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?

View Results

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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 chris@elliott.org. Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

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  • California_Dave

    I voted no. This is a civil matter and should be taken to small claims court. The defendant will need to prove that the renter caused the damage, which will not be possible and the deposit will be ordered to be returned. A property management company will not give you the time of day regarding this matter.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    Unfortunately, that’s not necessarily true. I assume that the contract states that the house is rented in good condition and that the renter is responsible for any damage that is not immediately called to the owner’s attention. The property management company will trot out the contract thus placing the burden on the renter to show that the damage was pre-existing.

  • Kathleen Proud Keyte

    If you are going to rent a holiday property out and you provide the renters with easily damaged ammeties and/or conditions, I don’t think that you can then sue/assess costs for damages. High heeled shoes that put small dents in wooden floors – this is just normal wear and tear unless the landlord has put down conditions that say you have to have bare feet in the house. This damage seems inconsequential to me – but if what has been stated is true (that they are juts trying to generate income until it is sold, I can see why they are being ‘picky’ about the scratch) but still don’t think they have the right to charge for it).


    I voted no, though I am really on the fence on this one. I cannot tell from the photo how bad the scratches are on the hardwood. She did not “walk through” the house with an agent to point out any damages. She admitted more people were there than she planned. She also tried too many diversionary tactics which make me wonder—the bed linens and the time she spent washing them, the type ice chests they used, the previous property rentals and no coffee at all in the bedroom with the stains. Maybe some of this happened when she was there, maybe not. But I doubt the cost to clear/repair is $500.00.

  • Freehiker

    Personally, if I got there and all of the linens, carpets…etc we’re filthy, I would have called them right then to get over there to show why I was leaving.

  • BillCCC

    I would suggest that you leave this one alone. I do not see any way that you will be able to determine who is right or wrong in this matter. I do not think that she supervised all 10 people the night of the event so she really cannot say that the damage was not caused during her rental.

    I am curious as to what you mean by adding insult to her injury? Did the property management company do something else to cause her a problem? You’re not suggesting that the damage to the property is somehow related to her mothers death are you?

  • Alan Gore

    Under California law, tenants are treated as European royalty. I’m not sure if a short-term rental would be covered, though. I suppose we all have to start taking before-after pictures of our hotel rooms and vacation cabins now.

    Never wash rugs in a washing machine! The backing on them sloughs off and destroys the impeller, a washing machine part which is made of platinum and rubies. Hopefully the OP will not get a bill for that.

  • backprop

    I’d love to see more pictures. But, if the photo shows the extent of the hardwood damage, that is positively trivial. I don’t know if you’ve had hardwood floors, but you don’t “pull up a hardwood floor and redo it” for something like that. At most, since that appears to be stained, you buff it, lightly wipe some stain/poly where the tiny scratches are, and they disappear.

    If I saw those on my own floor or in an apartment rental, I wouldn’t give them a second thought. It’s normal wear and tear, unless we’re not seeing something.

  • backprop

    “a washing machine part which is made of platinum and rubies”

    LOL. My dishwasher pump must have been made of the same material.

  • omgstfualready

    I was thinking the same – the rugs should not have been in the washer at all, she is fortunate she didn’t clog up the machine. If they were that dirty pushthem to the side and put towels down on the floor to step onto.

  • E_Woman

    My bath mats are machine washable. Depends on the material.

  • Jeanne_in_NE

    Out of curiosity, how do you clean your throw rugs? Mine have gone in the washing machine for years, no problems. My top loader washer lasted 16 years, and my “new” front loader is 7 years old.

  • EdB

    I’m not sure if the standard renter’s law would apply, but if so, the property owner would have to provide receipts for anything over $250 I believe and cannot charge more than the actual costs.

    But even so, minor scratch on a floor is going to be normal wear and tear. Based on the picture shown, I don’t even see any damage to begin with. But that could be the quality of the picture on my phone.

  • omgstfualready

    I bring them to a laundromat (I have no idea how to spell that) and bang up their machines. Even the ones without the old time backing get so heavy when water logged it isn’t worth risking my machine with it.

  • Len Oxman

    She had extra sheets with her? Who travels with sheets?

  • PolishKnightUSA

    Yeah, Elliott sums it up: Seems like a rental car scratch scam.

  • MarkKelling

    When renting houses, it is common to have to bring your own bed linens.

  • Joe_D_Messina

    Same with me. Washed rugs of various types for my whole life and never had any issues with my washing machine. And I’ve had rugs totally fall apart during washing. I’d never wash any in a rental just for fear of having that happen and getting a bill for new rugs.

  • Joe_D_Messina

    Scratching clearcoat on a hardwood floor is nowhere close to a $500 repair. Five minutes with a piece of sandpaper and a couple swipes with a brush will totally fix that. That alone is enough to make me want Chris to help the OP.

