Owning a cabin in North Georgia is like owning your own piece of paradise – you can escape to a mountain getaway whenever you want! When you’re not using your home, you can decide to list it as a vacation rental to have it cared for and generate revenue. But what makes a Blue Ridge home successful as a cabin rental, and what do homeowners need to know before listing their home? We decided to ask CJ Stam, an expert on the Blue Ridge vacation rental industry and managing partner of Southern Comfort Cabin Rentals.
1. What makes the Blue Ridge market unique compared to other vacation rental markets around the country?
CJ: Blue Ridge, Georgia is a boutique market and accessible. Blue Ridge residents and shop owners have tastefully preserved its small-town charm, which makes it feel like a true home away from home. Blue Ridge’s proximity to one of the world’s most accessible airports in Atlanta, and the four-lane highway leading right to the city center, make it easy to get to, but it’s still far enough away to feel like an adventure or an escape from the hustle and bustle. Blue Ridge is often referred to as the ‘Gateway to the Blue Ridge Mountains’ – there are so many awesome day trips, lakes, rivers, hikes, and festivals that offer a lifetime of exploration.
2. What are the benefits of owning a Blue Ridge cabin rental? What are the challenges?
CJ: Blue Ridge and North Georgia have a robust cabin rental demand. The number one benefit of owning your own home is you get to create the perfect place for you and your family while allowing others to enjoy it as well. Sometimes it’s hard to find or reserve the same rental twice unless you own it. One of the biggest challenges of owning your own cabin is caring for it from afar. Property care is the primary motivation that homeowners state as the reason for choosing a professional vacation property manager like Southern Comfort Cabin Rentals.
3. How do you see the vacation rental industry in Blue Ridge evolving in the next five years?
CJ: I see it becoming more refined with higher-end amenities and services being provided by professional cabin rental companies. I believe we will also see a consolidation of management companies giving guests and visitors more selection with less managers. It’s getting harder and harder for smaller companies to compete against big Online Travel Agencies, or OTAs, like VRBO, HomeAway, Airbnb, and Booking.com. Keeping a personal connection and feel throughout the reservation and in-cabin experience will be the secret.
4. What types of Blue Ridge cabin rentals do guests want? (location, size, amenities)
CJ: Blue Ridge and North Georgia are year-round cabin rental destinations, which means we have unique demand cycles for small and large homes. This helps mitigate the barrier of entry for the individual who wants to own an affordable cabin rental, or desires a sky’s-the-limit opportunity for a group buying in partnership or a high-dollar investor. I always advise people to buy what fits their long-term financial goals. Currently, there’s some saturation in the 3-bedroom, 3-bathroom cabin rental inventory, so rental prices on these properties are lower both for sale and for rent. This offers an opportunity for a project buyer to buy, fix, and flip the home, or hold it. 2-bedroom, 2-bathroom units are great because they offer the perfect opportunity for an affordable couples’ or small family retreat without having ‘too much house’. The biggest need is for larger 5 to 8-bedroom cabin homes. These types of homes have a much higher barrier of entry and cost, but the market is demanding this size for large modern family gatherings, reunions, and corporate retreats. One of the best aspects of a large-format home is that the homeowner can pack it full of amenities. Rather than picking and choosing what extras you can fit into a home, the owner can literally create a resort-style experience under one roof. Larger cabin homes offer the greatest opportunity to include amenities like pool tables, arcade machines, dart boards, shuffleboard tables, theater rooms, bars, and living spaces that are expansive enough to include everyone in one area as opposed to spreading the group around a single residence or multiple homes.
5. What are the up-and-coming locations or the most desirable areas for cabin rentals in North Georgia?
CJ: The best rental locations in Blue Ridge are broken down into two categories: year-round and seasonal. Year-round homes offering a mountain view and close to downtown produce the highest occupancies and tend to book further in advance. Downtown Blue Ridge is still considered the greatest draw to the area because of all the cool shops and restaurants, so most guests and visitors tend to gravitate towards these conveniences when they are making their selections. Natural beauty and wide-open natural spaces surround downtown Blue Ridge and are easily accessible from anywhere. There’s something to be said about being away from it all, but guests still desire ‘easy’ if it can be included in the overall experience. Seasonal homes tend to be on rivers and lakes. These properties have a premium price during the warmer months, and there are less of them overall. These cabins will still rent during the cooler months, but the price has to be significantly reduced. This offers great value for the guest if setting is not their number one priority. Forest-view homes offer the best value if a guest is only looking for a comfortable cabin home. To make forest-view homes produce higher occupancy, packing them full of amenities helps.
6. What should buyers in Blue Ridge look for if they are considering purchasing a home (existing or new construction) to be placed in a vacation rental program?
