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Guestblog: How I became a landlady

I’ve been following the recent ‘how I became’ series with fascination; wondering whether to contribute one of my own, and if so, which. I’ve already written ‘how I became a trucker’ and the story behind becoming an ambulance driver isn’t terribly interesting; anyone who’s read Blood Sweat and Tea has already heard those yarns.

Life in an ambulance in central London hasn’t changed much and that chap’s tales are the same as mine would be. But when I read Sarah on being a publican I realised that I did have a contribution to make. All that learning to handle people at their worst, the lurching from making the best friends of your life to wondering if you would ever relax again, it reminded me of my recent past as the owner of a Bed and Breakfast in semi-rural Ontario.

I wasn’t expecting a life filled with drunks, prostitutes, cocaine addicts and murderers to be honest. I just wanted to be a legal Landed Immigrant in Canada.

My son and I had spent eighteen months here in the ‘90s, on temporary visas, and decided we liked it enough to move permanently. The Immigration rules were strict, if your profession wasn’t on the published list of desirable people you couldn’t just come and work. You could be a self-employed person if you had a track record of self-employment in your home country but I didn’t. The only possible way in for me was to be an Entrepreneur. I looked it up in the dictionary and decided I could have a go. I had to either buy or set up a business and run it successfully, presenting my accounts to Immigration every six months for two years. If they thought I represented an economic asset to the region, they might let us stay. ‘How hard can that be?’ I thought. Those of you who are a little more business savvy than I was back then might be giggling by now.

My original plan was to set up a fabulous bespoke wedding cake empire, bringing modern British sugarcraft skills to the benighted provinces who still considered buttercream to be an edible substance. But while on a fact-finding tour, checking out markets and How I became a Landladyputting together a business plan, I happened upon this B&B. It was huge, it was gorgeous, it ticked all the boxes for a suitable business, it would mean hitting the ground running…and it was for sale. The owner named her price, it was a bit steep but manageable. I rather sheepishly mentioned that it might take me two years to obtain my visa, expecting that to be the end of the deal but she did that thing where you look up and to one side while you are thinking and then said that would be ok, she’d wait.

We hired lawyers. They drew up a contract to exchange immediately but complete after two years at the price agreed. I had solid evidence to present to Immigration and she had a firm date to work towards for her retirement. It appeared to be the perfect arrangement. We messed about with clauses that meant she had to keep it running nicely and that I would share the cost of any big renovations and we shook hands. I should have done my body language homework though, and checked which side she looked to while doing her thinking. I wasn’t to find out that I couldn’t trust her for another three and a half years.

In the meantime my whole attention was taken up with the mechanics of emigrating. The application was the size of a thesis, took months to compile and required the assistance of several lawyers; one of whom I had to threaten to sue before he got things sorted out in time for the application deadline.
There was an interview at Canada House.
There were medicals.
Then I had to sell my house in London, offload masses of stuff, pack up a small boy and his toys and land in time to complete on the date agreed two years earlier. We landed two weeks in advance of the big day. In that time I had to open a bank account, apply for business tax numbers, buy a car (which involved taking the Ontario driving test before I was entitled to my own insurance policy) book Ben into school, hire an accountant and learn how to run a swimming pool.

The previous owner, Fay, was as good as her word (or so it appeared just then). The business had been kept thriving, there were guests in the beds, bacon and eggs in the fridge, bookings in the diary…the takeover was ‘turnkey’ in that she left and I arrived but the business rolled on.

backyard swimming pool
Image via Wikipedia

When the day came that I walked through the door to my fabulous new Canadian estate (half an acre, six bedrooms, inground heated pool, inground outdoor hottub, Jacuzzis in all the bathrooms, a tractor to mow the lawn and, oh more other toys I’d never heard of than you could shake a stick at) I suddenly realised that my entire life for the last two years had been leading up to this moment. I had absolutely no idea what to do next. It was a bit like the birth of my son. I’d done all the obligatory NCT classes and had ‘done the reading’ with regard to labour, pain relief and the medicalisation thereof. But when they put that baby in my arms and it looked at me I’d had no idea what to do next then either.

Fay helpfully hung around in town for a few weeks to help me with things. She helped me with the pool, by showing me how to to pour acid into the filters whenever it looked a bit cloudy. She helped me by recommending a series of contractors who knew the building well, plumbers, electricians and the like. She helped me by suggesting that I keep on her beloved housekeeper so that I would have expert help to get things done.

She helped me by sending her friends to come and stay. Six months down the line, after a string of horribly expensive disasters, breakages, complaints and overpriced, shoddy workmanship (during a phase when I was beginning to doubt my sanity and starting to wonder about the existence of poltergeists) I finally realised that a lot of this help had been quite unhelpful. I had fired the contractors fairly fast, and after the third time the new guy – who I trusted – told me ‘it looks like someone just grabbed hold of this and pulled it apart’ I fired the housekeeper. The poltergeist activity stopped, but it was to be another year before the full extent of the damage, and the reason for it, became clear.

Fay wanted her B&B back. She wanted it back at a discount, and the best way to achieve this was to make sure I went under.

Remember the acid in the pool filters? Well it turns out that the water isn’t ‘going alkaline’ when it’s cloudy, it’s just a good trick for making sure that a lot of very expensive stuff will need replacing on a regular basis. A simple addition of algaecide each week (‘oh, did I forget to tell you about that?’) would have stopped the cloudiness in its tracks. Her friends had been primed to make complaints and demand refunds. The contractors were under instructions to overcharge and underdeliver.

Eventually the lady in the local Tourist Office took pity on me.
‘You do know why she’s doing all this don’t you?’
‘Doing all what?’
‘Badmouthing you all over town.’
Actually, I hadn’t known about that bit. When it transpired that all the ‘help’ was designed to lever me out again and show a rapid profit I got a bit cross, dug my heels in, fired everybody else I could think of and became even more determined than ever to make a go of things. I may have lost thousands of dollars being a starry-eyed trusting person but that was the day I toughened up and became a Landlady.

Goodness, I haven’t got to the prostitutes, addicts and murderers yet. Contemplating a second instalment. Suffice to say, for now, that we are Canadian citizens, that I would never, ever go back into the hospitality industry, and that one day there might be a book.

Carolyn Steele
Carolyn is a UK female trucker in the US and Canada, she can be found on her blog, Trucking in English

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