    I must say, though, some rather odd points in the letter. Washing bathroom rugs is a risky proposition, given they have a tendency to just fall apart in the wash when they decide to die. And going to the time and expense of renting a large house only to have hardly anybody stay there sounds like it only added more cost and stress to an already stressful time.

  • ag4square

    I can’t speak for this house in particular but i have rented in the Aptos beach community of Rio del Mar for almost 20 years. I would guess about 75% of the homes along the beach are rentals (maybe more) and the prices are very high and always have been. You have to bring all of your own linens and towels and there are strict cleaning rules and high cleaning costs. The owners and real estate companies have you over a barrel and they know it. The place we rented several years in a row was a 70s time warp but had the right number of rooms and space for our two families. There was broken furniture, missing lamps, tired bedspreads and a garage full of discarded toys and trash. Every year I complained about this or that and for the most part the owners responded but they didn’t even really have to because if we had refused to come back they knew they had five other families willing to take our place. We got dinged one year for some damage to the exterior(?!) in the driveway (of a different house) we did not even use for our cars. It was only 80 dollars so i paid it because i couldn’t prove we didn’t do it (even though we didn’t) and I had a long relationship with the real estate agency and didn’t want to jeopardize it over such a trivial sum. I feel for this women but too many homeowners don’t understand that wear and tear is part of the deal when renting your house out for vacationers. At least our agency only made us pay the cost of the repairs and did not keep the entire deposit. I suppose everything these days is buyer beware!

  • Annie M

    So now it seems we must do the same thing we do when we rent a car- do a walk around and take pictures of every piece of damage in a rental and contact the rental agent right away.

    How trivial. But this could be a losing battle, since the renter admittedly had more people in the rental and apparently didn’t totally supervise. Why would they put coolers anywhere other than the kitchen?

    I think the renter should dispute the charge and leave you out of it. Did she reportbthe dirty conditions to the rental agency? Who knows if that damage has been there for a long time and they charge everyone that rents it the security deposit?

  • DavidYoung2

    Yup, they’ve paid the $500.00 so go sue. AND issue a subpoena for ALL rental records going back on year. I suspect this is a continuing cash flow stream for the management company, so no telling how many unsuspecting renters have been dinged for the exact same stains and scratches.

    I will be that they will immediately pay up!

  • Mark Cuban

    Scratches on the hardwood is an old renter scam. It’s like the cleaning deposit you lose every time you leave an apartment. $500 is a calculated amount. Not enough to repair any real damage, but more than someone would travel back to sue in small claims for. I notice neither the property nor the rental company are mentioned, making the article useless for anyone wishing to avoid it.

    When you rent a house just assume you’re not going to get the deposit back. if you do, bonus.

  • Raven_Altosk

    While my daddy told me to never trust women with hyphenated last names, I’m going to side with this lady. This one smells of scam by the real estate agency…so yes, mediate.

    Also, please publish the name of this management company and/or realtor so I do not ever conduct business with them. They don’t deserve anonyminity.

  • SallyLu

    Could just be the way I’ve always understood the phrase, but I don’t believe that the “insult” and “injury” need to be related events for the term to apply :-)

  • Justin

    1) Take Pictures. Pictures don’t lie. I know it’s a bit inconvenient, but it’s a safeguard. Focus on areas where damage is prominent.

    2) Put everything on a credit card. You at least have the ability to dispute charges. Doesn’t mean the creditor can’t go after you, but at least in the immediate, there’s a monetary refund.

    I don’t know how you are going to help here Chris. We’re left with a classic He said / She Said dispute. I bet the rental agency takes a buffer to the scoffs or plain ignores them. Seems $500 dollars to “repair / replace” hardware is suspect.

  • Miami510

    I voted no; not that the writer doesn’t deserve better treatment, but I voted no for two reasons: Christopher’s efforts will probably have no effect, because the owner isn’t dealing with a hotel, resort, or transportation company who will be aversely affected by bad publicity or public shame. The second reason is this should go to small claims court as California Dave suggested. A lawyer needent get involved and my guess is the court will side with Lyon-Reiser.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    Estimates should suffice.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    I agree, but unlike a hotel room with tons of inventory, a vacation rental may not be as easy to get on a moments notice, especially if you need to accommodate a larger group.

  • EdB


    The law says receipts, not estimates, for actual costs.

  • EdB

    Damn disqus link censorship..

    The law says receipts, not estimates, for actual costs.

    www dca ca gov/publications/landlordbook/sec-deposit.shtml

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    There’s not enough money to justify an attorney.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    Very useful link. If I did residential landlord/tenant I’d bookmark it.

