Building a Dream: Our Vacation Rental Property Series #5

Designers and Floorplans

Rental season in the OBX is gearing up for us right now, so I’ve been busy with handling last minute crises like broken icemakers and area rug cleaning.  But four years ago, we were only concerned with making sure we created a home that fit both our family and our future rental clients.  We loved to peruse home design magazines that were filled with floorplans and websites where you can order a stock floorplan.  Initially, we thought that getting a custom home would be far too expensive and that we’d be stuck with a stock plan.  We were so wrong about that!  Our builder recommended a few designers, we perused examples of their past work online and ultimately went with his recommendation on who he thought would give us the result we were looking for.  In the end the design of the home was very affordable.  It cost us only about 1% of the total home cost and we got exactly what we wanted!

Personal Wish List

Our personal wish list included these design features:

  • 5 Bedrooms, 4 + baths
  • A relatively small footprint at about 2500 sq. ft.
  • Efficient use of 2500 sq. ft. (i.e. no dead space)
  • An energy efficient “green” home
  • A pool
  • A bathroom at ground level for pool users
  • Built on stilts, a common thing for homes in OBX to avoid potential flooding. Even though our home was in an area at low risk for flood we wanted to go as tall as the HOA allowed in order to get any ocean views possible. *(more about this below)
  • A reverse floorplan, meaning that the main living areas are on the top floor. Again, our goal was to maximize any potential ocean view.
  • Incorporation of a “ships watch.” Yep, you guessed it, highest potential area for views.
  • Stairs situated on the side of the home (center stairs, while popular, take up and break up open floor plans).
  • An open floor plan on the main living level.
  • A traditional beachy appearance on the exterior utilizing finishes like painted cedar shake and board and batten
  • Potential space for a future elevator (knowing that someday faaaaaar in the future it may be our retirement home, or at least more appealing for future buyers. Lugging up a weeks’ worth of groceries up 3 stories is NOT ideal.  Oh, the things we do for a glimpse of ocean!)
  • Highest ceilings we could possibly achieve with a 35’ HOA imposed roof height limit
  • Lockable storage

Vacation Renter’s Wish List

During this process, we also consulted with local property management companies to ensure that we created a home that would be “rentable”.  Therefore, we had some real requirements we felt we had to meet on top of our own personal wish-list.  Rental requirements included:

  • A home that sleeps at least 12. Many vacationers choose to rent homes with family or friends and pool resources, and for some reason a home that sleeps 12 is the “sweet-spot” of rentability / cost effectiveness for the OBX rental market.
  • As many en-suite bedrooms as possible. So that families joined together on vacation can at least have a private bathroom.  We made 3 bedrooms en-suite and the other 2 share a jack and jill bathroom.
  • Room for as many king beds as possible. We were able to make 3 bedrooms king, 1 queen and then a kid’s bunk room with 4 twins.
  • A pool
  • A hot tub
  • An open, chef’s kitchen
  • A dining area that can seat as many as the home sleeps, so in this case, 12.
  • A rec room with a hang-out spot (most renters want a pool table, but we weren’t willing to make the lower level rec room big enough to hold a real pool table, so we made it large enough for a shuffle-board table, mini-bar, half bath and loveseat)
  • Parking for at least 5 cars
  • Outdoor living area

Whoa, that’s a lot of stuff to cram in 2500 square feet!  Thankfully the lists overlapped a bit, so we gave our requirements and some exterior sample photos to our designer and he came up with a perfect floorplan and use of space.  I recall us just working through a few tweaks here and there before we were ready to get cracking on the build!

Design-Build Firm, Designer or Architect?

We learned so much from this process, and it was fun!  Our major takeaways: When you are building at the beach there may be special building codes or just good practices so I highly recommend hiring a designer who is from the area where you are building and is familiar with both the codes and the concept of vacation rentals in that specific area.  A common misconception is that you have to hire an architect when in fact, a designer, in conjunction with an engineer can accomplish the same great design for your home!

To View or Not to View… That is the Question!!!

*A funny story about those views.  Our property is about 2 blocks from the beach, in a treed neighborhood with other homes between us and the beach.  We had absolutely NO IDEA if we’d build this house and have an ocean view.  All of our neighbors were smaller/ lower homes so there was no way we could ask them to stand on their deck and know if we’d get a view.  We attempted to duct tape our digital video camera on 40 feet of PVC pipe and raise it over the trees on the highest point on the property.  We did this in the presence of our designer and builder and they probably thought we were a  couple of nutjobs.  We may have felt legitimate had it worked, but it didn’t.  The resolution on our camera wasn’t good enough to see that far.  Maybe if we were building today we’d use a drone.  Anyway, we went into the design and build process knowing that all those requirements on our list for an ocean view may be for naught.   Spoiler-alert! In the end, from both the top deck, main living area and the ships watch we DID achieve the tiniest ocean view ever!  Even still, we love it, with all the windows and doors open it feels like a treehouse up there viewing bright blue skies through the tall live oaks and pines.  It’s heaven.

Our dream beach house in OBX!


dream beach house ground floor


dream beach house bedrooms


dream beach house floor plan

Building a Dream: Our Vacation Rental Property Series #1

I envision this post to be the first in a series to describe our process for making the leap to purchasing a vacation property and ultimately building a beach home from the ground up.  It’s no doubt a scary venture, with a lot on the line. I figure reading about our successes and mistakes might help a few people venture into vacation home dreams of their own.

