Lifestyle's End: B&B for Sale; Can Convert to Private Home

By MANDY LOCKE

Innkeeper Stephen Caliri chats about golden retrievers with his guests in the parking lot of the Victorian Inn after directing them to lemonade and cookies on the back patio. The cordless phone on his belt rings, and Mr. Caliri begins rattling off room rates to a prospective guest on the other end of the line. He even mentions the third-floor mahogany deck he laid over the winter.

It's a 24-hour-a-day job. After 11 years, Mr. Caliri and his wife, Karyn, are ready to throw in the towel. Nearly three years ago, they put their 14-room South Water street inn up for sale, but they admit it's unlikely the $3.6 million price tag will lure someone willing to clean toilets when the maid calls in sick.

"I called our real estate agent the other day and asked her to figure out what we'd have to ask in order [to entice] someone to run it as an inn. I know that number will be unacceptable. We've all come to the conclusion in the last two years that places like this will become private homes again," Mr. Caliri said.

"The real estate market is killing the inn business."

In recent years, six Island bed and breakfasts have become private homes. Innkeepers like Mr. Caliri can rattle off the list: the Daggett House, Martha's Place B&B, Lothrop Merry House, Tuckerman House, the Captain Dexter houses in Edgartown and Vineyard Haven.

Now, besides the Victorian Inn, there are at least 11 other bed and breakfast establishments where the owners are willing to sell. Some are playing to the likelihood of private home conversion, marketing their establishments as ideal family estates.

The simple explanation for this new trend: The real estate market outpaced the commercial inn business. The price tag now affixed to these properties reflects bricks and mortar and land, not a business reputation and promised revenue stream.

"Why are inns falling by the wayside? It's the economy, stupid. The inns that are small, they are houses. They think, ‘I can sell this house, make a big profit and not worry about making a living,' " said Stephen Pearlman, who several years ago bought Twin Oaks Cottage, which comprises Clark House and Hanover House.

Romance Shattered

Running a bed and breakfast is a lifestyle, innkeepers say. Those drawn to the business for the romance of hosting strangers in their home quickly learn it's not all muffin baking and restaurant recommendations.

"Everyone had the dream in the height of the B&B market in the 1980s. Leave the fast-paced city life, and join the gentlemen's business of opening up your home to travelers. I don't think they realized how labor-intensive it was," said Judy Federowicz, a real estate broker in Vineyard Haven.

In the Island's hospitality heyday of the late 1990s, many innkeepers like the Caliris and Karl and Lynn Buder of Thorncroft Inn decided to bow out while the boom still made theirs an attractive occupation.

"Those decisions came when the business was at its peak. They offered an attractive package," said Ms. Federowicz.

But tourism has fallen off the last few years, according to some innkeepers. Fewer people are traveling, and those visitors accustomed to shelling out the $300 a night the upscale inns demand are now thinking twice.

"There are fewer travelers in absolute terms. And for that top group, their perception is that they are poorer than they were five years ago. We're all shooting for a smaller target," said Mr. Buder, who had the Thorncroft Inn on the market from 2000 until earlier this year.

"What would have to happen for a business like this to be worth more as a business than real estate is that people have to start traveling again," said Mr. Buder.

"The highest and best use for these properties now is a private home. The buyer looking for that gracious, multi-room home is interested," said Ms. Federowicz.

The Numbers

Some fear that when travelers get back to their 1990s habits - most agree they will - there may not be enough nightly rooms anymore on the Vineyard.

"You have to depend on the fact that the tourism business will come back. Man has always been drawn to the sea. A strong base of people will always come here. They'll come back in years to come, and there won't be enough places for them to stay," said Mr. Buder, suggesting that fresh entrepreneurs will then emerge to revitalize the inn business.

When the six inns that were converted to private homes in recent years went out of play, about 70 nightly room rentals were lost. This year, on any given summer night, vacationers can still choose from one of 1,521 nightly room rentals across the Island; small inns or bed and breakfasts account for 596 of those. If the 11 others known to be available for sale convert to private homes, another 115 rooms will be lost - 20 per cent of the inn stock.

