In the wild world of online house swapping, I’ve played the roles of both renter and owner on HomeAway and VRBO (Airbnb is still a little too freaky for me). So I feel like I have a pretty good grasp of both parties’ expectations. As an owner, you make sure everything works. As a renter, you leave the place as you found it, save for a standard scrubbing in preparation for the next arrival. I’ve never lost a dollar of a security deposit. Record scratch—until now!
We rented a place in Carolina Beach, North Carolina, during Labor Day weekend. If you want a mental picture of Carolina Beach, imagine Nantasket in Hull, but circa 1985. There’s a carnival downtown, and you’re allowed to drive on the beach. There’s a drive-through beer store called Brew Thru. The weekend we were visiting, there was a stabbing on the beach. But one little stabbing isn’t going to keep me away from a vacation spot. Look at how many people didn’t get stabbed—nearly all of them! That’s a pretty good record.
We rented a second-row duplex. It was fine. There was a single-wide trailer bordering it in the back, but the wheels were covered up and it didn’t even have any Confederate flags patching up holes in the roof. The road out front was busy, but I liked to sit on the deck and watch the Camaros drive past. It was an agreeable trip, except for the school bus that dominated the shared driveway. Apparently the neighbors rented to a high school sports team whose coach didn’t feel like parking in the huge empty lot a block away. But I’m an easygoing guy, so I didn’t complain that leaving the driveway required a spotter and a willingness to rake the car along the bushes on the way out. We weren’t in Duxbury, you know?
Several weeks after the trip, we hadn’t received our $450 deposit, so I emailed the owner to cordially remind him of my address. In response, I received a 700-word manifesto about the supposed depravities we visited upon his house, along with a conclusion that probably none of our deposit would be returned—he still had to think about it. Oh, let me grovel in supposition, benevolent landowner, that you might kindly return whatever sum pleases you. Let me guess how much of my deposit you’re giving back: Zero? Did I get it?
When I pressed him to put numbers on what, exactly, we’d done to cost him $450, he came back with a couple of things. The first—and I must quell my boiling rage just to type this—was $85 for a “handyman visit” to lower some window blinds and aim a showerhead that he said was spraying a wall. Thank goodness for the handyman or those blinds might still be up, the showerhead all askew. I imagine a man with overalls and a tool belt walking in and saying, “Dang nub, these blinds are the uppest I ever seen! These are at least $85 worth of up, if I had to guess.”
The second item was $175 for cleaning, on top of the $150 included in the rental fee. I pointed out that at prevailing local rates, $315 would buy at least 16 hours of cleaning—two full work days. He said sand needed to be vacuumed out of one of the tubs. So that’s like 20 seconds. But I guess there was more.
In fact, I know there was more. I’m ashamed to even admit this, but he also said some of the windows were unlocked. And leaving windows unlocked is like something ISIS would do. I can definitely see how an unlocked window is money out of his pocket, when you figure in the wear and tear on the lock. Pull that stunt only a few thousand times, and you’re gonna need all new locks on those things.
He claims second- and third-floor balcony doors were also unlocked, inviting easy burglary by thieves armed with 40-foot ladders or rappelling equipment. That didn’t happen, but imagine if it did.
When I publicly whined about this mugging on Facebook, WBZ-TV news anchor David Wade suggested a move to protect myself in the future. A few years ago, he rented a place and got the vibe that the owner was angling to keep the deposit, so before checkout he took a photo of that day’s newspaper in each (clean, undamaged) room. When the owner tried to steal his deposit, he had proof that the guy was being a malicious lunatic. Whereas in my case, it’s just my word versus an imaginary handyman’s.
Not that I’m down on VRBO or Carolina Beach. In fact, if you’re not thrilled with your job, I might recommend moving down there and starting a cleaning business. From what I hear, the pay’s great.