Interview with Todd Korgan and
Jamie Michel of Sweet Homes Rentals
Jamie Michel of Sweet Homes Rentals
The Yachats Gazette was interested to speak with Todd, co-owner, and Jamie, manager, in their new building located at Highway 101 and 7th Street.
TYG: I really like what you did [with the building]—especially with this doorway.
Jamie: Oh, you like the archway in this office—isn’t that neat?
TYG: Yes, it’s just that extra little bit of touch! And the same with the not-all-the-same-colors of the wood. It’s clear that it’s hand-painted.
Todd: Yes, our property manager, Kasey Baker, she’s a licensed architect. She does a lot of the design work on our home—she did most of all of this.
Jamie: When we moved into this old building, Kasey designed it so it would look like a home office instead of an industrial office. We wanted our clients, when they came in, to get a feel for what they would expect when they walk into one of our rental houses.
TYG: Where were you before this?
Todd: We were in where the laundromat is, the SudSea Laundromat.
TYG: Oh, right! I didn’t realize it.
Todd: We still have the laundromat until June 1st.
TYG-Graphic Design: Is it open?
Todd: No, it’s not. That’s where we do all our laundry though, for all our houses. And I’m not sure what Sharon’s going to do—I’m not sure if she’s going to keep it open [Sharon is the landlady for the old building]. We’re putting in laundry facilities here.
TYG-GD: For your rentals.
Jamie: Right. We launder all of our sheets and towels for our rental houses here.
TYG: Jamie, can we get your last name, for the record?
TYG: That’s amusing. [laughs] That is seriously funny. [Looks at Todd.] You being Michelle’s brother and all... [laughter all around]
Todd: So you know my sister?
TYG: Oh yes. We’re good friends.
TYG-GD: So where do you live, Todd?
Todd: Well, I grew up here in Oregon. I grew up in Portland and lived there most of my life, until eight years ago. I found the love of my life, got married, and moved to—of all places—Las Vegas, Nevada. [laughs] Growing up in Portland, I never thought I’d move there, but my wife is the Dean of the graduate college there at UNLV; she manages 126 graduate programs. And prior to doing Sweet Homes, I’ve been a commercial film maker for 25 years. I work everywhere—I direct in New York, Chicago, LA... I was mobile and had always worked out of my home office. So it was easier for me to move to Vegas than for her to quit her big job at the university.
TYG: [...] How did you guys get started?
Todd: Well, it’s kind of a funny story. I told you that I got married about eight years ago. I was living in Portland, and directing commercials and short films, and I’ve been doing that for 20+ years. I was doing very well, and had saved some money to buy some investment property, and my parents live here. I think they moved here in 2000 to retire...
TYG-GD: A real retirement! They moved here and opened up Heceta Bed and Breakfast... [laugh]
Todd: Right! [laugh] Turned out to be a lot of work and a full-time job and all of that. So that’s kind of how our family moved to the area. My sister [Michelle Korgan] moved here to help them run it, and she actually ended up buying it from them, and then she opened up Ona. So, let’s see... We [Kate and Todd] got engaged 6/7/08 [laugh]—so about a year and a half before that is when I met her. She was living in Las Vegas, and I was living in Portland, and we were both doing the online dating thing. And she and I had conversations nightly on the phone for about a month. And we really got along and hit it off, and she decided to come see me. So I planned this whole thing—if things don’t go well, we can hang out for the weekend in Portland; but if they do go well, I’m going to take her to the coast, introduce her to my parents. They had a little vacation rental that we were staying at.
As things went, we ended up coming here and falling in love and all of that! So we had a great weekend, and on the way back, I got a call from my realtor—because I was looking for some investment property down here—and she said, “You’ve got to come and look at this piece of property. It’s in San Marine, the eight-mile stretch between Yachats and Waldport. A house hasn’t sold here in like eight years! The house is undervalued and the owners just want to get rid of it.” So, we were in Newport, eating at Local Ocean, and I told her, “No, I can’t, I’m on a date right now.” [laugh] When I got off the phone, Kate said, “Well, you know, my plane isn’t for another three or four hours—let’s go look at it!” So we went back, we looked at the house, and we loved it! So I drove back to Portland and called my realtor and made an offer. By the time [Kate] landed in Vegas, they’d accepted my offer! [laughter all around] [...] So anyway, we bought this beach house, came to the coast and fixed it up, and put it on the rental market. We were renting it through the company that was renting it when I bought it, and based on the estimates of the income it was making when I bought it, we factored that in as far as making payments. So we had it with them for about six to eight months, and it just wasn’t doing well at all. So I started doing my own advertising, and doing my own booking, and then funneling all these bookings to the rental company.
