In June 2020, my husband Nick, our 6-year-old son Parker, our dog, and I piled into our Subaru Outback and headed to Cape Cod, Mass., to turn Nick’s family home into a $5,000-a-week vacation rental.
My husband coaches teachers in New York City’s most underserved schools. I’m a journalist with 28 years experience. But deep inside our souls we are Chip and Joanna Gaines. We are that cute couple from Home Town. We are the Property Brothers if the brothers weren’t twins, but rather husband and wife.
OK, we are none of those things. But we do own a very successful vacation property in the Catskills that we fixed up ourselves.
When 2020's stay-at-home orders hit and we found our lives untethered from school, camps, and workplaces (I was especially untethered from a workplace, because I was laid off from my job in June), I turned to Nick and said, “Honey, why don’t we go up to the Cape and fix up your family house to rent?”
What I should have said was, “Honey, why don’t we go to the Cape and ignore our son for five weeks and work really, really hard and experience very dark, sad moments where we feel like giving up but then pump ourselves back up and make the house gorgeous and rent it out for seven weeks for big bucks and end our stay feeling like rock stars?”
You know, just like on a reality TV show.
Making a To-Do List
When people heard we were going to the Cape to work on the house, many assumed we were going there to decorate.
When we arrived, we made a list of things that had to be done. Each day, as we crossed off items, we added more: Fix broken slider screens, fix broken irrigation system, measure and hang up blinds for all windows, install solar lights, declutter closets and drawers, cut up and cart off downed trees, paint closets, move 1,523 books and two dozen plastic bins to the basement, beg a painter who was booked up through Labor Day to give us two days of his time.
Somewhere in my notebook I may have written, “decorate.”
Everything in Its Place
A house that has been lived in for 40 years needs to be decluttered and thoroughly cleaned before it can be rented out. For weeks, we lived among piles of books and plastic bins filled with mementos, letters, notebooks from Yale circa 1985, and 250 cloth napkins that we found folded and stored in a dresser drawer. Trinkets needed to be wrapped and boxed, and piles of mismatched, stained linens needed to be bagged and hauled down to the basement, where they would be stored for the next 40 years.
There was one rule that I was happy to abide by to keep the peace in the family: I was to ignore everything I learned watching an entire season of Marie Kondo. My mantra became “Throw Nothing Away. Cart Everything to the Basement.”
Life Lessons From the Cape
A short list of things we learned in five weeks of decluttering and cleaning the Cape house: We had no idea there were so many biographies of Harry Truman. My mother-in-law was a high school cheerleader. When you vacuum up 1,000 baby Daddy Long Legs, there’s a chance they will survive and crawl out of the vacuum cleaner.
And we are really, really bad parents.
In a normal summer, Parker would have spent every day at summer camp or on the beach or the boat with us. Instead, he spent entire days in his pajamas watching videos. When he wasn’t on the iPad, I carted him all over the Cape to Ace Hardware, Ocean State Job Lot, Target, and various homes of people selling things on Facebook Marketplace.
“If you come, I will buy you an $8 ice cream cone.”
“I don’t want ice cream. I want a Nerf gun.”
“Fine, let’s go.”
I tried my best to give him and me a memorable time on the Cape. We played putt-putt golf, and I arranged a playdate at the beach with a friend and her son from Brooklyn who were up visiting family. A few times, I paid a babysitter to play with him outside, but most of the time he was on the iPad. We had only five weeks to get the house in order, and the clock was ticking.
It’s OK, other moms on Facebook assured me. Our children are having the exact same summer as Parker. Just not on Cape Cod. Rather, in our tiny NYC apartments, which we have not left since March 15.
Reality-Show Drama IRL
Just like on an HGTV show, things did not always go as planned. We would wake up with plans to drive screws into the deck only to find out the deck was barely hanging on to the side of the house and had to be fixed or someone could fall and we would be sued. Thank goodness for the carpenter ant infestation or we may never have learned this.
Then there was drama, like the time Nick argued with someone over the project and then announced to me with tears in his eyes that he was mentally and physically exhausted and wanted to pack up and go home that night.
“But honey, we can’t,” I gently told him. “I still have two rugs from Overstock and a headboard that haven’t come in yet.”
The Finishing Touches at Bargain Prices
When it came to furnishing the house, I put myself on a strict budget. The house wasn’t yet on Airbnb and VRBO and we had no idea if it would get rented. Plus, what if Nick’s brothers and their wives hated my choices? What if, in the end, we end up selling the house and I had spent thousands of dollars on furnishings we never really needed?
So we hit Craigslist and Facebook Marketplace and made 23 trips all over the Cape to pick up our finds. Every day I went to a local consignment shop to see what was new. We scored $8 Restoration Hardware drapes, a barely used navy blue couch for $450, and a stack of Pottery Barn quilts for $40. We spent $120 on an antique Parisian console that had been carted all over Europe by its previous owners.
One thing we didn’t have to worry about was the linens. My sister-in-law generously offered to buy all the pillows, sheets, and duvets. We used art that was already in the house.
Once the rooms were pulled together, we had the house deep cleaned and hired a professional photographer to shoot it. I learned long ago that $200 professional photos were the absolute best investment a short-term-rental owner could make.
The final step before we could go live was to hire a cleaner. A cleaner can make or break your vacation rental. I interviewed several before settling on a woman whose name I found on a poster board planted on the side of a busy Cape Cod road. She seemed thorough. Most importantly, she was available on Sundays, our changeover day.
Once we got the photos in, we put the house on Airbnb and VRBO. We posted the links on Facebook traveling sites and our relatives shared the listings on their social media. Then Nick and I held our breaths.
We Built It, Now Would They Come?
They did. The family house that had stood empty for years was booked every week through Labor Day and for several weeks after. When we got our first bookings, Nick and I gave each other a high five and did a little jig. All the hard work we did had paid off. The bookings added up to more than $30,000, which would go into the family trust. Had we not put the house on the vacation rental market, it would have sat empty for yet another summer.
Our first official guests arrived just as we were giving the house a once-over with the vacuum. We put on our masks, greeted them warmly, and Nick gave them a tour of the house.
As we climbed into the car to head back to New York, a family of three rode by on bicycles, beach chairs strapped to their backs. As we watched them disappear around the bend, Nick sighed, smiled at me and said, “I need a vacation.”