Turning bed-sits into a home
The seed for the idea that grew into our place in Scotland was planted during a family holiday in France, intrigued by the romance of buying an old place and investing sweat equity to renovate it. After some thought I decided that France, while appealing for a great many reasons, wasn’t really practical for a project that would have to be managed remotely from home in the USA. A holiday trip to Scotland in 2000 re-oriented the focus there.
Traditionally properties have been sold in a different manner in Scotland, with Solicitors (attorneys) very often acting as estate agents/realtors. The search began by combing through online listings, with no real constraint on location but the goal to spend less than £45,000 if possible. I toyed with the idea of a cottage, but the reality of not being there most of the time meant that garden upkeep would be impossible – so some sort of town or village property would probably be best.
In Spring of 2003 I found what we would eventually buy at Solicitors Property Center in Aberdeen – a web site collecting listings from a variety of solicitors across the North East of Scotland. There was very modest information about this flat in Keith online, just some measurements and general description but no photographs.
Sub-dividing British Houses
It’s quite common for older, larger, houses to be split into smaller units or flats, especially on commercial roads where the ground floor will often be used for retail, with flats above. This was what had happened to our flat, it had been a “double fronted” home with central doorway, and a room to either side at front and back on each floor. Some time before WWII the house had been split horizontally and vertically, yielding two businesses on the ground floor with a 2 story flat above each.
This layout gives our flat the original main entrance and hallway, with oval staircase, and two primary floors. Since some time in the early 1940’s the property had served as a Dentist’s practice, though some time in the late ’90s the current owner had rented each room out as a bed-sit . The first step was to get a better feel for the place, so I asked a pal who lived in Kingussie to make the drive up to Keith and check the place out.
He sent me this sole photograph of the interior:
The feedback from my mate Nick was basically this: Keith is a town with a strong history, which once had money from the mills though this had dried up some years earlier. The house had good bones and was ideally situated on the primary commercial street in Keith, but the flat needed a. lot of TLC to turn it into a home. Tall ceilings and well proportioned rooms were appealing, and the price was well within reach. I enlisted the help of Stephen & Robb, solicitors whose office was conveniently across the street, and the deal was struck which avoided the traditional sealed offer process. An international wire transfer to their escrow account, and then just wait for the legal process to complete.
The first visit
In April of 2003 I was at a tech conference when I saw that British Airways had a sale for flights to the UK in the autumn, and I’d booked a week-long trip at the beginning of November – no specific itinerary in mind. By June when the offer was proceeding on the flat I specified October 31st as closing date, the day before my planned (overnight) departure to the UK. I separately booked a round trip from Heathrow to Aberdeen for Sunday November 2nd, and a night at a hotel close to ABZ for that Sunday night.
Monday, November 3rd 2003 I drove from ABZ to Keith, a little over an hour on the A96, and a route that I would become only too familiar with over the succeeding years! A cold, wet, Monday found me in Keith for the first time to collect keys at Stephen & Robb. It was exactly as I remembered almost every November day of the years I’d spent growing up in the UK; damp and chilly. The actual process of collecting keys was pretty straightforward, and before long I was in the flat for the first time.
An honest recollection would suggest that I was a little overwhelmed. The flat hadn’t been used as a residence in 70+ years. Until the end of the 20th Century it had mainly been a Dentists’s practice, and only latterly each room had been let out as an individual “bed-sit”, from what I could tell largely for those with little money to spare.
The windows didn’t fit or close well. Carpet, such as it was, consisted of hairy paper. The bathroom should have been condemned, and there really wasn’t a kitchen.
Apart from the bathroom and kitchen, each room had been rented out and had it’s own sink.
The two largest rooms on the first floor – remember that Brits number floors starting with Ground, up stairs to the first floor, up again to the second – had both been treatment rooms. Each had a reinforced wood panel on the ceiling which would have mounted the light and magnifier the Dentist moves over you when you’re in the chair. They each also had a sink.
The front (pink/grey) room was largest, at around 15′ square, with 10′ ceilings and a double window overlooking the street.
The rear room had also been used for treatments, and you can see the sink in the mirror. When I removed that mirror there was a folded piece of paper behind it that appeared to be someone’s drug sales tracking list.
The wooden box in the corner enclosed the circuit breakers that were present in every room – apparently the landlord wanted to be able to cut off the electricity to each room if the tenant did pay their rent.
The window has moved at some time in the distant past in order to be in the left corner of the room – because the bathroom was deed to the back of the building externally as a mezzanine, accessed from the half landing on the stairs to the second floor. That door doesn’t go anywhere, it’s just the backing to a shallow storage area. Note the window that doesn’t close.
Next to the front room, over the entry door and hallway, is a narrow “utility” room.
On our way the stairs, we’ll stop to admire the bathroom
From the bathroom half landing the stairs continue up to the second floor
First door to the right from the landing leads to the rear room, which was used as the kitchen
The window looks out over the back yard, and it’s quite a commanding view because of the height.
The kitchen had been configured with a pantry in the corner, the top of which had simply been cut into the original plaster molding.
The other room on this floor is at the front, and similarly has a sloped ceiling following the roof line. It’s actually a very large room, but didn’t originally appear so because there was a partition wall creating a lab/closet out of the back 6′ of it.
Really something of a bonus, the attic was somewhat finished and usable. It’s reached by a very narrow, steep, staircase and the walls/ceiling seemed to have been created with thin strips of plasterboard – the widest that would fit up the stairs. It was a pretty rough room, but a good size.
The good and bad
|Great location||None of the rooms are livable|
|Well proportioned rooms||Windows all need to be replaced|
|Solid construction of stone under a slate roof||No real bathroom or kitchen|
|Includes a parking space in the rear yard||Lacks central heating|
|Other than the bathroom, everything feels dry||No secure storage space for bikes etc|
While I was there I managed to meet with a local builder, he’s subsequently ceased trading after a disagreement with the VAT man so I won’t name him, and arranged to get a quote for the following:
- Replace all windows with double glazed white uPVC
- Remove the phantom wall in the front bedroom
- Remove all the sinks and cap the pipes
- Demolish the existing kitchen, and reroute the cooker circuit to the back room (blue) on the first floor
- Replace the skylights in the roof
- Mortar repair to chimney
Stephen & Robb were able to arrange unoccupied property insurance for us, and also agreed to hold a set of keys and inspect the property on a monthly basis.