To barn or not to barn?

As well as a three-bedroom terraced house, our property at Kovaci also has a barn. It’s a lovely building, in great condition, but restoring it along with the house would have been a big financial step too far – or so it seemed. Then, when P went to the UK, I started daydreaming…


Barn for restoration in Kovaci, IstriaWhen house hunting for our Istrian restoration project, we optimistically hoped our limited budget would stretch to a three-bedroom cottage. In the end, the property we bought also included a barn and, while the price was right, I nearly rejected it simply because there was too much to restore! With any such project, the initial outlay on the property is usually the cheapest part – it’s the renovation that costs. Doing up the house was within our budget, but also doing the barn at this stage just wasn’t an option. Or perhaps it was?  


Does it make rental sense?

It all started idly one Sunday afternoon, while P was away in the UK visiting his parents and I was pondering the space available in the house …

Inside of barn roof in Kovaci, IstriaSpread across three floors, the house had plenty of bedroom space for six people, but was rather tight on living space. If, I mused, we could spread out into the barn, we could create a huge kitchen-diner in the house and a large living-room in the barn, with another two bedrooms above. What started as an amusement rapidly turned serious, when I realised this made great ‘space’ sense. 

But would it also make ‘rental’ sense, to create five bedrooms rather than three? Three-bedroom places are the most common holiday rental properties and, being ideal for families, are the most in demand. What about five-bedroom properties? It was time for some research.

Fairly soon, things began to look good. While there is less demand, there are also far fewer five-bed places available, so they seemed to rent well and at good rates (prices almost scaling directly with three-bed places). Restoring the barn definitely made ‘rental’ sense. The next question was … do it now, or wait?


Practical sense?

With money and time very tight, the sensible approach seemed to be to restore the house this year and then restore the barn another year, after we’d earned some money with the property! But was this really a practical option? If we were serious about increasing the property to a five-bed let, would we be foolish to wait?

Piles of sand and equipment in th garden at Kovaci, IstriaNo matter how neat your builder tries to be, this type of work is messy and the more needs doing, the bigger the mess. If your ‘garden’ is still at the field or mud patch stage (as ours is now), it doesn’t matter if it rapidly becomes a builder’s yard. If it’s already been landscaped, it does. While Miro assured me he’d be able to restore the barn at a later date, without damaging the garden, I just didn’t see how. Restoration work produces lots of rubble and waste, and new materials need storing … all of which ends up accumulating in the garden.

Our garden is also long and narrow, raising the question of access. Once the pool was installed, paths paved, walls built, terraces laid and the garden finished, how would they get in the necessary big equipment?

Having seen what Miro needed to do while restoring the house and installing the pool, I didn’t want to take any unnecessary risks (he’s already filled our ‘garden’ and spilled out left and right, into the garden below and the shared parking area.) Partially this is just because he can and obviously he’d be neater if the garden was finished, but I couldn’t see how he’d manage a second restoration later without causing considerable damage or incurring higher costs.

So if we wanted to restore the barn, clearly it would rent well and it made most sense to do it now. The final question, and the biggest, was whether it made financial sense.


Financial sense?

Tiny upstairs barn windows in Kovaci, IstriaWe’re investing in Kovaci as a business proposition (it’ll be a rental holiday house, solely for paying guests) and, with a limited budget, there’s no room for sentiment: every penny (or in this case Kuna) spent needs to be justified. And it wasn’t just a case of trying to find the money to restore (and furnish) it, but calculating whether the extra outlay invested would generate enough extra return to make it worthwhile.

To me the arguments to restore now seemed overwhelming. In renovating the house as a holiday let, a significant portion of the costs are for the outside works – installing the pool and creating a garden. As the barn would share those with the house, in effect, we’d be adding another two-bedroom house without any additional outside costs.

But would P be equally convinced? A quick look at my initial figures and he was impressed, but to make sure, he locked himself away for a day with spreadsheet and calculator to double check everything  (and then some…).

Wicker hurdle floor in hay loft in Kovaci barn, IstriaWe were both amazed at the result. “Rental income scales with the number of bedrooms, but many operating costs (such as pool and garden maintenance) don’t, so adding the extra bedrooms dramatically increases annual operating profitability,” said P in his accountant’s voice. “And because there are no outside works to include when restoring the barn, the annual yield on the money invested in the whole project goes up … not to mention improving the underlying capital appreciation!” Not speaking accountant, I wondered what that meant. Was it a ‘yes’, or a ‘no’? Should we restore the barn now?

“It’s a ‘yes’. Do it now!” said P. “But before we dig further towards the bottom of the piggy bank, we need Miro to firm up his rough costs.” And for that we needed a more accurate drawing.