TYG-GD: And this was before Airbnb, right?
Todd: Exactly! So Kate and I just decided that [since] we were already doing all this work, we might as well just take it over. So we took it over, and within the first year that we were renting it ourselves, we increased the bookings by three hundred per cent. [laughter]
TYG: So basically they were just sticking with the main stuff, and not doing anything for it.
Todd: The company was hardly doing any advertising. And I’m kind of a computer geek and I built my own website, I was doing online advertising, pay-per-click advertising, and all that. Little did I know I was learning the expertise of vacation rental management marketing! 101! [laughter]
Jamie: So what happened after that?
Todd: Well, my parents saw how well I was doing with this one house, and they said, “Well, we’ve got a vacation rental, can you rent our house?” And we said, “Yeah, sure!” [laughter] And the night they asked us to do that, that’s when I asked Kate to marry me! So we started Sweet Homes Rentals and got engaged on 6/7/8 — June seventh, 2008. [laughter] So that’s how things got started. And then some friends of my parents saw how well we were doing with their home, and our home, and they said, “Well, hey, we’re not too happy with our rental company, why don’t you take ours over!” It just started getting bigger, and bigger, and bigger!
TYG: Wow, it just acccumulated.
Todd: Yes! We had several incarnations of web sites, and learned a lot. Actually, the person that now manages our homes is my wife’s best friend. She was living in Las Vegas at the time. Her name is Kasey Baker and she’s a licensed architect and a designer. She saw this opportunity. At that time—it’s funny, the thing that I left out was that we bought this house in ‘07, and the real estate market collapsed in ‘08. And that might have had something to do with why it wasn’t renting as well, but we looked at that as a challenge and took it over ourselves and increased the bookings, and we basically saved our beach house from foreclosure. And we’ve done that for several owners—they had them up for sale, and we said, “Let us take them over and see what we can do.” And now we’re making them a profit instead of having to lose their house.
TYG-GD: So, I don’t understand. Are there two managers?
Todd: Kasey is the property manager.
Jamie: I’m the manager at Guest Services and New Owner Relationships. So on a day-to-day basis, I handle more of the business relations, customer relations.
TYG-GD: Renters and owners?
Jamie: Yes. And then we have a reservations department. We currently have a total of three reservationists working here, including myself. That’s Jeff, over there, and Amber just headed out into the field. Kasey takes care of everything physically on the property; so also owner relations, design, maintenance, guest relations while they’re in the property. I think this is an interesting part of our story too. Just by fluke, the team that Todd and Kate put together... Todd shared with you that he has the background in marketing and photography and film-making, computers, and all of that. Kasey is a licensed architect, so she does design and architectural design...
TYG-GD: But... these houses are already built, right?
Jamie: They are! This is the background of the team that’s come together to do management, just by fluke. This is the talent pool that’s all come together.
Todd: And who’s better to take care of a house than a person who knows how to build the house from the ground up?
Jamie: What it looks like behind the walls! [laughter]
TYG: Also, probably, when serious maintenance is needed, like when you get a new house and a room is falling apart, then I imagine she comes in very handy.
Todd: Oh, absolutely. In fact, she has put together blueprints; and for additions and things like that—larger projects. And something that she does on a regular basis that’s part of our services is design work. So we’ll bring on a house, and then she’ll go in, get a budget from the owners, and do a complete re-model or re-design.
Jamie: And that’s a service we offer our clients just as part of our business.
TYG: Do you do that for non-owner clients?
Todd: Well, we haven’t been approached, but certainly we wouldn’t turn that business away.
Jamie: And then the third part of the pool [of talent] we’ve brought together is that my background is 25 years of working with real estate investments; real estate sales, lending, title insurance, escrow, and I’ve also worked for architects and builders. So when we found ourselves all together, we just found that we had this incredible knowledge base to really take care of our clientele at a pretty high level of service.
