The Biggest Obstacle for Women Renovators

The podcast for women who want to create income and a life they love through renovating

Join serial renovator Bernadette Janson as she explores the ins and outs of renovating for profit!

Bernadette has over 30 years of experience in the renovating for profit business. She’s a registered nurse, a renovator, a mum, and a teacher.

85 – Case Study: Mary and Lilah Nieuwland

On today’s episode,

In this episode, I am with our student, Mary Nieuwland, and her daughter Lilah. They are a mother and daughter who have worked together for 4 years renovating homes to either Airbnb or sell for profit. They manage 4 short term rentals, have renovated 5 properties, and now have 2 reno projects in the pipeline. Being a part of The School of Renovating community gave them the training and confidence they needed to team up, helped them through challenges, and celebrated every goal in their property journey. This is an inspiration for every renovator who wants to pursue renovating with their family because as we say, “A family that renovates together, stays together.”

Listen to Episode 85: Case Study: Mary & Lilah Nieuwland

Episode Highlights

  • [00:00:52] Boom or bust in 1996
  • [00:01:56] Short term rental business
  • [00:06:05] Lilah on Airbnb
  • [00:07:56] Executive Home Rentals
  • [00:08:46] Mother-daughter team
  • [00:12:32] Managing other people’s properties
  • [00:13:36] Short term rental during Covid
  • [00:16:23] Art deco apartment reno in Elwood
  • [00:19:13] South Melbourne property
  • [00:21:07] Flipping
  • [00:24:31] A project with her son
  • [00:25:31] Coping with Covid
  • [00:28:13] Enquiries



Well, hello, renovators, it’s Bernadette back with another episode of She Renovates. And today I have a very special couple of women come in to share their renovating and short term rental experience. Now, Mary Nieuwland is one of our Wonder Women, and she is a very beautiful renovator. She’s got a very nice style. We didn’t actually talk about her own home, which is in the Macedon Ranges in Victoria. But she’s completely renovated it and just got some really nice features. It’s quite Hamptons, but with vaulted ceilings and it’s really special.

And so Mary joined us quite a few years ago, and she had a desire to employ her daughter or build a business with her daughter, Lilah. And I think that they have really achieved a really beautiful business relationship.

I love the whole mother-daughter scenario because you can hear in their voices their passion for what they do and also the love. And so in it, you will hear about the fact that COVID is not Mary’s first pandemic. So she had a long history of corporate short term rental in the 90s. And she came to us after having given it away for quite a while, sort of a little bit disillusioned with it. But she’s come back quite much stronger. And I think with a different plan and she will share with you her journey from that point.

So this is really the story of a family that renovates together. And so what I’d like you to get from it is the richness that it brings to a family and how it’s given them purpose and empowerment. And it’s just a really good, good news story. So enjoy.

Bernadette:  Hello, everyone, it’s Bernadette back with another episode of She Renovates. And today I have a very lovely mother-daughter team. So I have Mary and Lilah Nieuwland as guests today and they have been, you’re not just a mother daughter there is more to the team but as we say, “a family that renovates together stays together”. You’ve been on quite the journey and so I thought that we would have a bit of a chat about that. And so where would you like to start? So when did this property thing start? Because you started a long time back, didn’t you, Mary?

Mary Nieuwland:  Yeah, I started in 1996 when my husband at the time was earning very good money in his job. And when you work for yourself, it’s either boom or bust and these were some quite good boom years for us so we thought we would try to invest wisely. And at the time we purchased a couple of townhouses close to the city, one in Port Melbourne, one in South Melbourne. There were new properties because at that particular time we didn’t have time to devote to renovating so we bought almost off the plan, not quite but almost off the plan and we’ve held onto them all this time.

Bernadette:  Yes, you’ve certainly done very well with those two properties. And when we first met that was when you had run a short term rental business before?

Mary Nieuwland: Yes, that’s right. When we purchased these properties, I happened to be at a social function party, actually, and given by my father for some of his colleagues. My dad worked as an aircraft engineer for Ansett at the time and I had some engineers from the UK and they were not complaining but saying that they were in a great apartment but they really would have liked to have had a house. And if I knew of any houses that are fully furnished houses that were set for a reach on the short term market. Well, my entrepreneurial skill jumped in there and I said, “Yes. Yes, of course.” And because I had a house in Essendon as well, which we quickly furnished and we rented out to the engineers from. And that’s how we really got started with the short term. And that actually grew because then we got a contract with Eriksson’s and in my heyday we had about 15 houses that we rented out on the short term market. And then we had SARS happen but then went out of business. Docklands occurred where Ned said, “Well, we will have our people staying in apartments next door to our offices.” So then we had to scale back very, very quickly. It continued to operate.

