If you’re planning a vacation rental stay, you need to do one thing before you kick off your shoes and unpack — if you don’t want to end up with surprise vacation rental cleaning fees. Grab your phone and start taking pictures.
Lots of pictures.
I speak from personal experience. I just checked out of a vacation rental and got broadsided with one of my career’s most outrageous vacation rental cleaning fees claim. More on that in a minute.
This story is edited from a report posted initially on Elliott Advocacy.
Why you should take “before” and “after” pictures of your vacation rental
About a decade ago, car rental companies discovered they could collect a dump truck full of extra income by claiming their customers damaged their cars. Knowing that drivers didn’t document the vehicle’s condition carefully, they filed tens of thousands of false claims. Most customers paid them without question. Only the advent of cell phones with cameras, several lawsuits, and advice from this site forced the major car rental companies to stop this unethical money grab.
Now, vacation rental owners are trying the same thing. Scam vacation rental cleaning fees are running rampant.
Aware that the last thing a tenant would likely do is to inspect and photograph a vacation rental when they arrive, they are billing their customers for excessive cleaning fees and filing frivolous damage claims.
I’ve already said it, but let me say it again: Take. Lots. Of. Pictures. And that’s not all.
An eclectic rental in Sedona
As many of you know, I spent the second lockdown in Sedona, Ariz. I found a reasonably priced house through a local rental agency.
When we checked into the property, it was in less-than-pristine condition. There was dust everywhere and cobwebs throughout the unit. A foul smell wafted from the guest bathroom, and the toilet didn’t flush properly. There were spots on the carpets. The Internet went out at the same time every morning, often interfering with live TV interviews.
But apart from that, I liked the place.
The owners filled it with African artwork and artifacts collected during their travels. The sofas were an eclectic mix of styles. No, they would not win any design awards for this place, but it was a home, not a sterile vacation rental. That felt right.
The homeowners loved jazz and good books, and we had a lot in common when we spoke on the phone. After a few polite conversations about working out some of the early problems, we established a friendship.
A customer dilemma
We were supposed to stay in Sedona for only two months. But when the pandemic took a turn for the worse, I asked the owners if we could extend our visit. They readily agreed. They told me they liked the idea of having someone in the house who they liked and trusted.
They bypassed the rental agency at their suggestion and asked me to send a check directly to them. I didn’t see a problem with that, so at the end of the year, the rental agency returned my deposit, and I began paying the owners directly.
If I was too honest, would they simply cut us off, sending us away before we could get vaccinated? But if I didn’t say anything, I could be held responsible for what was happening in the house.
This is what was happening: The home was slowly falling apart.
It was a dust magnet, for starters. I had reluctantly bought three bottles of Windex at Costco to clean the glass and ceramic surfaces and fight the Dust Wars. I say “reluctantly” because the owners didn’t like any unnatural cleaning agents. They had stocked the home with several bottles of environmentally friendly vinegar solution.
No matter how hard I tried to keep the dust off the surfaces, I couldn’t.
Dust bunnies popped up in the hallways. A coat of dust covered the tables and shelves almost as soon as I had finished cleaning. I couldn’t figure out if the dust was coming in from outside (after all, it’s the desert) or inside the home.
The home’s vacuum cleaner was about as effective as the vinegar solution, which is to say, not at all. My son Aren thought he solved the problem when he opened the appliance and found it filled with dust from the previous tenant. But even after we emptied it, the vacuum cleaner didn’t work right. We had to remove crumbs and dust particles by hand.
The house was showing its age in other ways. Maybe the bulbs were just old, but they burned out constantly. I thought it might be an issue with the wiring in the almost 50-year-old home. Within a few months, we had depleted the owner’s supply of light bulbs. We simply stopped using some lights.
The owner must have known about these challenges but never told me about them.
The owner tried to repair the internet connection, but no matter how often he called the phone company, the wireless signal remained sluggish. A technician showed up and made some adjustments.
The owners had an annual contract with a window cleaning company to clean the exterior windows in a vain effort to remove the red dust. But after the cleaners showed up to do the work, one of the shades would not go down.
You can probably guess where this is going.
The double exterior side door stopped working in December. The outside door handle started to loosen, but we could still open it. The inside door wouldn’t open at all. I asked the owner if he could call a repairman. But the contractor who showed up only fixed the interior door, leaving the handle on the other one loose.