TYG-GD: And you just happened to be in Yachats? [laughter] So, this all sounds like a very professional outfit! Where do you see yourselves being in five years or so?
Todd: Actually, we’re having some growing pains—it’s a love/hate thing. Growing: we’ve had a tremendous amount of it in the last three years, and it’s allowed us to bring on people like Jamie, and have an office like this. But it’s kind of—again—a love/hate, because we never want to get so big that we can’t give excellent service. In fact, we all went to lunch yesterday and had this discussion: how big do we want to get? I think the answer that we came up with is that we’re not afraid to grow bigger, but we never want to grow big enough that we cannot give the service that we give as a boutique rental company.
TYG-GD: What does “boutique” mean for you here?
Todd: Well, that’s interesting. On the Oregon coast there are a couple of companies that have 200, 250 homes; there’s one, our biggest competitor, I think they have 4,000 houses. They have houses everywhere domestically. We never want to get that big. [laughs] That would be a nightmare!
TYG: I presume you try to keep houses full. There’s one thing I really don’t like that I’ve seen, recently: houses that are up for rent that are empty, and just sit empty for people who come two weeks out of the year.
Todd: Well, not only do we want to keep them full, we take pride. I think I keep a very close tab on most of our competitors, and how much they book their homes. We have one of the highest occupancy rates of any other company on the Oregon coast. So that’s very, very important. But at the same time, if you have all these people that are coming into their homes, they’re breaking things, they’re not being respectful, and things aren’t getting fixed... of course the house is going to have wear and tear. And that’s our job: to fix things, to keep things well-maintained, up to date, things like that. So if there ever comes a time when we’re booking the houses really well, but we’re not functioning on a really high level on every responsibility that we have, then it’s time to think about slowing down. One of the things that I think we have done really well: I know we have a higher ratio of employment costs to how much we bring in, but that’s because we want to give really good service.
TYG-GD: Well, you have very qualified personnel.
Todd: Exactly. So, we would continue that philosophy as we grow.
Jamie: We like to share with our homeowners that are considering coming on board, joining our family, that we take the stewardship of their largest investment really seriously. And so, “boutique” to me means that at no time, in our relationship with our clients, do Todd or Kasey or I—so, the leadership team—ever not know exactly what’s going on with every guest, every house, and every owner, whether they’re looking for us, or needing something, communications, where we are with our maintenance, how the houses are being cared for, are things being addressed; and then what our guests are needing, where they are, and what we can do for them. So to me, “boutique” is never losing control of that, and that is how I feel you really take care of your clients on every level.
Todd: And if you do have 4,000 homes, I’m not sure that’s even possible to do. [...] We’re not afraid of growth—our plan is to expand north. Florence is a little too far now, I think; Newport is more of a natural progression. So we have some new homes in Seal Rock that just signed on board, and in fact, we just met with a homeowner yesterday that just bought a house in north Newport, and we just went and looked at it. They’re doing an amazing remodel and restoration, and it looks like we’re going to bring that house on in October.
Jamie: So when the time comes, we’ll open a satellite office in the north county.
TYG-GD: So, do these houses get recycled in terms of somebody purchases a house, and retires, and moves in?
Jamie: Yes, yes! So a lot of times we’ll meet a homeowner, maybe somebody who has freshly purchased a house, and we discuss what’s their goal, “How can we help you plan?” “Well, we want to rent it as a vacation rental, we have about ten years until retirement, and then we’re going to make it ours.” So we work with them as they work towards their investment goals.
Todd: This isn’t anything new—Yachats has been a tourist and second home destination for many, many, many years. So many of the houses that do get sold while we’re managing them continue to be vacation rentals. People buy from another owner that we’re currently representing with the idea that it’s going to be a second home or investment property.
Jamie: So it’s a nice compliment when a purchaser chooses to continue on with us. [...]
TYG: So [Jamie] how did you come to be involved with Sweet Homes?
Jamie: Well, I owned a business in Waldport called Jamie’s Dockside Diner. So when I closed my business, I was in Waldport and Yachats looking for work, and I was very lucky to come across an ad that Todd was looking for help. And very lucky and very honored to become part of this team. I think it’s been a pretty natural fit, and we’re going big places. For me, it’s been an incredible opportunity to stretch and use my business acumen. I feel very, very lucky to have made that connection.