CJ: Buyers should look at location, size, maintenance factors, and affordability. As stated above, location is very important – close to downtown is the most desirable. Size is 100% relative to the buyer’s goal. Maintenance can be one of the most overlooked factors: Is a buyer looking for a project, possibility ongoing, or a home that’s ready to go? Most resale properties will require some TLC and updating. New-construction homes will require all-new furniture and accessories, but will typically require less upkeep for the first five years. The number one buyer mistake is purchasing more than you can afford regardless of the rental market. We all have high hopes for a home being able to produce revenue, but it’s wise to make sure you can afford a vacation cabin home or have a plan in place in case it doesn’t perform well. My advice is to have and keep a rainy-day fund that is an allocated amount of cash just for property repairs or a shortfall. Owning a cabin rental is a lot like owning a business, and you always want to be prepared for the unexpected.
7. What do homeowners need to make their home desirable to guests and a good fit for the Blue Ridge vacation rental market?
CJ: The cabin needs to be comfortable and clean. Amenities that make the home easy to use are important. Keep the home well-stocked – sometimes small things ‘walk off,’ and most items wear out or can become outdated with time. Homeowners should be prepared to work with their property manager to replace these items as needed. These items should not be cause for concern, but rather viewed as part of the cost of doing business. Higher-volume homes that have been on the market for a long time need constant attention. This doesn’t mean the owner has to do everything – the owner should work with their property manager to strategize how items can be refreshed or replenished as needed. A home being clean has another meaning beyond cleanliness: limiting the amount of stuff stored in the home. Owners should do their best to declutter and remove extra décor. This helps the home with cleanliness since an organized and well-appointed home cleans more efficiently. Southern Comfort Cabin Rental contracts with assigned cleaners who are responsible for specific properties as opposed to housekeepers who rotate cleaning properties. This gives the cleaner an opportunity to get to know the home as well as the owner.
8. What are five qualities of a successful Blue Ridge cabin rental?
CJ: A successful cabin rental in Blue Ridge has a great owner and manager relationship, an excellent location, and updated amenities; is well-maintained; and a quality construction – in that order.
9. Are there any mandatory services a home requires to be a Blue Ridge cabin rental?
CJ: It depends. Most professional property management programs have some sort of mandatory fee structure. Some offer a one-size-fits-all solution and others may offer a menu of available services. The mission of Southern Comfort Cabin Rentals is to become the most comprehensive professional short-term vacation rental agency serving the Blue Ridge market. With that, we offer a balanced approach to fees. We know that conservative expenses equal greater revenue for the homeowner, but we’re also sensitive to fact that we cannot become a cheap alternative that can negatively affect the guest experience. Some items the owner can expect to see as mandatory services are pest control, trash pickup, some level of lawn care, annual deep cleans, and safety and inventory audits. Other items that may be considered value-add services can include hot tub care, digital locks or thermostat monitoring, and preventative maintenance measures. In addition, there are some selective amenity services that are considered property specific such as firewood delivery, propane exchanges, and dock adjustments.
10. How should a homeowner determine a competitive rate for their Blue Ridge cabin rental? Should rates be adjusted for seasons?
CJ: We believe this should be determined first by the homeowner’s revenue goal. For Southern Comfort Cabin Rentals, this drives how aggressive we can be with each individual home rate. The dynamic pricing formula we use for rates is proprietary. What I can share is that we use a multi-tier seasonal calendar that adjusts based upon market occupancy or demand. We’ll set base rates for select date ranges and then make weekly micro adjustments based on reservation flow. We employee a full-time revenue manager to accomplish this goal.
11. What are tips for homeowners choosing a management company in Blue Ridge? What should homeowners look for?
CJ: As a homeowner, you should make this decision based upon what’s most important to you. This will become an important relationship based on trust, respect, and gratitude. Meet with the people you will be dealing with on a regular basis and don’t predicate your decision solely on the company’s owner or sales person. Tour the company’s office or offices and have your questions ready in advance. Some helpful questions to ask are: How does the owner cleaning work and how much does it cost? How is the owner’s, or a guest of the owner’s, usage of the property handled? How is damage handled? What is considered wear and tear? Is there a schedule of fees? What does the commission cover? What are the company’s top five search engine terms and ranking? What is the company’s percentage of repeat guests, average daily rate, and average occupancy? Compare the data and the decision should be an easy one.
12. What makes Southern Comfort Cabin Rentals different from other management companies around North Georgia? Why should a homeowner choose SCCR?
CJ: Southern Comfort Cabin Rentals is a hospitality company first. It’s process-driven and customer-focused. We know what works, but we aren’t fearful of innovation. To the guest, we present an amazing value and always offer a fair price for our services so that we can achieve a positive experience with each booking. To the homeowner, we present peace of mind with responsible and professional management they can count on.