I had been half joking with my husband for several years, whenever he would ask me what I wanted for my Birthday, Christmas, etc. I’d always reply, “A beach house.” Hah, funny, right…. I knew I’d never wake up to a house with a big bow on it like those silly Lexus commercials (don’t you hate those people on those commercials even though you know it’s not real?)  Anyway, in saying that I wanted a beach house as a gift, I really meant that I wanted us to save money and forego trivial gifts and really sock away some savings so someday we really could buy that beach house.

On a (sort-of) whim, one winter, I started searching on  Initially our plan was NOT to build a brand-new house but find a home that needed a little bit of cosmetic work, which many beach rentals do, and fix it up.  Cause, ya know, we fancy ourselves pretty handy.  We had been traveling to the Outer Banks of North Carolina for several years and renting homes for a week for summer vacation.  Over the course of my childhood I had spent time in other beach locations like Virginia, Maryland and Delaware beaches and the Jersey shore …yes that’s really what it’s called, it’s not the “beach” it’s the “shore” and if you say it with a Jersey accent it’s even more accurate… and if you refer to OBX as the “shore” people look at you like you have three heads.   Of all of those places I loved OBX the most and it was a manageable 4 hour drive from our home in VA. So I found a house I liked and I promptly contacted the realtor.  This is the house that drove me to start our search in earnest – adorable, right?

initial coveted vacation home
Photo: Southern Shores Realty


Okay, here’s recommendation #1, don’t do what I did, and call the realtor who lists the house you may want to buy, because if you make this person your agent, they are then working for both sides.  We were lucky because in our case it worked out because the seller wasn’t willing to negotiate as much as we’d have liked and I was hell bent on getting a good deal (that was a high priority of ours) but we did find a good agent in the process and he showed us a number of places in a whirlwind rainy weekend).  Finding someone who is willing to roll up their sleeves and dedicate a whole weekend to you is a pretty big deal because if you’re looking for a vacation property that is several hours from your home you want to be efficient with your time and not do multiple trips back and forth.  Working with a realtor that is local to where you want to buy is really important.  They know the area, and will know what areas work best for rentals as well as what home elements will help return on investment potential.  And although your realtor will hopefully have lots of info for you don’t forget to do research on your own.  We did and it came in really handy when it came time to negotiate (more on that in a later installment).  In fact, when we started our vacation home search I was dead set on buying in the quaint town of Duck, pictured below.













Did I buy a home in Duck? Nope.  Based on our priorities, our agent turned us on to a neighboring town called Southern Shores, which was a much better fit for what we wanted in a property.  I still find new and interesting things about Southern Shores, NC and I just love, love, love it!  Every time I visit I say that I don’t want to go home to Virginia and just want to stay there forever.  Here’s the gorgeous dunes at Southern Shores.











A few other things I learned and I recommend as you start looking for that vacation rental property: know what your priorities are. Do you want maximum ROI in rentals?  Proximity to the beach and amenities? Peace and serenity?  A place for boating? Low maintenance? (Hint, you may want to scratch this last one off your list if you’re going to rent your beach home out, but we’ll talk about that more later).   We knew (or thought we knew) our primary priorities going in. Here’s our list:

  • Within a 5-minute walk to the beach
  • In an “X” flood zone (see more on this below)
  • A good deal (and preferably below our budget of 550K)
  • Have consistent summer rental history (or potential)
  • Not along a main road with a lot of audible traffic
  • At least 4 bedrooms and 2 bathrooms or one that could sleep about 10 or more people
  • A pool or room to add pool
  • Not in a commercialized area (no views of stores, restaurants)
  • A water view

I’ll let you know which of these we actually accomplished at the end.  But these all sorta make sense except, why wouldn’t you want a house RIGHT smack dab on the beach if you’re buying a beach house?  Ok, well admittedly, that would be lovely and would probably help a ton with rental potential, right?  Only I’m at least somewhat risk adverse and wasn’t willing to push those limits on our first foray into rental properties.  Houses on the beach are exponentially more expensive in terms of sale price.  But consequently, you could rent it for more, which is true, but there are other expenses you incur with a house ON the beach.  Maintenance is one; you will have higher overall maintenance costs for things like painting, rusting metal that needs to be replaced, and storm damage, which brings me to our #2 priority, an “X” flood zone.  FEMA has mapped all coastal areas and assigned different letter codes to designate potential risk for flood based on historical events and geography and probably all other sorts of scientific stuff.  More info on all of this is available at FEMA’s flood risk website.  Here’s a pictorial simplification of FEMA’s flood risk lettering.

FEMA Flood Zone lettering
Image: FEMA


What is important to know if you are buying a coastal property is that these letter codes affect how much or how little flood insurance you have to carry and ultimately, how much you’ll pay.  Being in an X zone doesn’t mean that our home is invulnerable to weather, not at all, but it is at a lower risk for flood devastation.  For us, it wasn’t just about the money but not having to worry about having to board up our little vacation abode every time a hurricane threatened the east coast or worse worry about having to rebuild it or worse yet, worry about being so severely impacted that our entire property was rendered unusable….. and it happens….  These homes are along the beach in South Nags Head, NC, just a few miles south of ours that had been condemned after a storm.

Photo: Steve Earley, The Virginia Pilot


Are you considering buying a vacation rental property?  What are your thoughts or dilemnas?  We’d love to hear them! Share in the comments.

Next installment coming in a week or so – continuing the house hunt and expanding it to a “land hunt”…