Todd: And we are incredibly lucky to have you on our team.
TYG-GD: So how is this new building working out for you guys?
Jamie: We love it! We get a lot of walk-in traffic; we’re really excited for Farmer’s Market to start so that there are even more people out walking and taking strolls. We meet new home-owner clients, visitors to Yachats who are maybe staying in a hotel but considering renting a house for their next trip. So we love it! It’s given us a lot of space to stretch out and grow.
Todd: We had a little teeny shoe box that we were in before!
TYG-GD: Also a lot of stairs!
Jamie: We were downstairs—all downstairs. Upstairs was a residence.
TYG-GD: Ohhh! I didn’t know that. I knew it was an apartment, but I thought you were upstairs in the apartment.
Todd: That’s what kind of started us on a quest to look for another space, actually. The apartment upstairs became available, and we all started talking about what would that look like, exactly. It was really broken up and just wasn’t ideal, and that was the conversation we had: “We’re going to have to be going up and down those stairs with big boxes all the time...
Jamie: ...and it’s a lots of big bags and satchels! Can you imagine a heavy bag of laundry?
Todd: That space was divided into three ares: we had the laundromat, and the middle space was a cleaning company. In fact, Kasey, our property manager, Kate and I are partners with her in the cleaning company, called Fresh Digs Cleaning. We contract with them to clean all of our homes. So that was in the middle space, and in the back is where we had storage and Sweet Homes! [laughs] And really, about half of this room is where we had the area for our reception.
Jamie: We’ve come a long way from a 24 packs of toilet paper and a laptop as a desk! [laughter all around] [...]
Todd: Some of the things that set us apart: We’re one of the only companies that I know of on the entire Oregon Coast—you would see Kasey in here, but she’s out right now greeting guests. Every new guest that checks in, we greet them at the home, and we give them a mini walk-through—for their benefit, and the owners’ benefit. It’s kind of like when you check out a rental car, and you have to walk around and make sure there are no scratches. We make them sign a waiver that says the house is in really good condition; it’s clean. We go through a really big checklist. We’re the only company I know of that does that service.
Jamie: So it helps us to protect our homeowners and make sure that we know exactly who’s renting their home, and it helps our guests, because we’re available the entire time that they’re here: we’re open seven days a week, and the property manager is on call 24/7. So when you check in to our house, you meet with the property manager, and they make sure you’ve been able to get the wi-fi code and get online.
Todd: You know how to turn on the TV.
Jamie: Yes, that you know how to work the cable, that you understand the buttons on the hot tub, is there anything else you need...
TYG-GD: That you understand where the neighbors’ yard begins...
Jamie: Exactly. Where you can access the beach and where you can not. And that helps us to be good neighbors and stewards in the community, because we care about our neighbors and making sure our guests are good neighbors while they’re here.
Todd: We supply the homeowners with linens and towels, and I only know one other company that does that on the Oregon Coast. It’s kind of a big deal when you’re a homeowner—believe it or not, you have to continuously buy towels and sheets. When the general public is using them over and over again, they take a lot of wear and tear. So we buy from the mill—boutique, hotel-quality linens and towels—and we offer that as something that we stock the homes with. Up until June 1st, we washed them all at the laundromat. That saves the homeowner utility bills as well. After June 1st, we’ll be washing them here in house.
[We go on a small tour of the building and see where the laundry room will be. We also find out that they stock the houses centrally with items such as toilet paper, paper towels, salt, pepper, ziploc bags, etc.]
Jamie: Well, we’re delighted you’re taking an interest in us—that’s a big compliment.
TYG: I’m glad we got to meet you—thank you so much!
Interview with Marc Taylor
of Nature’s Bling
of Nature’s Bling
Nature’s Bling is located on the north side of Yachats, at the intersection of Highway 101 and Forest Hill Street.
TYG: So how did you get into the rock-hunting business?
