Case Study: How to Convert your Cottage into an Airbnb

By Johanna Crisholm • Last Updated July 12 2022

Before the pandemic sent shockwaves through the Canadian real estate market, Mel and Dominic had plans to get on the property ladder and out of their rental in Northern Vancouver by purchasing a two-bedroom apartment somewhere within the city’s borders. 

Those plans, however, were shaken up after lockdown orders began carving out a new definition of normal. To cope with this, the recently married couple began camping around in their province’s own backyard – since travelling beyond British Columbia’s borders at that point was still largely restricted. 

Through word of mouth, a friend recommended a camping destination just an hour’s drive away from where they’d been hunkering down throughout the better part of the pandemic: Bowen Island, a tight-knit community of roughly 4,200 year-round residents situated in the picturesque Howe Sound. ​For Dominic, the connection was immediate, while Mel – who grew up accustomed to the hustle and bustle of big cities – felt she needed a bit more convincing to settle down in such a remote location. But after a few more camping trips on the island, they found themselves on the same page and began envisioning a life on Bowen Island where they could raise a family, build a home of their dreams nested within the Canadian wilderness all while growing a business. 

After months of designing, planning and construction from purchasing their lot in the fall of 2020, their vision materialised into Hummingbird Ocean Suites in March 2022 when they welcomed their first guests into their home. 

While Mel and Dominic reside in the main house, renters can book into one of the four private suites inside the main building of the oceanside retreat or an entirely separate dwelling, a 1,000 sq. ft. cabin next door.

How we did it

From Mel and Dominic: (edited for conciseness and clarity at points but largely in their own words)

We purchased the bare land lot in November 2020, started clearing the land in January 2021, and received our building permit in March 2021 and started building both the main house and cabin simultaneously. Dominic and I moved in December 2021, so only nine months from starting construction, but we opened up the suites in our main house for guests in March 2022 and the cabin was opened in June 2022. 

Dominic works in construction and owns his own construction company, so mostly travels to his clients. He was the builder for our house and cabin, so it was very convenient for him. When he was building our house, it was his main job. I found work at a local job, so during the construction phase, I worked there full-time. As the suite and cabin rentals started getting more bookings, I was juggling two full-time jobs. My usual week would look like this - Monday to Friday, I would start the day cleaning the hot tub(s) and make sure all the rooms were ready for the guests, then I’d go to work for 7 hours, and then I’d come home and do admin work for the rentals. 

The weekends were dedicated to making sure the property was in good shape - we still have a lot of landscaping to do (never ending project!). The first few months were difficult while we were getting our bearings with the property, hosting guests, and managing cleaners. I decided to go part-time and then eventually gave my notice at my local job as our rental business was going strong. Now that I’m focusing on our rental business and we’ve settled into the groove of things, it’s nice to have my work/life balance back. 

One thing you really wish you knew going in:

One thing that people usually know is that you have a budget and you try to stay within it, but there are always unforeseeable circumstances or costs that will happen. We had created a fairly accurate budget and even had a contingency, but right as we started building, lumber costs doubled, which ate up all our contingency. Another circumstance was a shortage in our Hardie Board siding for the cabin, so in the end we decided to mill up cedar from our property and use it as the siding on the cabin. We are really lucky that Dominic is a builder in the industry, so he understands timelines and was able to line up his trades, but from other friends and acquaintances who were also building new houses on Bowen Island or elsewhere, their projects took longer than they expected.

Top tips for those setting out:

Stay positive and stick it out: As a young couple, buying bare land and building a brand new home is a daunting idea to some, it was to me at first, but after experiencing the whole process from breaking ground to managing five rentals (four suites and a cabin) on our property, it was all totally worth it! It was a tough, but fun process and we hope it’ll pay off in the long run. The rentals are definitely helpful towards paying our mortgage plus the added benefit of passive income, and eventually we hope to be financially secure enough to have the property all to ourselves. 

Budget, budget, budget: Unforeseeable costs will likely happen, so be prepared for that. Bowen Island is somewhat unique in that it’s located on an island, so materials and labour are a bit more difficult to attain and more costly than the mainland. However, it’s only 20 minutes from the mainland, so it’s actually closer than Langley or Abbotsford to downtown Vancouver. Again, luckily, Dominic works in the industry and we did a lot of the work ourselves, so it saved some costs for us.

Know your strengths and source out to the experts when needed: Since Dominic is a builder, he knew what he liked based on other projects he’s worked on, so I left most of the design up to him as I trust his taste. However, we hired a designer to complete his vision, but didn’t need an architect. When you’re building a new house, you need to follow certain guidelines, so we also needed structural and geotechnical engineers as well as other trades (framing, electrical, plumbing) to help with the project, while Dominic did the finishing and interior design.