The vacation rental company blows us off
The pandemic just kept getting worse, and we continued to extend until early March, when we’d been fully vaccinated and were ready to travel again. The timing was good for the owners — they had found a tenant who wanted to rent their home in April. So we agreed to end our lease in early April.
The owners told me the rental agency would send a representative to the home for a walkthrough, which I thought was a good idea. I wanted to go over everything in the house. Also, having an “inspector” show up was an excellent motivator for the kids to help me clean.
And clean we did.
We spent several days scrubbing every inch of the kitchen and bathrooms, vacuuming the common areas and bedrooms, and putting everything back where we found it.
Here are the instructions from our contract:
Guest(s) have paid a cleaning fee for a professional clean after Guest(s) leave. This covers normal housekeeping. Additional cleaning fees will be charged for rentals over one month. Guest(s) are asked if convenient to do the following upon vacating the property:
1) Pick up all trash and bag it and place it in the trash can provided
2) Throw out ALL food items and personal items
3) Place all soiled dishes in the dishwasher and run (if convenient)
4) Remove all holiday decorations
5) All furniture and other items must be returned to the same position they were in at check-in. (There is a $100 charge to haul away Christmas trees that are left behind or to move furniture back to their original position if any pieces are moved). If the home is left excessively dirty Guest(s) will be charged for all costs that exceed the original cleaning allotment. This includes wine and dark juice stains, pet urine and etc. Trash left unbagged, trash clutter around the home & dishes left out on countertops. If the normal carpet and spot cleaning cannot remove stains left in carpet or upholstery, it may result in carpet replacement by Guest(s).
We followed all of these instructions. But given that we had spent more than six months in a vacation rental — and it had been more than half a year since the unit had been professionally cleaned — the walkthrough was critically important.
I didn’t realize that until it was too late.
The vacation rental company never contacted me. And we got busy preparing for our departure, so we didn’t reach out to the agency to remind them to come over. Eventually, we cleaned the best we could and checked out.
A “gotcha” ending to our vacation rental
A few days after we left, I received a distressing email from the owner. It included a report from the cleaning company with several photos. The report accused us of moving furniture, including a large blue love seat. We had not. The report also claimed we had added furniture to the house, precisely two fold-out chairs. We hadn’t done that, either.
The report featured a blurry picture of an exterior door and a rag with red Sedona dust in front of it. We hadn’t scrubbed the exterior doors, of course. Another image showed an errant dust bunny behind a bookshelf. And another showed a dusty ledge. A caption declared that the home was “filthy” based on the photos.
In response, I sent the owner the photos I’d taken before our departure, showing the house in good condition.
Don’t let this happen to you
There’s so much to learn from this case:
- Take “before” images of your vacation rental before you get settled. A few years ago, we had to start advising car rental customers to take pictures of the roof and undercarriage of their cars because that’s where the damage claims were happening. You have to document everything. If a light doesn’t switch on or a shade doesn’t go down, document it. If someone placed a doorstop on a bookshelf, document it.
- Something doesn’t work? Notify the vacation rental company immediately. Even if it’s something really small, you have to say something. I’m looking at photos from the real estate agent that show two non-working lights. The bulbs burned out repeatedly. Same thing for kitchen appliances. If the refrigerator doesn’t cool properly, report it immediately. If you don’t, the homeowner or management company could hold you responsible.
- Determine the cleaning standards before you leave. If that means you invite the vacation rental company over for a walkthrough, do it. Know what professional cleaning includes. Ours came with a free photo essay. Who knew that housecleaners were also professional writers?
- Take “after” shots of everything. Send them to the owner and vacation rental manager before they ask for it. Again, document any changes that took place between the time you checked in and out. Be honest and offer to pay for anything you’ve damaged. Talk to them about what they may have damaged but not told you about if you have kids.
My vacation rental guide provides more information on avoiding vacation rental scams.
Bottom line: With more people renting vacation homes than ever, you may get charged more than you expected. Keep meticulous records and never sugarcoat the condition of the house. If you do, it could cost you.
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Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can’t. He’s the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes weekly columns for King Features Syndicate, USA Today, and the Washington Post. If you have a consumer problem you can’t solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter. Read more of Christopher’s articles here.