Bernadette: I didn’t realize you were a victim, really, of the SARS pandemic?

Mary Nieuwland: Oh, definitely. Because all especially with Eriksson, I had 7 houses just devoted to Eriksson’s and everyone just stopped moving people around the world and that was it. Now, luckily, most of these houses I had on a lease basis, we see owners full knowledge that I was some subleasing and we just offloaded those. And as soon as we were able to. And there were no JobKeeper in those days.

Bernadette: Yeah. That’s an absolute blessing isn’t it? JobKeeper? Yeah.

Mary Nieuwland:  Yeah.

Bernadette: So when we first met, was it that you were planning to renovate first or were you planning Airbnb first?

Lilah Nieuwland: Well, there’s a bit of both, really, where we’re always interested in renovating. Where age is just always love looking at older houses and wanting to do stuff that we didn’t really know where to start. And also, I thought that we could restart the short term rental with Airbnb. Seeing as it was such an easy platform to get into it but again, we didn’t really know where to start. So we wanted some guidance on getting started.

Mary Nieuwland: And I think when we came to that first talk, we didn’t really know how it was going to pan out. And I suppose it was quite inspirational, the talk. And we were both sitting back and saying, “Yes! Yes!”

Bernadette: And you’ve done it! Which is great. That’s awesome. And so then the next step was taking those, you had 2 properties existing because did you have them on a long term rent at the time?

Mary Nieuwland: Yes, we did. And they were just on a monthly basis at that stage. So I did something which I’ve never done before. And I did terminate leases, one I’ve let go until the people actually moved back overseas. And the other one, well, I’ve got Lilah running basically to finish and update.

Bernadette: Wow. And so the idea was that Lilah would run the short term rental business.

Mary Nieuwland: That’s right. Because of the Airbnb platform, I suppose the way I was used to doing business was a very personal one on one, having your contacts within the big companies and once you lost that, that was quite a hard thing to carry on. And I must admit, I was a little bit over it all dealing with people. And I had no idea how the Airbnb platform worked. And I suppose I was being a bit of a what do they call it, a bit of a dinosaur. And I sought out, she’s a young blood she could cope with all that. And they’re used to dealing. I don’t know. People are a little bit less personable nowadays and I find that a little bit hard but she copes with that quite okay.

Bernadette: You can give it back to them. Can you, Lilah?

Lilah Nieuwland: Yeah.

Bernadette: I think I’ve been looking at how you have weathered the Covid thing and I think you’ve done better than most. And I suspect it’s because you have done something that is a very important business practice and that’s actually having your own platform. So in terms of being dependent, one of my mentors always has this  saying about owning the racecourse, don’t build your business purely on someone else’s platform. And so by having your own website and your own database or whatever that you are able to communicate directly with your guests. Would that be fair to say?

Lilah Nieuwland: Yeah, definitely, especially because we are Executive Home Rentals. People often Google executive homes. So we come up pretty high on the list ao we do get a lot of inquiries. Not any one stay, sort of longer term. So one of our houses they’re there for a year to 18 months, which is really good. We get a lot of inquiries about managing other people’s houses through the web site.

Bernadette: Yeah. The other thing that I’ve noticed about how you operate is that your attention to detail really holds you in good stead. And I would imagine some of those principles came through Mary’s previous role dealing with this and business. So what’s it like working with your mom?

Lilah Nieuwland: Pretty good. How she lets me basically do almost what I want with the business, which is good. And yes, she helps out a lot but mainly dealing with older clients and trying to find new clients, things like that. She basically just leaves me. I go into the houses every time somebody moves out to check everything and after the cleaners have been and I fix all the beds. And usually mom comes in and helps me out just because we like making sure everything’s perfect because often, if you’ve got no nice sheets, it’s not nice. So we make sure that that’s all clean and good. So it’s pretty good we see each other a lot.

Bernadette: And in terms of running the business, what have you found challenging?

Mary Nieuwland:  I suppose I have had to consciously step back from a number of things where I might in my mind, I haven’t necessarily agreed with something but I step back and I think, “No. The younger blood is probably the way to go.” And I haven’t regretted that at all. So because sometimes you do get stuck in your own ways so I think it’s worked quite well. But I have had to bite my tongue a number of times, especially at the beginning I’ll just let her run with it. And like I said, the vast majority of times I’ve been more than happy with the outcome.

