Someone to watch over it : PROPERTY

If you have a second home, and don't use it, should you let it as a hol iday cottage? Anne Spackman reports
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The Independent Online
When you are falling in love with a cottage in the country, the economics of letting it out rarely enter your head. It may be cold, damp and overgrown, but that is part of the charm for the owner looking to escape from a hermetically sealed office life.

But circumstances change. Couples who buy a cottage before they have children suddenly find themselves tied to the city by football matches and birthday parties. Others who bought after their children grew up decide to move full-time to the country, to abigger house. For these and many other reasons a number of second-home owners decide to rent their properties out as holiday cottages.

Rural Retreats is the most up-market of the agencies that handle holiday lettings. Nick House, who runs the business, is holding a seminar in March on the economics of letting out second homes. He will tell prospective clients what it will cost them in terms of money and effort and what it will bring back in rent. Mr House reckons that on average his cottages earn their owners around £6,500 a year net. That is assuming they are let for 25 weeks, and after allowing £1,500 a year for bills and rates.

But first the owners must bring them up to Rural Retreats' exacting standards. Mr House takes on about one in five of the cottages he sees. Those he rejects are either too spartan, furnished with cast-offs and chipped cups, or they are too gaudy, dripping with ruched blinds and frills.

"The skill is for guests to feel they are staying in their own home," Mr House said. "It must be simple but stylish, with good wooden furniture, preferably antiques." Mr House reckons most owners will spend between £15,000 and £20,000 on furnishings and fittings. "It is not worth doing unless the owner takes a two or three year view," he said.

Rural Retreats takes a high commission of 31 per cent including VAT, but its prices are also about 30 per cent higher than other agencies. If owners also use the company's housekeepers, the figure rises to 48 per cent. English Country Cottages, the largest agency in the market, charges around 25 per cent, including VAT.

Rents vary from £150 a weekend for a Cotswold cottage in winter up to £1,000 a week for a seven-bedroom house on the Isle of Arran in high summer. Owners may use their homes for around 12 weeks of the year, including three weeks in the high season. "Morethan enough even for the most stressed out city dweller," said Mr House.

Rural Retreats (0386 701177); English Country Cottages (0223 462 608)

What makes a good holiday cottage: Looks: The only exception is at the seaside, where people will sacrifice appearance for proximity to the beach.

Age: Stone floors, exposed beams and traditional features all sell cottages. Barn conversions are less popular than traditional cottages.

Size: Two double bedrooms is a size which sells all year round. Larger houses are more likely to attract weekly bookings in the school holidays.

Garden: or a good terrace is very important and off-street parking is a bonus.

Location: cottages within three hours of London are most in demand. Suffolk, Norfolk, Dorset, Wiltshire and the Cotswolds should fit in - even on Friday nights.