Written by Bill Kent | Photos by Shannon Ayres
On a quiet street in Philomont, close to the Community Center and the General Store, stands a white clapboard with a porch and two doors, one leading to what is now an upstairs apartment, the other into a spacious room lined with shelves from a century ago when this was a store, then a school, a post office, and a small business. Last year it was bought by Simon and Christine Fleming, who turned it into a short-term rental, what is commonly called an Airbnb.
A mental health therapist and daughter of a U.S. Navy lieutenant commander, Christine Sentlinger met Simon Fleming, a native of Northern Ireland, while they were working at a Hunt Country outdoor camp. They married in 2014, and settled in Middleburg. When Simon got a new job in Belfast working for a religious missionary organization, the family — which now includes three children and Lucillo, a German shepherd — knew they had to leave.
Then, while driving through Philomont, which Christine calls “one of the most beautiful and overlooked areas in Loudoun County,” they saw the house.
“The first time we entered the building,” Christine says, “it felt almost magical to imagine all the people that have been in this space. We loved the history of the building and wanted to honor it. We wanted to be part of its history.”
The Upper Store, built circa 1890, was also known as Van Sickler’s Store. The Flemings purchased it the summer of 2022.
Christine researched online what she would have to do to create a short-term rental. She found a clawfoot tub, and picked out the kitchen appliances and furnishings. Simon started some of the interior renovations and sketched out the basic interior design, being careful to preserve the original cabinets, hand-blown glass, and drawers, which he stocked with toys, games, books, and odd knick-knacks. They also added an outdoor area with chairs near the parking area. Inside, the bedrooms are away from the road, providing the comforting solace so desirable in rural settings.
J.R. Snider from Marshall upgraded the pre-World War II plumbing and Lauten Design & Construction of Purcellville did the kitchen area. Simon remodeled the second floor into an apartment for year-long leasing. By the spring of 2023, as the Upper Store Airbnb welcomed its first guests, the Flemings moved permanently to Northern Ireland.
The Flemings have since had a dozen short-term renters, including a “famous writer” whose name Christine will not divulge.
Donnie Walker, a contractor who specializes in historic preservation and manages the property for the Flemings, says the Upper Store “has great potential. It is quirky, in a great location, with great historical interest and perfect for a party of four coming to a wedding. And it has fast Wi-Fi. Slow Wi-Fi is the number one thing short-term rental guests complain about.”
What’s number two?
“Stink bugs. It doesn’t have any of them, either.”
According to Visit Loudoun, the county’s convention and tourism association, the Upper Store is one of 700 short-term rentals that, with 37 hotels, resorts, and bed and breakfasts, provide around 6,000 rooms for overnight stays. The majority are in the eastern part of the county near the shopping malls and Dulles Airport.
Walker thinks that is nowhere near enough. Ten years ago, Walker, then a Waterford residential construction contractor, overheard his wife, who worked with a wedding planner, tell a bride “who wanted a small wedding — not more than 50 guests — that she’d have to book the rooms a year and a half in advance.” Walker says he couldn’t believe what he’d heard. “In 2016 I opened my first short-term rental.”
He now owns 15 and manages 25. Next month he will open his sixteenth: a tree house designed for family visitors. A board member of Visit Loudoun, Walker says that the kind of guests who come to western Loudoun differ from those who stay in the east. “Most places have one wedding season, in the spring to early summer, and then they’re done with it. We have spring to summer and then fall to almost Thanksgiving, and then two weeks around Valentine’s Day. In wedding season in western Loudoun, you still can’t get a room on weekends.”
Wedding guests aren’t the only visitors for whom convenient lodging can be difficult. Spectators and participants in equestrian events and day-tripping patrons of vineyards, breweries, and restaurants are also in the market for overnight stays.
And, “during COVID,” Walker continues, “we were booked solid with remote workers and people who wanted that peace and solitude. Since then, we’ve had a cooling of demand because of inflation. A lot of people no longer have as much to spend as they used to.”
A recent Bloomberg Businessweek article showed a double-digit decline in bookings that has cut into the bottom line of short-term rental landlords in such tourist destinations as Orlando, Florida, and Gatlinburg, Tennessee.
The rentals, and some of the guests who occupy them, have been blamed for harming, if not irrevocably altering, neighborhoods everywhere from Lower Manhattan and Barcelona’s Gothic Quarter to the eastern Loudoun community of Countryside, where a petition was launched on Change.org to regulate short-term rentals much more closely.
The Loudoun County Board of Supervisors responded last April by extending the Temporary Occupancy Tax to all short-term rentals (previously, those limited to one to two occupants were exempt) and capping the number of people who could occupy a short-term rental to no more than six at any time. Walker personally advocated for the cap “to reduce noise and eliminate parties,” he says.
Another change will require any new short-term rentals to include access to at least one parking space, and undergo an inspection that could add several thousand dollars to the initial start-up costs.
Visit Loudoun President & CEO Beth Erickson says that these changes will only improve the options available for visitors. “I think it’s important to put into context that Loudoun is the top generator of visitor revenue in the Commonwealth of Virginia. We topped just over $3 billion in 2021. Loudoun is unique because our diversity of product — equestrian experiences, craft beverage and restaurant scene, agriculture and historic attractions, and outdoor recreation assets — make us a very attractive destination. Just like some travelers like to stay in a Marriott or a Hilton, others like to stay in a B&B or short-term residential rental. It’s important that we have the product mix that travelers seek by providing a myriad of options at different price points.”
For Christine and Simon Fleming, owning a short-term rental is a point of pride. Before they moved to Northern Ireland, Simon’s parents came to visit, and stayed in one of Walker’s properties. Their experience confirmed the value of what the Flemings wanted to do with the Upper Store.
Creating a short-term rental can be “a lot of tedious and frustrating work and it is easy to become discouraged and overwhelmed,” Christine recalls. “We felt a responsibility to honor the people of the past who walked through the doors of the store. We feel a connection to them and taking care of the property is a way to communicate that their lives and work mattered. This gave us the heart and drive to continue.” ML
Published in the September 2023 issue of Middleburg Life.