The DIY Beach House:
A Homeowner Q&A
Clarissa Zimmermann and her partner Jason had no experience in short-term rentals when they set out to build a vacation home in Panama City, Florida. A self-confessed workaholic, she has a tough schedule as both a realtor and flight attendant, which frequently carries her far from home. How, then, did two busy people from Atlanta design and build a rental so successful that it’s fully booked more than 10 months in advance?
After months of searching for the perfect home, Clarissa and Jason decided to go back to the drawing board. Where they landed, you’ll have to see to believe. The couple found the perfect near beach front vacant lot and turned it into two flawless properties to turn anyones vacatoin into an oasis. Learn more about her story below
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What inspired you to build your own rental?
Clarissa Zimmermann: Weekly rentals are new to both of us. We have friends who purchased foreclosure lots in Seacrest Beach a couple of years ago after the BP oil spill in the Gulf. They built this house, it started renting and our thought was, “My goodness! Every house down there is for rent. How does anybody make any money?”
But after watching them succeed year after year, we thought, “I want a beach house.” Of course it makes sense to build properties as investments that other people are going to pay off eventually, and in the meantime, I get to use it and enjoy the beach house. So that’s exactly what we did!
We spent about two years, making trips down there and searching properties and watching prices go up, up, up. Then we just decided that we didn’t really find anything that other people had built that we liked, so it would be easier for us to just start from scratch and create our own floor plans, using the things we know travellers are going to look for.
You work in the travel industry, and you travel a lot yourself—what are the things that travelers look for?
CZ: I think when people get together it’s for the purpose of entertainment. My biggest pet peeve in most houses is boxy spaces.
We really didn’t spend much time in the bedroom when we were renting properties or going on vacation in hotels, so we shrunk down the space for the bedrooms, made sure the bathrooms were comfortable and then obviously pulled over any extra space into the common areas. Again, as far as what these people look for when they go to properties: it’s experiences
How much of the work did you take on yourself?
CZ: We’ve done everything. You know the hardwood floors? We sanded them, stained them, we sealed them. We did so much to this property that I don’t know if I’ll ever take on that type of task again, but we did everything. From the ground up.
Nobody is ever going to be as invested in your property as you are. And because we had so much on the line with taking on a very hefty financial chunk, it couldn’t fail.
For people who don’t have the luxury of building a house from scratch, how else could they improve their guests’ experience?
CZ: I stocked all the pantries and put stickers on the draws that said, “Free stuff”. I’ve had so many guests comment and say, “What a great idea because you ask the guest to clear all their stuff out when they leave, right? It just helps the next people not have to go out and buy it. You’d be surprised—if you encourage it, people are really nice and pay it forward.
As a first-time renter, how did you approach listing your property?
CZ: I I checked all the comparable listings and I would gauge how they wrote their descriptions, and also looked for information they left out that I would be interested in as a traveler.
I checked their rates, rental agreements, cancellation policy—pretty much everything! I just snooped around other people’s listings.
As a consumer, as a traveller, I asked myself what questions would I still have after I read everything they had online?
When you finally listed your properties, what challenges did you encounter?
CZ: We had missed spring break, so our expectations were: I hope we can book enough weeks to pay the bills for the first year. When the clock is ticking and you’re two weeks away and you still have some key summer weeks open in June, you start thinking, “Should I drop my price? I just want to get people in there.” But at the same time, you have constant inquiries: “Hey, will you take this amount for your property?” It’s almost offensive!
I’m kind of panicking, but no, we’re not in the position where we need to give it away. Don’t discount or offer last-minute deals—we feel, with our five-star review, we’ve earned the right to charge full price.
The second-hardest thing was finding a quality cleaning company, because that will make or break your business.
What tips would you give to anyone else starting out in the rental business?
CZ: If you’re going to be a good property manager, you’ve got to be in open communication with the guests. We had a lightning strike and it blew out the power in both houses at 11:30 at night, and so all of a sudden my phone was blowing up!
We couldn’t get to the source of the issue on the phone, so I stuck my husband’s butt on a plane the very next morning and said, “You need to show your face—you need to be there with these guests.” And sure enough: five-star reviews; no mention of anything except how wonderful our communication was.
Quality of photos is also huge. We waited until we felt the properties were 95% done before we paid a photographer to come in and take professional photos. Once those professional photos were up, it was like night and day with the number of inquiries. They’ll always look at the pictures before they read a word of it.
And finally, what would you say to people thinking of giving it a try?
CZ: If you have space and you’re willing to rent it out, you’re only gonna gain. There’s absolutely no losing side as long as you are thorough. You can list your property, but then if you’re not responding in a timely fashion and you’re not making yourself accessible, and you’re not vetting your inquiries, you don’t know who you’re gonna get. It’s nothing to be feared, but it does take work.
The Lightning RoundAll you need to know from Clarissa’s about her DIY Beach House
“You know the hardwood floors? We sanded them, stained them, we sealed them.”
“Nobody is ever going to be as invested in your property as you are.”
What do travelers look for?
“I think when people get together it’s for the purpose of entertainment. My biggest pet peeve in most houses is boxy spaces.”
How did you perfect your listing?
“As a consumer, as a traveller, I asked myself what questions would I still have after I read everything they had online?”
How do you make guests feel at home?
“I stocked all the pantries, and put the stickers on the draws that said, ‘Free stuff!’ I’ve had so many guests comment and say, “What a great idea!?”
Has it worked out?
“All of July next year is already fully booked, and it’s only September.”