I didn’t scratch the floor on my vacation rental – why should I have to pay?

1-imageThe circumstances of Saundra Lyon-Reiser’s recent home rental were less than ideal. She’d gathered her extended family in Aptos, Calif., to bury her mother and grieve their collective loss.

So when Lyon-Reiser was notified that her rental company would pocket her $500 security deposit for allegedly scratching a hardwood floor — damage she insists she did not do — it added insult to her injury.

Now, she wants me to help her get the deposit back, even though there are photos of the damage (above), which she says are inconclusive.

But before we get to the matter of the bill, let’s rewind to the start of the three-night rental. At first glance, Lyon-Reiser says the home looked “perfect” for her family.

Then she picked up the keys.

When I went upstairs to put our linens on the beds, I noticed how filthy the mattress pads were, so I collected all 5 bed covers and washed them all.

I also washed the bathroom rugs, since they too were dirty. When I was finally done washing, four hours later, the blankets on all the beds were stained and disgusting. Thankfully, I brought extra flat sheets to cover the blankets and bedspreads on all the beds.

The event turned out a little different than she expected. About 10 people came over, but they didn’t spend the night.

“A few hours after I got home, I got a call from the property management company that we rented from, saying we caused damage to the hardwood floors and would not get our $500 deposit back,” she says. “They said it looked like someone dragged an ice chest across the hardwood floors. No one ever dragged any such thing across the floor. We didn’t even have an ice chest that wasn’t a small one with a handle, or wasn’t styrofoam.”

Lyon-Reiser’s cousin visited the property the next day and found that indeed, there were small scratches in the clear coat on the hardwood floor. The property manager also pointed to three small spots in the master bedroom where it was alleged they had spilled coffee.

“We only brought water into the bedroom,” she says.

It turns out the house has been on the market for three years and was rented every now and then by a real estate company — hence the somewhat dilapidated state of the rental.

“We never did any of this damage,” she adds. “We are all shocked, since we treated it better than we thought the owners did.”

So, should I help her recover the $500?

Well, this situation looks a lot like the car rental companies’ “ding-and-dent” scam, doesn’t it? Did Lyon-Reiser note any of the damage before she accepted the rental? What does her contract say about the security deposit?

I agree with her — if these photos show the damage, then $500 is either too much or too little. It costs significantly less than $500 to treat a carpet for stains. But if you’re going to pull up a hardwood floor and redo it, you’re talking serious bucks. I’m willing to bet the real estate company will take the money, run over to the house with some stain remover, fix the carpet, but leave the hardwood floor.

Years ago, a property owner kept my entire deposit because I had a final meal in the kitchen and failed to clean up according to her exact specifications. She claimed it cost $200 to hire a professional to clean the kitchen, which seemed excessive. But I also felt powerless, which, I imagine, is exactly how Lyon-Reiser feels.

It looks like she’s going to dispute the entire $500 charge on her credit card. But failing that, should I get involved?

Should I mediate Saundra Lyon-Reiser's case?

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Update (1/8): Lyon-Reiser just heard from the rental company. She writes,

The rental agency wrote me saying they resolved the issue, and were very sorry for the inconvenience, and they look forward to doing business with us again. The $500 was returned.

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at . Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

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