For Superhosts Mary and Buster Reynolds, hospitality and home building have been a part of their lives for 40 years. “It’s a way of life,” Buster said. He and his wife Mary have been building their home by hand since 1980, and sharing it with guests. “With all these new people coming in, you get to look at your home again with fresh eyes. We are really proud of what’s happened.” The property —located in a former bird sanctuary, a 30-minute bus ride from Johannesburg, South Africa— has a main house with three guest rooms, as well as two guest cottages. And the couple finally completed it “last night!” Mary laughed, “I literally just finished tiling the new bathroom.”
Mary and Buster took some time away from tiling to tell us how they started hosting, how it’s helped support them through retirement, and why there may be another house just like theirs 3,000 miles away in Nigeria.
Hand building a home seems like a massive undertaking. Did you both work in construction before?
Mary: Actually, no. Buster is a retired cinematographer, and I worked most of my life in education. We used to have a landlord who built cottages, and they were built so poorly that we thought, if he could do it...we could do it better. So Buster did a bricklaying course, and I bought a plumbing book.
That’s your training?
Buster: (laughs) We didn’t have the money to buy a home back then. It was the only way we could get the house we wanted on the piece of land we wanted. So we started with 3,000 rand ($218 U.S.) and went from there. It was every weekend, every spare minute, every spare cent that went into the home.
Mary: Buster did the structure and I worked on the inside. The beams are made from local gumtrees, and a lot of the other wood came from the Crown Mines scrapyard, one of the first goldmines in Johannesburg. The only thing we contracted out was the electricity and the thatched roof because it’s very specialized. Thatching is a traditional craft, so we hired local experts to thatch the roof with grass hand-cut by their wives. It’s like Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel, spending almost a lifetime up and down ladders. It’s like living in a work of art.
Has chatting about the house become a good way to connect with guests?
Buster: Yes, definitely. The house is open-plan, which in 1980 wasn’t even in the dictionary. Now times have finally caught up with us! Guests come in through the kitchen door and immediately connect with [the home and] what we’re serving them for breakfast: homegrown and homemade jams, pickles and chutney as well as home-baked granola and muffins. There’s always a variety of breads, plenty of coffee and Rooibos tea, which is a South African thing. We spend at least an hour at the breakfast table talking.
Mary: We had a group from Nigeria who had anticipated a 5-star hotel. When they walked in their faces dropped, but it wasn’t long before they mellowed into the experience. By the time they left, one asked for a copy of our house plans because he wanted to build a house like ours. So somewhere in Nigeria there may be a clone of our house.
That sounds like the highest compliment! How did you get started hosting?
Mary: Through the AFS — American Field Service, an international exchange program. In 1984, we did an amazing trip to America and, upon our return, AFS was looking for host families. Since then, we’ve hosted seven students, each for a year, and from all over the world. Hosting became a way of life for us. We also added two cottages, originally for our parents, and then as rentals. In 2017, our daughter Katy encouraged us to join Airbnb, and we started getting bookings almost immediately.
What do you enjoy most about hosting?
Mary: It’s the people. We’ve always enjoyed having people here, learning about different cultures, and learning about why people come to South Africa. We had an amazing group of African-Americans from Chicago who wanted to discover their roots. We directed them to places where we thought they’d enjoy authentic African experiences. And they were completely bowled over and felt a great affinity with the culture.
Buster: There was also this Argentinian man who was so fascinated by our composting system that he wanted to go back and start a compost business. It’s stories like that that keep us going.
Mary: Plus, Buster had to take early retirement and as I am semi-retired, this supplemental income has made a huge difference. It’s allowed us to continue to live in our home. We also employ two domestic workers and a gardener. If we didn’t have the Airbnb income, they would also lose their jobs. Our intention is not to make a profit or a killing—absolutely not—but just to retain our home and keep Nelly, Elizabeth, and Mishek employed.
Do you have any advice for hosts?
Mary: You’ve got to enjoy what you’re doing otherwise it’s not worthwhile. We do enjoy it. And when people appreciate things, you know you’re doing it right.