Bernadette: Yeah, that’s great. I think sometimes I don’t know that it’s necessarily that younger people know better. I think it’s more a case. Well, part of that is you’re more in tune to different platforms and whatever but I think you’re just a really good blend of both. The fact that Mary’s got that long standing experience and sometimes you sort of have to make your own mistakes, too because it’s the only way you develop. And often the whole business learns as a result of something that didn’t go maybe quite to plan. Have you had any disasters?

Lilah Nieuwland:  One Airbnb guest who basically had a massive party over a number of days, 4 days party. And I don’t know why the neighbours didn’t call us but luckily there was no structural damage. It was just the carpets that had to be cleaned and the furniture to be cleaned and things like that.

Mary Nieuwland:  And I think we came out quite lucky. And it’s amazing what carpet cleaning and dry cleaning  can do. And Airbnb did pay for the replacement of quite a few items and the extra cleaning. I must admit, we’ve always had quite a positive response from Airbnb.

Lilah Nieuwland: Yeah. We never really had a problem with them. Even in small things, if something’s being damaged or whatever, they’re always really good to respond and easy to deal with. So that’s good.

Bernadette: I think that’s often a reflection of how they see you as a host. I’ve found the same and yet I do know other people that have a lot of trouble. So let’s move on. So that’s the business. And are you intending to grow that?

Lilah Nieuwland: Yes, I think so. Maybe a little bit with my partner and I have just finished renovating our 1 bedroom apartment in South Melbourne. We’re going to on Airbnb and to the business. We get a lot of inquiries about managing other people’s properties, which I haven’t taken on, too. I’ve been reluctant to do that.

Bernadette: And why is that?

Lilah Nieuwland: One, it’s often they’re already furnished properties. So it’s hard to say to them that maybe the furniture isn’t suitable or the right look or things like that and often they’re also people’s personal houses. That they’re moving away for a year and then coming back and it’s got furniture and things in it that’s personally valuable to them and that’s always been a deal breaker. I just get a bit wary of that. I’ve taken on people’s apartments that are investment properties and that allowed me to help style with so many things like that and that’s worked out really well. We get 5 or 6 inquiries a month, so we knock most of them back.

Mary Nieuwland: Well, on the one hand but I suppose the other thing is that now if people approach and they’ve got something really different, it’s much easier to take that on. Because people when they stay at an Airbnb they want something different. They don’t want to stay in the normal home like they do at home. So they want to stay like the one place that we manage is opposite the beach. And if you found the inquiries, especially during the Covid-19, it just shot up tremendously because when people wanted to work from home, they wanted something that’s got a nice view. We’ve had one fellow who was having a relationship problem because of working from home that wasn’t actually working out for him to work or to be with his partner 24/7. And so he rented the house for 2-3 weeks, and the reason he chose it was because it had a lovely view. And he said that would help him contemplate whether or not his relationship would continue.

Bernadette: Oh, my gosh.

Mary Nieuwland: So I think things like that, do you make a big difference when people are looking for something with a view or close to a local attraction? So, yes, I suppose when people come up we’ve got one, actually a friend of ours got a place in Carlton but he actually wants Lilah to help revamp it completely. So we’re just waiting for the Covid to blow over a little bit more and we’ll get started on that. So we are lucky that we can be in a position to pick and choose but also that still gives us the time to pay attention to detail for each and every property.

Bernadette: That’s critical, isn’t it? Because the minute you take your eye off the ball that’s when things slide. And that really comes back to your income, doesn’t it?

Mary Nieuwland: It does. And that’s why we are not cheap when people stay with us. I mean, we’re not exorbitant but I suppose people are paying that bit more. They expect maybe that extra attention to detail.

Bernadette: To be honest with you I’ve actually found people that pay really cheap prices expect the most.  It’s very interesting. So let’s get onto the renovating. So since we’ve known you, you and Lilah have done a project together.

Lilah Nieuwland: Yes. The apartment in Elwood the art deco apartment.

Bernadette: And how did that pan out?

Lilah Nieuwland: It was good. It ended up being a lot bigger than we expected because the area was built on a swamp land, which wasn’t a huge problem. But once we started taking the plaster down, things like that, we got so much cracking in the structure that we had to spend more money on the steel beams and things like that than we anticipated. And the whole house was just crooked so it just took a little bit longer because everything had to be sort of made to measure because nothing would just feet squarely in. That was good.

Mary Nieuwland: We learned a lot. And we certainly didn’t sell it at a loss. We still make quite good money because we’re selling it during that time just after the banking royal commission. So everything just fell in a hole. So what we had anticipated and what the agents had also told us but also through our own research, we were expecting a higher price or a higher return. But when it came to us.