Marc: Well, rock-hunting is the hobby part of it, which is really fun. The rock, fossil, and mineral business, we lucked into. We bought a company called Aurora West, which was one of the larger mineral/rock importers in the country after the owner had passed away. In doing so, we weren’t as familiar with the full business as we should be. We were able to use our skills from being in sales before to do retail of whatever that retail may be. In this particular instance, it was rocks. I fell in love first, and after a short period of time with my wife being involved with it also, she fell in love as well. She fell in love, then our boys were in love with it too. Now we have a full lapidary shop out back. We do a lot of our own cutting, we cut for people, we polish here. We go shopping together—we travel all over the country to get the best specimens, and we’re having a fantastic time doing it. We’ve signed mine owner contracts with people in Brazil, Uruguay, and Morocco; and then we have others in Nevada, Arkansas, and Colorado. So we’re able to get some really neat material into the store that you wouldn’t be able to see at a lot of other places.
TYG: Yes, because I noticed that there is some of this stuff that I have no idea what it is, like you have so much more than just the classic minerals.
Marc: And even the classic minerals that we have, I like to get something that’s a little bit better, or a little bit more spectacular. As opposed to having a piece of amethyst that’s just nice, an amethyst that’s nice and has a calcite inclusion or a rare formation—that’s what turns me on. And that’s what our customers are going to notice. And they travel from a lot of places to come and see us, because the quality of the material that we bring in is really pretty good.
TYG: I probably see the most different license plates here, different in the sense that they come from the most different states!
Marc: We have people that come from all over the country to come here, but more than that, by default, because there are so many people that travel during the summer. If they’re from another state and they’re a rock-hounder, they’re going to go a rock shop on the opposite coast from where they are to see the different variances in minerals. And you also have to understand that Oregon is very well-known for having the best picture jasper in the world. We stock that stuff regularly, whether it be Biggs, or Deschutes, or Cripple Creek or whatever the case may be, our picture jaspers are, bar none, some of the best in the world. The other thing that we’ve done that has spread word about what we do is that we have a lot, of a lot of different things. Also, we’ll buy it in bulk even if it’s rare, so that people can get really good, neat, different stuff without having to pay ridiculous prices.
TYG-Editorial Assistant: How does your reputation spread in a business like this?
Marc: 90% word of mouth, 10% internet. We don’t do conventional advertising—we use social media to a certain extent: we do a little bit on E-Bay and Etsy, but primarily Facebook. And then, once I’ve shaken somebody’s hand who’s come into the store, or my wife has made them a little piece of jewelry or whatever the case may be, they remember. And they want to come back. And when you want to come back, you tell your friends, “Hey, I found this cool little spot.” And the rock-hounding community is unlike anything I have ever seen, and I’ve been a collector of many things. The clubs, the activities they do with each other, and for each other... And if you have a guy that comes into the grocery store that you see there, and you know he collects rocks because you saw him one time doing it, and you’re a rock-hounder... “Oh, I just went to the beach and check this out! We found this in Yachats at this new store called “Nature’s Bling!” And those people come. And once they come, they tell their friends. And that has been extraordinarily effective for us. The other thing is that we put this great big piece outside of the store, and somebody drops anchor on the highway and they pull in... [laugh]
TYG: That is very smart, to have a big piece there.
Marc: Well, it’s a difficult process, because it weighs 500, 600 pounds, and I won’t leave it ouside—every day, you have to get it out the door without breaking it.
TYG-EA: So what does picture jasper look like?
Marc: So, there are a lot of different picture jaspers out there. My personal favorite is Biggs, because it’s got just some tremendous patterning. There are blues, browns...
|Nature's Bling Picture Jasper|
TYG: I can see why it’s called picture jasper—it looks like sort of a mid-western picture.
Marc: This picture jasper is Biggs also, but it’s from a different area, and it’s dendritic. So you have both the fantastic color changes, healed fractures and such, and then you’ve got the dendrites in there too. So it makes it pretty neat. And everybody likes something a little different, and that’s why the picture jaspers from Oregon are so cool, because there’s such a variation [even] from cutting one piece. You can literally take a slice from this side which is all dark, or even milky, that you can’t really see a picture in, and on the opposite side of that exact same slab, there will be the most spectacular picture you’ve ever seen. If you use your imagination, there’s a fisherman, or there’s a sunset, or there’s a mountain range... or all of the above. And people love finding pictures in rocks. We see a lot of penguins and dolphins and fish and that kind of stuff. And it’s fantastic! My very favorite picture rock is a thunder egg that a buddy of mine gave me. And this thunder egg looks like it’s got a fantastic ocean scene, with a sky, but then there’s a little fisherman dude down there on the bottom.