Beautiful and inspiring. Saddly, the US has too many code and permit requirements getting in the way of building creatively on your own land with your own hands.
Absolutely, I would build off the grid, in the mountains. But i think you have to use licensed contractors or know all of the zoning and building codes, to get the final certificate of occupancy. I don't think you can get insurance without a certificate of occupancy. so many levels of approvals and inspections.
You might talk to the zoning department. Many people DO build their own homes, and the building departments are willing to work with them along the way, to be sure everything is within code ahead of time, before major work is done. You just have to be willing to ask the building department BEFORE you start.
Daniel, I think you would be pleasantly surprised that building on one's land is much easier than you expect. And especially in Colorado. While I was leaving there for seven years, I built a very creative straw house in the mountains west of Aguilar, about 30 miles north of New Mexico. It was easy enough that I applied for the building permit as my own contractor and was able to build the whole house contracting out only the sewage system and a couple of friends for electrical and plumbing. The rest we built my husband, I and a very good friend of mine, and many of the things I have learned about building I did by reading books and asked around or enroll in classes at the local library (at the time the internet was a novelty and not your way to go so YouTube tutorials were non existing). We passed all inspections. My neighbors and best friend down the road from me built a beautiful house and outdoor buildings for ceremonial reasons (Hogans for sweet lodges) also by themselves, without much of a problem either, and again passing inspections for the work they did themselves. In New York, where I now live, that would be a bit more difficult and yet still doable, as I found out while renewing my 1899 brownstone. Just look into it!
Have you considered Maine? We have a lot less of the bureaucratic bull. Here it is still possible to buy and build with little to no interference in the northern part of the state.
Here in Canada we have unregistered or unorganized townships when you get far out. Might not get guests though. I think there will be places like this in the U.S. Just dig a little deeper.
I say make the best of what you have and where you are. Life and situations can be good and amazing anywhere! 😃
Beautiful inspiring story and I would love to visit your cottage one day after I retire, soon. I was contemplating on renting 2 bedrooms in my house and after reading your story, I am truly inspired. I need to renovate my current home. I am currently an Airbnb condo renter in Carolina PR where I hope to retire soon. I want to be a snow bird and live in Puerto Rico in the winter and my home is the summer. If I rent my house in Yonkers while in PR and continue to rent my condo in PR, I will be able to live my dreams. Thank you for your inspiration.
This is a wonderful article. I have a handcrafted Storybook English Cottage on 21 acres in the woods in Western New York. For 16 years local and international guests have visited for Tea & Tour. Last August, I opened the guests room for lodgers via Airbnb. I love my lodgers, tea lovers and architecure lovers. So, yes, you can enjoy a handcrafted cottage in the United States. All the nails were hand forged like the old blacksmith ways. All the handles and hooks were hand forged. My entire cottage is a one of a kind gem.
Lana's The Little House
Lana, it is totally gorgeous! Well done. Thank you for contributing architecture with heart to the world, we need more!
Too many jobs just to keep people "employed" in Code enforcement, Taxes and such. So each of them tries to create new and new restrictions and rules just to prove their own existence. This bureaucratic red tape kills any entrepreneurship in this country.
This is very true. I tried to build a strawbale house (had a professional architect) on my 5 acres in Washington state some years ago and the ONE local building official killed the project (which had volunteers from five states and Canada) at the very last minute. The failure led to a suicide by my former wife. Since that time I've recovered, built the house (scaled back) in a resort in Mexico (see pix of "bug out house" at askaprepper.com), and bought and modified a house on the Central California Coast which has been an Airbnb now for six years ("cottage apartment in Cambria"). As I write some near-to-retirement folks are staying with us who want to do an airbnb. California now permits strawbale houses and even has a builders association--there was a meeting of them locally and a person involved stayed with us. We've taken some "liberties" with our building process (no, it is NOT strawbale), but, yes, beware of recalcitrant building codes that discourage the owner builder, too often unnecessarily.