The Damyang House

by Sean Walker
Groove Korea (groovekorea.com)

The Development

Our successful vacation rental business, built from an abandoned house in a bamboo forest, was not the outcome of a well-outlined business model, a background in real estate or an MBA from a prestigious university.  Instead, we were driven by a combination of ignorance, stubbornness and a lack of foresight that prevented us from having a Plan B.  Forking out your life savings on a foreclosed abandoned house leaves you with very few options but to stumble through the process and hope for the best.

Hindsight affords a unique perspective which I am more than willing to share with anyone considering a similar project.  It’s certainly not impossible, but easy is an adjective I would never use.  For starters, finding an affordable piece of property with any semblance of privacy is a true-to-life needle-in-a-haystack challenge. Those clustered groupings of homes sprinkled throughout the countryside are there for a reason.

Zoning laws prevent you from buying land on a mountain top and then building an idyllic log cabin and even if they didn’t, land prices are extremely expensive in a country of this size so you would need to have access to a small fortune.  That sweet low-interest loan with only 20% down payment the bank was offering you for the apartment you were looking at?  That’s no longer on the table.  Having 50% down payment on a countryside property will probably get the bank to at least hear you out, but then again, you’re asking them to take time out of their day rubber stamping low-risk apartment loans so be prepared to shop around.

And of course the old adage “location, location, location” is especially true if you plan to turn your countryside retreat into a profitable business.  Most people looking for a weekend getaway will value being off the beaten path, as long as the beaten path is accessible enough to sample local delicacies, enjoy a bit of sightseeing or even find a store to stock up on booze and meat for an evening’s BBQ.  We’re tucked away in a corner of Damyang County, but Mudeung National Park and the Gwangju Lake Eco-Park provide ample opportunities for hiking, cycling, or fishing, and popular local restaurants are plentiful in the area.

Assuming we share a tax bracket, and you have also romanticized the idea of renovating an old house through years of watching neatly packaged 30-minute home improvement TV shows, buying a move-in-ready house is neither an option nor desirable. Your budget will ultimately dictate what the realtor shows you, and chances are whatever you find will need some work. Finding a competent contractor that you can trust is a complaint echoed by many living here in Korea (or anywhere really).  The first estimate after buying our fixer-upper, at over KRW 100 million, nearly brought me to tears.

Needless to say, our budget was a bit less than that and led us to interview a handful of other contractors, eventually settling on one recommended by family and offering an unbeatable price of KRW 30 million for a top-to-bottom renovation of the house.  The selection of wallpaper, tiles, fixtures, and just about everything else is limited so don’t approach your contractor with a litany of photos you collected from Pinterest and expect any of it to happen. Visit the tile and wallpaper shop yourself and after excluding everything covered in flowers and sparkles, you’ll have a better idea of what you have to work with.

Hints and Tips

Building a business as a vacation rental out of your new countryside home is a great way to recoup some of your initial investment and help pay off your loans.  We approached this by first building a website that outlines what our house and neighborhood has to offer.  This is a task directly proportional to how tech-savvy you are and how quickly you are able to produce content through research, writing and photography.  For me it took about a year and will forever be a work in progress (www.thedamyanghouse.com).

Next you’ll need a solid Airbnb profile, which involves more than just posting a few photos and a small description. Obtaining and maintaining a high (5-star) rating on Airbnb is a full-time job and the community is notorious for sniffing out and destroying those that half-heartedly approach it (https://www.airbnb.com/rooms/2339315).

Finally, finding customers through marketing and convincing the public you are not a scam artist is a slow process, made easier in today’s world of social media, but slow nonetheless (https://www.facebook.com/thedamyanghouse/).  Word of mouth is massive among the expat community, so treat your guests right and eventually your customer base will grow along with your business.

For those of you interested in pursuing a similar project, I cannot encourage you enough; it’s a decision I will never regret. Call your real-estate agent today and start looking at properties to get a feel for what’s available around your preferred area. For those of you content with a weekend countryside adventure, get in touch and book a visit at The Damyang House!

The Rental

The Damyang House is located in a small, traditional countryside village. The property itself is at the base of a mountain and is literally cut out of a bamboo forest. An old stone fence and a gate line the only exposed sides of the property ensuring privacy for our guests. The deck and fire pit in the front yard are perfect for a BBQ, a game or two of bean-bag toss or enjoying the deafening silence and fresh air that the countryside is famous for. The spacious modern kitchen, cast iron fireplace and state-of-the-art entertainment center available indoors offer a cozy retreat during the colder months. The Damyang House makes a perfect pet-friendly getaway for couples, small groups or families.

The options for exploring in the area are limited only by one’s energy level. Those looking for a leisurely stroll will be content with visiting the maze of boardwalks in the Gwangju Lake Eco-Park, a popular tourist attraction less than one kilometer from the house.  The area is famous for its bird-watching and bass fishing and attracts bus-loads of day-trippers from Gwangju in search of fresh air and a relaxing afternoon.  A bit more off the beaten path, but still more of a walk and less of a hike, are the rice paddies directly in front of the Jishil Village entrance.  The valley is virtually tourist-free, offers spectacular views of Mudeung Mountain and depending on the season, filled with lush green or golden brown rice paddies. Those with a bit more energy will enjoy the five-kilometer Jishil Valley trail which starts right in our front yard and finishes with breathtaking views of the valley and Mudeung National Park. Additionally, there are four bikes available for use at the house and this is a great way to explore the area. The infamous Mudeung swimming holes are just a few kilometers away and make a refreshing end to an afternoon of cycling.

More info:

Cost:  The weekend package is KRW 360,000 and includes:

two guests for two nights, late check-out on Sunday (6pm), free transport from the Gwangju bus or train station to the house upon arrival, and complimentary firewood, coffee and beer koozies to enjoy during your visit.

Website: www.thedamyanghouse.com

Facebook: www.facebook.com/thedamyanghouse/

Email: mrseanwalker@gmail.com

Location: Jishil Village, Damyang, Jeollanam-Do

groovekorea.com

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