Lilah Nieuwland: Well, we did go to auction to start with. And then we put on Airbnb, set it out for 6 months. And that worked really well.

Bernadette: You’re doing really well on Airbnb with that weren’t you? And then you did go to market again because I think we followed in your footsteps with ours up here. And so do you mind me asking what profit did you end up making?

Mary Nieuwland: It was $60K And then we made another $20K out of Airbnb. So it’s $80K.

Bernadette: On a $600K property?

Lilah Nieuwland: Yes.

Bernadette: That was very good. Given all the ups and downs you’ve had, you should be very proud of yourselves.

Mary Nieuwland: Yeah. And that’s what I mean. It was a huge learning curve.

Bernadette: Yeah. Well, that’s brilliant. And now you’re just into another project?

Lilah Nieuwland: So my partner and I bought an apartment in South Melbourne and it was just a 1 bedder that we have just finished putting on Airbnb. Mum and my brother are going in together on a villa in Essendon that was settled in May.

Mary Nieuwland: We have started with the planning. The problem is my son’s stuck overseas but after we listened to that talk that you gave in Melbourne that time. The first thing that we did, though, was we redid a kitchen in our South Melbourne property, and we wouldn’t have had the confidence to do it if we hadn’t listened to you speak and when we went out we changed the whole kitchen and the change was amazing. And that has been a real big feature for us with our Airbnb because with that feature favourite is our kitchen. So then when that worked. We knew that the formula was going to work for us. So, yeah, they’re good.

Bernadette: And Lilah I’d like you to share a bit of the details of the one that you’ve just done for yourself because I think you’ve done an extraordinary job.

Lilah Nieuwland: Thank you.

Bernadette: And it demonstrates how you can use renovating to sort of leapfrog from one project to the next.

Lilah Nieuwland: Yeah, so we bought that a year ago and we completely got it. So we’ve got it for $420K. It has a little courtyard. So we did the courtyard, added new flooring, kitchen, bathroom, everything and so we spent about $30K on it.

Bernadette: Wow.

Lilah Nieuwland: Yes. We got it revalued at $690K.

Bernadette: $240K. Is it?

Lilah Nieuwland: Yeah. So that really worked well for us. So now we’re using the equity from our apartment to look at another project. Buying a house to do another. To look for this one. And then we’re gonna see after this flip and then we’ll hopefully have enough to buy our family home. That worked out really well for us. Just buying something not really expensive and not doing a very expensive reno, just a good reno. And using that equity to go into the next one and then just using the income from this Airbnb to help pay for everything.

Bernadette: And give me a sense do you feel empowered with the skills that you have? What is it that it does for you?

Lilah Nieuwland: Yeah. I feel it’s really great to do your own thing on your own terms and just learning as you go along. So we do quite a lot ourselves, what we can and it’s quite fine whether it be working with my mum or dad or with my partner as we renovate. It’s a great experience. The whole thing just starting with it, planning it, a sense of achievement, definitely, because you’ve always got this picture in your head and you hope and the whole process is enjoyable and it definitely gives you to be proud of yourself to be able to do something like that. When you step back and at the end of it, look at what you’ve done. Yeah, I really enjoy it.

Bernadette: Yeah. And I think it’s done well, certainly our experience in our family, it has been. I don’t know, I think it sort of generates this entrepreneurialism. A lot of younger people don’t ever get because they’re not immersed into it. And I think renovating is a really nice way of being creative and entrepreneurial and profitable.

Lilah Nieuwland: Yes, definitely.

Mary Nieuwland: Yeah. I think the good thing I would just point out what we learned from the old project is that you can do a renovation with minimal cost. It doesn’t mean that it has to be inferior quality but if you shop around or you look around and you do your research, Lilah said they have spent $30K on this particular renovation and I wish that I’d known where she actually sourced her part from our Elwood renovations we would make more profit that way. And that’s why I tried to say to younger people it doesn’t have to cost a lot of money but you do have to put the time and the effort into it.

Bernadette: You do. And it’s sort of I think it’s establishing the process. So the one that works for you because in every area, it’s different. And you can get away with some things in some areas and  really getting your personal sort of cookie cutter approach in some ways is a great thing. And then all you’ve got to do is rinse and repeat. Keep doing it.

Mary Nieuwland: Yes. So with the project that I’m doing with my son, we’re with chunking down the budget at the moment.

Lilah Nieuwland:  And I’m coming in saying, “No, no. Don’t spend money on this.”

Bernadette: I heard Mary saying that she thought she might sneak in a new kitchen.

Mary Nieuwland: Yeah. I don’t think I’m gonna win that somehow.

