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Like English aristocrats renting out their castles on Airbnb, Americans who covet a stately historic house may look for it to provide income. Vacation rentals have never been more popular; other homeowners rent for weddings and fundraisers, or to the producers of movies and commercials.

The Natural Bridge has been a local attraction since Thomas Jefferson’s time. Courtesy the Inn at Forest Oaks

When Chris Walker and Cliff DeVito were hunting for the right house, they knew that it should be big enough to serve as a bed-and-breakfast inn. At Forest Oaks in Virginia, they saw the ideal property for not only renting out rooms, but also for other income, allowing them to live in this gorgeous house.

“With only six bedrooms to let, we knew we had to have a multi-faceted approach,“ Walker says. “Our separate cottages are a wonderful plus. In the house, we can’t accommodate pets or children, but the cottages can, and they’re very popular. We’re doing well with lodging: we have bookings into 2021.“ The cottages, he says, are in demand year-round. The rooms in the big house, on the other hand, see a huge surge on holidays.

“I was surprised by how big all of Valentine’s week is, as well as the demand for New Year’s Eve. At Forest Oaks, we provide a quiet getaway, not a raucous party.“

Walker and DeVito have made barter an important element in their economy. “We lend the pastures to local farmers who make hay. We make no money, but it keeps the fields mowed and keeps us in farm products or services. We also barter with the local tree person: he cuts our trees to keep them from hanging over the house, and he keeps the wood.“

The owners have developed an extensive financial strategy. “We have done weddings and other private parties, although that can be tricky; it’s awkward if a wedding is going on in which other guests have no part,“ DeVito says. “So we fill the schedule carefully, timing for lodging or a wedding, but not both.“

They’re planning to host murder-mystery weekends to include candlelit dinners and scavenger hunts among local businesses. Wine-pairing meals, organized along themes, will be catered, as will the murder-mystery meals.

The two also plan to convert the original basement kitchen into a bakery run by DeVito, who trained as a pastry chef. “We’ll bake cakes, pies, pastries, brioche-at first for our guests, but as we produce more, we’ll sell baked goods through local farmers’ markets and to restaurants.“

The basement once held the servants’ hall. That area is be-coming an antiques store open to guests, and to the public by appointment. For years, Walker has collected costume jewelry from the 1920s to the 1950s, which will be featured in the basement store. Then, “we’ll add a larger antiques store in what used to be the garage,“ he says. “That gives us space for big items.“

The way to make the money work, Walker says, is to “go full steam ahead all year long. We will just keep trying things to find out what works.“

Conservation Fund

Walker and DeVito praise the Conservation Fund. (This is a non-profit that seeks to foster environmental preservation and economic development: “We partnered with them for our financing: they take risks that banks won’t. “

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Founded in 1973, Old House Journal is the original authority when it comes to old-house restoration, traditional house styles, period kitchens, bath & kitchen restoration, DIY projects, gardens & landscaping, and more-- from Colonial and Victorian through Arts & Crafts and Mid-century Modern homes.

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