TYG: Aw, that’s so cool!
Marc: And it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to make that work. That’s why that’s one of my favorite gifts that I’ve been given. We’ve had a lot of fun with this kind of stuff. So I chase pictures in rocks. I will cut rocks from 9 different sides trying to get the picture.
TYG: So how’s the business been going?
Marc: We’re very pleased. We’ve had great community support. Everybody in town tells people we’re here, and we hope that we’re doing our part by giving back to the community. It’s really been fun. [...]
TYG: These selenite towers are my favorite.
Marc: Yes, selenite products are our number one seller in the store! Raw selenite, polished selenite, or these selenite lamps... but we sell at pretty close to wholesale prices to the retail public. [...] A lot of people call it “Superman Stone.” [laugh] These are hand-carved—they do them very quickly; they run a blade down the middle and pop some pieces out. I’ll show you what they look like naturally: selenite logs, as mined. That’s how they come out of the ground. They’re formed in veins, or sheets, and then they break those apart so they’re of manageable size.
|Selenite Logs from Nature's Bling|
TYG: They’re still beautiful!
Marc: Actually, they’re really neat! [...] We bring it in by the pallet-load, by the ton, it’s so popular. We’ve even made benches out of selenite for people, and that’s pretty cool stuff.
TYG: [...] So, what is the fossil dig site?
Marc: The fossil dig site... because we have five children, and our kids all love to dig and play with dinos and all that, we put together a room where all the walls are inlaid with fish—and they’re fossil fish. You get to come in and dig a 6x6 piece of matrix that’s loaded with shark teeth and crinoids and brachiopods and echinoderms and stuff from all over the world. Everything they find in the piece of matrix they get to keep themselves. It only costs $5.00 to do, and when you get to keep stuff and it’s only $5.00 at the coast, that’s pretty cheap entertainment. It costs us about $3.00 to put one of them together, so for every one we sell, we donate $2.00 to the local youth program. So it’s kind of our way of saying thank you to our community, that does so much for us.
TYG: I used to go to YYFAP [Yachats Youth and Family Activity Programs], so I know how much they need it!
Marc: My older son goes on occasion, and my younger son is planning on going. I think it’s a great program, and it’s a neat way to be able to help.
TYG-EA: Didn’t you grow up around here?
Marc: I grew up in Waldport and Yachats. My parents moved to Yachats when I was 18 months old, and moved into this building. So when I was really little until about nine years old, I lived upstairs and my parents had their antique shop down here. So, several owners later, I was able to get the building back into the family, and now we do what we do here, and we live upstairs with our little kids! It’s really fantastic.
TYG: It’s nice to have a store here, something to attract.
Marc: This building is really interesting; it’s a bit of a geode. It really looks like heck on the outside, and it’s all sparkly on the inside. So people are somewhat deceived by the external appearance. But, it’s in a good spot. We’re not in the city, but we’re not out in the boonies, so... It really works well for us. And, we hope it works well for other people. The biggest issue we have is that people have to make an effort to stop here, because there’s no other reason to stop here.
TYG-EA: Unless they want to see our dogs our something.
Marc: So it diminishes some of the walk-in traffic, but the people who truly want to come, come. And we hope we’ve provided them with a spectacular experience. The neat thing is: one of the ways I gauge a lot of this is that Square allows your customers to provide a review of their visit after a credit card transaction. It’s a completely different environment from the reviews on the internet because it’s private. Square forwards those to me any time someone makes a comment. And the comments that we get continually are amazing. “I was only in there for five minutes, but boy I enjoyed my trip.” “We planned on being there for five minutes; we ended up spending half the day looking.” All this incredible stuff. You know, it makes me feel good when people feel good. There’s not a kid that comes here that doesn’t leave with a rock. We give them something, let them have a fossil, whatever. And then we make the best deal that we can for the adults too—but kids, they have a pretty good time.
TYG: Well, thank you so much!
Marc: Thank you!