and wanted to see the place.  She’s been looking around the area for a new spot and hasn’t’ been able to find a suitable one.  The next day, I took her to see the house, and voila, I’ve got myself a partner.

So, things happened quickly in the last 2 weeks, with me running around talking to people, working out rental agreements and cost estimates, even buying some pieces of furniture already!  Really looking forward to signing the lease this weekend!