"The ramifications are far-reaching. Eventually, these properties will find a buyer who will convert the property. My guess that once it changes to a private home, it will be very difficult to convert it back," said Paul Watts, regional vice-president for Compass Bank. Mr. Watts said his bank offered loans left and right to new innkeepers five years ago. Though many are on the market, Mr. Watts said they are getting very few loan requests now from potential innkeepers.

Mr. Watts's rule of thumb for a workable business loan is that the revenue must exceed the debt by 20 per cent. Looking at the prices of inns on the market today - ranging from the Capricorn House in Oak Bluffs at nearly $1.7 million to Outermost Inn in Aquinnah for $4.2 million - Mr. Watts said that a prospective innkeeper must bring a lot of money to the table to pull off the financing.

"Unless you make a substantial down payment or want to show a loss because of a broader investment picture, this really doesn't work for you. And there are not many of those buyers out there," said Ms. Federowicz.

Staying the Course

Jilana Abrams knows she's the last of her breed.

Mrs. Abrams and her husband, Alan, shelled out $1.65 million for the Doctor's House in Vineyard Haven this past May. She'll run it as a bed and breakfast, just as the owners before had done, while living with her family on the bottom floor of this in-town business.

She is a special case, she admits. Her husband is a physician in Boston, and the family doesn't really need to profit from the inn business in order to survive.

"It's not our sole source of income, so we are just trying to cover our costs," said Mrs. Abrams.

She'd been warned by those in the know that making a go of a bed and breakfast on the Island is tricky. But the fact that they were buying a subdividable property helped the family get past its doubts.

"If things start to get bad, we'll just sell off a lot," she said. "I might be completely off my rocker, but if I am, we can get out with our shirts on."

A few others have managed this path in recent years. The owners of Twin Oaks Inn, SeaSpray Inn, the Arbor Inn and the Shiverick Inn managed to fork out more than $1 million for their properties and still operate a business.

Those in the know suggest that each of these buyers has special circumstances.

"Paying what we did for the place, this was not going to be a married couple's retirement project or a young family's livelihood," Mrs. Abrams admits.

Some longtime innkeepers openly admit they couldn't pull off buying and operating in today's climate.

"We couldn't afford to buy into this now," said Karl Buder, who with his wife, Lynn, bought what became the Thorncroft Inn for $65,000 more than two decades ago. "It just couldn't happen again. That price was in our ballpark; these aren't."

Getting Out of Innkeeping

Inns are slow-moving properties. Most of the 11 properties currently for sale have been on the market for several years.

Both types of potential buyers - innkeepers and second home shoppers - are slow to invest in these properties. The financials don't work on the business side, and retrofitting a building with 12 bedrooms into a family home can also be a challenge.

After longtime summer resident Andrea Ross bought the Daggett House this winter to become her year-round home, she began the long process of seeking approval to adapt the property as a residence. She's been meeting with Edgartown officials for more than a month on plans for a driveway and a place to park her car. Ms. Ross and her architect, Twanette Tharp, will begin a substantial renovation project once she secures permits.

For the most part, converting these properties into private homes returns them, full circle, to their original function.

"You've got to remember, these places were homes to begin with. The bare bones is a home. But we did have to spend a lot of time converting it back," said Russell Urban, who bought the Captain Dexter House in Vineyard Haven a few years ago and restored it as a residence for his family.

Those who have inquired about purchasing the seven-room Capricorn House of Oak Bluffs to operate as a business are looking at the property with an eye toward expansion, said owner Deidre Diodati.

"That's really hard to guarantee, but they are not inclined to invest in an inn with this few rooms," she said.

Aside from the complexities of these bed and breakfasts, this midrange $1 to $4 million price bracket in the real estate market has been moving slowly in the last few years.

"We're a midranged property. That's the kiss of death," said Mr. Buder.

Despite the increasing pressures facing their niche in the Island economy, innkeepers have mixed feelings about walking away from all the work they've done to build up their establishments.

"It would be hard. We brought this from a mom-and-pop inn to a place with an achieved business prominence. This period would just become something in a capsule," said Mr. Buder.