A very strange shape

Just some of the junk in the barn at Kovaci, IstriaWhen we bought the property, I’d quickly slung a tape across the width and length of the barn. Full of junk, it had been hard to be sure but, after some ducking, diving and stretching, its vital statistics seemed to be 5 m x  7 m – a pretty standard Istrian building dimension. Other than checking the walls were straight and the roof water-tight, I hadn’t looked any closer, assuming it would be a standard rectangle.

When we made a more accurate check, we quickly realised I was completely wrong! The front wall was 7.6 m and the back, 6.6 m; one side wall was 5.1 m and the other 5.3m. This building didn’t seem to have a single right-angle anywhere. How, I wondered, had it ended up such a strange shape and, of more immediate concern, how would I reproduce it with pen and paper?


Best use of space

Back of barn in Kovaci, Istria showing lifted roof lineI’m no architect and don’t have access to sophisticated drawing software – I’ve not needed them until now. Designing the layout of the house with pen and paper was fine – everything was square and most of the interior walls were already in place. With its unusual angles, the barn was far more complex. After trying unsuccessfully to draw things by hand, I resorted to PowerPoint and, after a lot of swearing, eventually had a reasonably accurate outline. Now it was time to start playing with walls to see how everything would fit.

My goal was to develop a layout making best use of the space (obviously!), yet requiring a minimum of alterations and expenditure. At some stage in the past, the barn had had its roof lifted – you can see it in the stonework of the end wall – which meant the second floor of the barn was surprisingly high. This made my job a lot easier, as I didn’t need to take intruding beams or sloping ceilings into account, or factor in raising the roof (a common renovation requirement with old barns in Istria, which doesn’t come cheap). In fact, my main challenge was working round the existing windows and, because creating or moving windows is also an expensive option, limiting the number of additional ones needed.


Designing round the windows

The barn had five existing windows: one huge and two small ones on the top floor, and a normal and tiny one on the ground floor. Upstairs, the constraining point was the large window. Originally used to load hay into a hay-loft, I’d have expected it to be centrally located: it wasn’t, which proved lucky. Being off-centre, it was possible to incorporate it in one of the bedrooms, so I just needed one new window for the other bedroom. Even more luckily, the two small windows on the back wall were perfectly positioned and ideally sized for lighting the bathroom and landing.

Large hay loft window into barn in Kovaci, IstriaDownstairs there was space for a large living-room with four sofas (seating for 10) and a small kitchen/dining area (needed for rental classification purposes). The only alteration required was the addition of another window, just to make it lighter.

Thus we only needed two new windows and at this point, P had a touch of inspiration. By mistake, the carpenter had glazed the two back windows of the house with clear glass, when it should have been frosted. “If you make the two new window openings in the barn the same size as the ‘wrong’ ones in the house,” he suggested, “the ‘wrong’ clear windows can go in the barn and he can make new frosted ones for the house!” Genius – two problems solved at a stroke! 

Last piece in the puzzle were the stairs and this is often the trickiest part when laying-out an interior. After much deliberation, I decided the most effective use of space would be to run them up the back wall, on the right-hand side.

So, after three days work, my design was ready for Miro’s inspection and a final building quote. Nervously I presented my layout … and it didn’t go down well! The stairs were in the wrong place. I had forgotten to take the direction of the beams into account and my stairs cut across them – a very expensive option. Back to the drawing board!


Take two

Upstairs layout of barn in Kovaci, Istria

Upstairs layout

This change, apparently quite small, affected everything and I spent the following day playing with layouts. Miro had suggested putting the stairs up the left-hand side, as it seemed the most logical. Strangely it wasn’t and I wasted a morning trying to make it fit. When I put the stairs on the right, everything fell into place upstairs, but it changed things downstairs. Where should the kitchen now go, back or front wall? This small question took me ages to resolve. It’s amazing how one small change can completely alter a layout and make some seemingly trivial problems very hard. In the end, it was all decided by the location of the microwave! 

Downstairs layout of barn in Kovaci, Istria

Downstair's layout

Wednesday morning, week 8 of our restoration project, was the moment of truth for my new layout. With bated breath, I handed it over … Miro looked and then he nodded, and I heaved a huge sigh of relief. The plans were fine.

After a couple of anxious days waiting, I eventually got the finalised quote: there were no nasty surprises and it fitted our revised budget (relief!). Miro also said he’d be able to do the work in tandem with the house, so it shouldn’t cause much of a delay. (Personally, I have my doubts, but let’s see!)


Is it the right decision?

 Barn in Kovaci, Istria with work outsideAdding the barn into the restoration project was not a decision we took lightly. It is a major undertaking, requiring a large injection of extra capital. It also adds a lot more work into an already tight building schedule, making it less likely we’ll meet our target of having it rented for at least part of this summer.

So, a step too far? I don’t think so. In the long-term, it will create a far more attractive property, and the financial and practical reasons for doing it are overwhelming. So with a last intake of breath, we gave the go-ahead to Miro.


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