So the couple made a radical decision to buy a property and turn it into a high-end bed-and-breakfast. The Ledgers’ move is not that unusual, as commercial and domestic property agents are reporting a high level of interest from couples wanting to run a small family business, keen to offer tourist accommodation to subsidise their household income and enable them to live in larger family homes.
© Andrew Hasson
Simon Wells, hotel specialist at Colliers International (colliers.com), confirms that B&B is becoming a popular career choice with young families. “When the wife leaves work they find that they need the income. The average age of owners is coming down, and owning a B&B in a beautiful part of the country might be a bit of extra work but it ticks all the boxes — and provides a pension.”
The Ledgers were living in Highbury, in a five-bedroom townhouse which they had renovated themselves, when Penny, now 39, became pregnant. “We both really love London but we did not want to bring up children there,” said Ian, 38. “We liked the idea of having space, a garden, and however nice the part of London you live in, the truth is that there is always a not-so-nice area nearby.”
The couple began hunting for a property near enough to the capital for Ian to commute to his job as a project manager and found Fair Oak Farm, a tumbledown, 16th-century, five-bedroom farmhouse in Mayfield deep in the glorious Sussex countryside with a two-bedroom oast house and several equally tumbledown barns and cottages within its 12 acres of grounds.
The farm was on the market for almost £2 million but they got it for £1.5 million, and having sold their Highbury house well it funded their move. And they began an epic, exhausting renovation programme over five years, spending £500,000 on extensive renovations while producing two more children.
Ian says: “We lived on site throughout and to call it a nightmare was an understatement. I was up at 5am every day for work and would get home and start working here until midnight, seven days a week.” Today, however, the hard work has proved worthwhile and the property is now valued at £3 million.
© Andrew Hasson
The couple’s three children — Tabitha, six, Matilda, four, and Flynn (one) — love the life on a smallholding complete with alpacas, chickens, peacocks, dogs and cats. The family enjoys the spacious old farmhouse while Penny’s parents often stay in the oast house. And they rent out a three-bedroom barn, two cottages and two lodges that they have built on the grounds.
Rather than go the traditional B&B route guests can either self-cater or have meals provided by a local chef, and the couple will arrange activities from falconry to horse riding. Ian uses his hour-long journey into London to deal with bookings and enquiries. As well as looking after the children, Penny, who used to work for a record company, greets guests, handles maintenance and cleaning (with the help of a part-time housekeeper) and tackles a mountain of laundry herself.
Although East Sussex is not a traditional holiday location, Ian says that bookings are strong, particularly at weekends. He suspects that because there is little local competition when people want to visit the area they tend to head to the farm. Room rates vary depending on the time of year and length of stay but range from £20 to £80 per person per night.
© Ian Ledger
The farm has its own website (www.fairoakfarm.co.uk) but most business has been generated by registering with specialist websites such as Holiday Lettings (holidaylettings.co.uk/18479) as well as repeat customers.
Ian estimates that the business earns about £120,000-a-year, although costs are high — their council tax comes in at £8,000, and their annual oil bill for heating is about £5,000.
On the plus side tax rules are in the Ledgers’ favour. “They are very favourable for our situation, in that if you are living on site you can offset your costs, including investment against tax,” explains Ian.
He adds: “Running the business is still knackering but manageable, and every time we come up the drive we think how lucky we are to be here. This property is going to be our pension.”
A merchant's house in Frome, Somerset
Gina Parker, 58, and her husband Vince, 57, have been in the B&B business for just a year. The couple moved from Mapesbury, north London, to the Merchant’s House in Frome, Somerset, six years ago to fulfil Vince’s dream living in the country.
Their nest has been slowly emptying because their children Coral, 24, Liam, 23, and Gabriel, 18, are spending less and less time at home, and they were rattling around in the seven-bedroom house.
Vince continues to commute to the City where he runs an employment agency, while Gina has overseen the conversion of two formerly family bedrooms in the Queen Anne house in the town centre into elegant ensuite guest rooms, for which she charges between £120 and £160-a-night (www.themerchantshouse.uniquehomestays.com).
She now has guests almost every weekend, earning approximately £20,000 in the first year of business.
“I did it partly because it is a very nice, interesting house of which I am very proud and I wanted other people to enjoy it,” said Gina. “It also helps to sustain the building because it is very expensive to maintain, regardless of whether people are staying here or not.
“It is quite hard work because I am very particular, I always have fresh flowers in the rooms, for example, and fresh coffee, and I have a cleaner but I spend a lot of time inspecting the rooms to make sure they are right.”
She has steered clear of greasy cooked breakfasts in favour of a buffet featuring pastries, cold meats and cheeses, muesli, fresh orange juice – all locally sourced or organic – and cooks supper on a Friday for guests arriving late. Breakfast is served in the family kitchen but Gina has never felt uncomfortable about having strangers wandering around home. “The rooms are not in the part of the house where we live so there is some separation, but I enjoy having guests and have not found it intrusive at all.”
The B&B dream: the red tape and the homes you could transform
You may need planning permission – especially if you are setting up a B&B from scratch. Check with your local authority before you start.
You may have to let environmental health officers inspect your kitchen if it is to be allowed to operate.
Fire regulations depend on the size of the business. You may have to fit fire doors, fire escapes, emergency lighting and planned escape routes. You will certainly need extinguishers and a blanket.
Income from a B&B is, of course, taxable, but you can earn up to £77,000 a year without having to pay VAT. Once over this level you can opt into a flat-rate scheme and pay 10.5 per cent on your turnover.
You will need to be fully insured — not just for property and contents but public liability cover in case guests are injured on your property. You can also take out cancellation insurance to cover you if guests let you down.
For more information, contact the Bed and Breakfast Association at bandbassociation.org.