If I’ve learned anything in my life and career, it’s that common sense is not so common. This week, readers write in with questions about the blurred lines and expectations of friends, house sitters and tenants.
Question: I divide my time between Santa Fe and Mexico. During the hot summer months, I decamp to the high desert. This year a friend in her early 30s expressed interest in staying in my home while I was away. It gave me peace of mind that my home would be occupied, and I offered it for free for a period of 3½ months.
Near the end of that time period, my friend contacted me to say that the refrigerator stopped working. She expected me to set up the repair from the U.S. I ultimately did, and my friend was charged $35. She let me know that the repair had been made and asked if I would reimburse her. I was aghast. She was living rent-free in my home and had used all the appliances during her stay. It felt awkward and I suggested that we split the expense.
What’s the etiquette if things break when staying in someone else’s home for free?
Answer: I’m sorry you had an awkward encounter with your friend. While she was right to ask you to set up the repair process with a person of your choosing, a low-cost $35 expense was a reasonable figure for her to cover given the long duration of her stay, and for free at that, along with your personal history.
But this is not a houseguest in for the weekend who broke a cup.
There is a perceived arrangement and perhaps she thought she was doing you a favor by occupying your home when it might normally be vacant for months on end. From her perspective, she may have thought it was her job to report and oversee the repairs, while not being responsible for the cost.
But without something in writing, this is a gray area open to the interpretation. Was she a houseguest, a house sitter or a tenant? The differing roles come with a different set of expectations.
If you entertain this arrangement in the future, consider asking the occupant to be responsible for expenses up to $250 per month, for example, should something need to be repaired. Or look at the rental comps in the area to estimate what your home would rent for during the season. Come up with a figure, based on a percentage of the rent, that feels fair to you and the occupant.
As a homeowner, normal wear and tear along with repairs are expected during your stay or someone else’s. As an occupant, I might not be aware of deferred maintenance I’m charged with overseeing that breaks during week one.
While I would not expect your friend to pay for an unexpected septic or HVAC replacement, expenses that are a drop in the bucket relative to what I’d normally be paying in rent is a kind and expected gesture.
But not every person nor generation comes with the experience and knowledge we expect, and that’s why advance communication is of the utmost importance. It gives you and the prospective occupant protection, an opportunity to see if it’s the right fit and minimizes awkward scenarios.
Question: I have a rental-income property that has been occupied all summer. She is the daughter of a friend, and I gave her a smoking deal of $500 per month.
I needed to pick up some belongings stored there and contacted the tenant to let her know I was coming by. This was my first time seeing the place since I rented it out and I was shocked when I arrived to see weeds all over the place. I was even more shocked inside, seeing a filthy shower filled with soap scum and the toilet bowl stained, a purchase I had just made earlier this year.
She had ample notice that I was coming and knew I’d be entering the home. The whole place was a pig sty and it broke my heart to see my place in that condition. I didn’t know what to say, but I have to say something.
Answer: The value people place on a home and cleanliness differs greatly, and that must have been disappointing that a family friend could treat your home with such neglect.
Advance communication and agreements in writing go a long way at protecting you, your property and a tenant, and to manage expectations.
It’s clear that your tenant’s standards differ from yours, given she knew you were coming. Going forward, communicate with your tenant your shock at the condition of the place and that you expect her to maintain the property to the level it was when she rented it. That includes cleaning regularly or hiring a cleaning person two to four times a month with the money she is saving on reduced rent.
Get her started by providing a checklist and the cleaning and yard supplies, as this may be the first time she is taking on these responsibilities as an adult or tenant.
In the future, you won’t make the same mistakes twice and, hopefully, neither will she.
Question: With the need for social distancing and risk of COVID-19, we have chosen to book a house rental over a hotel stay next month.
There is a cleaning fee, but do we need to strip the beds and do dishes before we check out?
Answer: Lucky you. Upon arrival, read the house manual, if provided, for any house instructions. Typically, a cleaning fee covers the bases and you can treat your departure like a hotel stay and walk out the door.
However, I make it a habit to always load and run the dishwasher, if there is one. If not, I at least rinse and soak the dishes in the sink, deferring to the hosts’ standards for completing the task.
Stripping the sheets is a kind and helpful gesture but not necessary.
As for hosts, the cleaning fee must be commensurate with the requests made of the guests. If you’re relying on the guests to wash your future guests’ dishes by hand, take out the trash and strip the beds, only a nominal cleaning fee is fair.
Bizia Greene is an etiquette expert and owns the Etiquette School of Santa Fe. Share your comments and conundrums at email@example.com or 505-988-2070.