Bernadette: But, you know, that’s brilliant because you’ve learned a lesson that most renovators take probably 10 years to learn. That’s a power that you now have and can take that on into your future projects.

Lilah Nieuwland: Yes.

Bernadette: Okay. What’s next? So you’ve got the project with Nick. And then hopefully Lilah will have her next project and then?

Mary Nieuwland: Yes, I mean, we were for a time looking for something to do in our superannuation fund. There are some fantastic opportunities out there for just one bedroom or studio apartments in East Melbourne to Airbnb and it would be amazing but then with Covid case and then Nick got his project and then Lilah’s got her project. And I thought, well, I’m just going to push everything aside for the moment and wait for Airbnb to pick up again. But with that we’re checking out with the accountant as to what way to go.

Bernadette: Good to hear that.

Mary Nieuwland: Everything’s being thrown up in the air a little bit with this Covid-19 but I think we’ve sailed through pretty okay. We did spend the time refurbishing I suppose and just smartening doing a deep clean over everything. And redoing one of the bedrooms and putting nice light fittings in on a fan in another room. The air conditioning doesn’t really reach that part of that big room that well so thanks to Lilah, last year at the end of last year and the beginning of this year where we had excellent returns on our Airbnb and so we had a buffer already in place. So we were lucky.

Bernadette: And to be honest with you, I don’t think it’s gonna be too long before it’s back into full swing.

Lilah Nieuwland: I think the states are opening up next month.

Mary Nieuwland: And that will make a difference for us. The majority of our business often comes from overseas clients.

Bernadette: I think things like sports and entertainment have to get going. Yeah, they were a reason to travel because certainly around Sydney at the moment, there’s not a lot to do. Compared to what it has been now if someone wants to come and stay in a luxury executive home, where should we send them? Executive Home Rentals through your website?

Lilah Nieuwland: That is our website which is Put an enquiry through that. You can book through there and then we’re also on Airbnb and HomeAway.

Mary Nieuwland: And then we also have an Instagram page, Executive Home Rentals and a Facebook page.

Bernadette: Great. So what we’ll do is, did we ask you for some photos of your projects?

Lilah Nieuwland: Yes.

Bernadette: So we’ll put that up and we will also put the links up to all your social media and your website. And I can definitely vouch for the quality of your accommodation because I have actually stayed at the Port Melbourne house and it’s very lovely.

Lilah Nieuwland: Thank you.

Bernadette: So thank you for sharing your experience. I think you’re both amazing and congratulations to Mary for really trusting the process and going for it and her little grasshopper. Thank you.

Mary Nieuwland: Thank you, Bernadette.

Okay. I hope you enjoyed that and are thinking about how you can enrich your own family life with renovating. And if you haven’t already got a ticket to She Renovates Live, we still have some left. And Mary will actually be at the conference. So Mary and Lilah I should say it’s going to be an absolute hoot. Thank you.

For those who have left a review, we’ve had a couple of new ones through recently. I won’t read them out today, but I will in the next episode because I’m so grateful to you for making the time to write one. I read every one of them, and I just feel so incredibly honoured that you are getting so much value out of the podcast and are willing to share that publicly. It really does make a big difference to us. So thank you. That’s it for today. And I’ll see you next week. In the next episode.

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    “Just dropping by to show my support for your podcast Bernadette. I look forward to each episode and I am never disappointed with the content. It’s such a generous offering and compared to many of the other property podcasts I subscribe to, yours is the clear winner. Perfectly suited to people embarking on a new renovator journey but equally suited to more experienced folk like myself - there’s something for everyone. Keep up the great work. Your honesty is so refreshing! I look forward to future learning and hearing more student success stories. Best, David Michos (And yes... a bloke) 😉”
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    “If you have any interest at all in renovating, you would be crazy not to listen to every episode! As someone who has done many courses and a project manager by trade, i learn something every time. Bernadette is so genuine and generous and totally relatable. Do yourself a favour and subscribe now !”

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    If you want to meet up with a group of savvy renovators. I would say come over and join She Renovates Facebook Group. It’s a completely FREE Facebook group and it is growing at the rate of knots. We hit over a thousand members just recently, and now it seems to have picked up momentum. They are all savvy renovating women and men working their little hearts out to live a better life through renovating.

    The only membership you need to grow your renovation business…

    Wonder Women is a combination of live sessions and pre-recorded content to help you get what you need, when you need it. I know that you’re the expert and you’ve got all of your subject knowledge nailed – now it’s time to build the business behind your renovation projects and stop being the worlds best kept secret. 

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