    Per the website

    The landlord is allowed to make a good faith estimate of charges and
    include the estimate in the itemized statement in two situation…

  • EdB

    Yes. But you left out the last sentence in regards to the use of estimates…

    “Within 14 calendar days after completing the repairs or receiving the invoice or receipt, the landlord must mail or deliver to you a correct itemized statement, the invoices and receipts described above, and any refund to which you are entitled.”

    So they still have to provide receipts. The only time they don’t is if they do the work themselves but even then, they have to provide a statement of the work done, time and costs of materials.

  • commentfromme

    I am thinking that with the extra 10 people, the property mgr is digging them for a party maybe?

  • commentfromme

    The icechest that was dragged was probably a suitcase with wheels. And it probably did damage to the floors. And the rental company has them over the barrel for having an extra 10 people. They would charge $500 perhaps for parties or events in the house. Mgt should have been contacted at checkin if the house was unacceptable and fllthy. I would love to see past reviews on this house. I also wonder how much she paid for the rental. Also if this was a “standard” rental, the guest can always take out damage insurance as protection, and none of this would be an issue. Damage protection in house rentals generally ranges from $39 to $89. I think ( after a little research ) that this might be Bailey Property Mgt Rentals, and the deposit is being witheld for breaking the published house rules of having extra people in the house, and not really for damages.

  • Jeanne_in_NE

    There were 5 beds that the OP cleaned/made. I thought the beds were for some of the 10 people, who didn’t end up staying the night after all. The point being that although she had expected more people to stay, they didn’t, and so weren’t in the house very long, or at least long enough to scratch the floor and spill stuff. At least that’s how I read it.

  • Alan Gore

    We wash them by hand, in a bucket, out back. This could be problematic if you live in a place that has winter, but at least you can make it a part of your spring cleaning.

  • AUSSIEtraveller

    so who says you didn’t scratch the floor ?

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    I stand corrected :-)

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    A five bedroom house is often promoted as accommodating 12 people.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    the deposit is being witheld for breaking the published house rules of having extra people in the house, and not really for damages.

    Could be. I skimmed the contract. I can’t imagine the forfeiture clause is legal. A security deposit is can generally only be withheld for failure to pay rent and damages. I can’t imagine that the company gets a bonus of the $500 security deposit on top on the rental fee.

    Also, I’m not sure that the OP violated the terms of the agreement. There is a marked difference between having a visitor over and a guest. But you never know. In any event I’m sure the house was promoted as permitting 12 people.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    Who says she did?

  • AUSSIEtraveller

    THE OWNER !!!

    The balls in their court.

  • Rob Counts

    The rugs should have been clean along with everything else. The owner has this responsibility. I have inspected hospitals, call me the next time you plan to rent. If it is near, no charge. I am better than Inspector C.!

  • whatexit

    On this side of tth Equator, the complainant has the burden of proof. Not the other way around.

  • whatexit

    When renting a house ALWAYS do a walk through BEFORE taking possession of the house.
    If the owner or agent makes themselves unavailable, before entering the house, call them. Let them know that because they failed to uphold the terms of the rental agreement( by not showing up) they waive all claims to the deposit.
    Of course that will be met with an immediate reaction. Which is intended.
    it got their attention.
    Oh, NEVER rent a house that has hardwood flooring.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    If the owner didn’t do a pre-rental inspection a judge might not care.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    I have to admit, it would never have occurred to me to do an inspection of the vacation rental. Now I know.

  • AUSSIEtraveller

    owner could say he did a pre inspect (whether he did or not)

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    That’s what’s cross-examination is for. To ferret out the lies. For example, notwithstanding the small value of the case, if the landlord were claiming that he did a pre-inspection, I would require him to produce the rental records for the past two years. Does he have a pre- and post inspection records.

    Are the records signed? By whom?

    In one of my cases which went to trial the judge stated on the record that Defendant’s evidence “...had disquieting implications due to its dubious authenticity

  • Cybrsk8r

    “They said it looked like someone dragged an ice chest across the hardwood floors”.
    This is what the landlord was claiming.

    Umm, who brings a cooler to a funeral?

  • AUSSIEtraveller

    cross examination ?

    Don’t be ridiculous. Dodgy lawyer would cost 10 times the claim.

  • Jeanne_in_NE

    The OP. From the article: “We didn’t even have an ice chest that wasn’t a small one with a handle, or wasn’t styrofoam.”

  • Carver Clark Farrow


    Whatever. Anyway, re-read the post. Who said anything about hiring and attorney?

    Your disdain of American legal system is showing as well as lack of understanding. The scenario painted can be easily accomplished without retaining an attorney. All she needs to do is ask the clerk to issue a documents subpoena or follow whatever procedure her local court follows. The court probably has a small claims manual for her to read.

  • commentfromme

    Having 10 extra people over becomes a “party”…even during a sad funeral. And when a guest says 10 extra people, it ususally is really 20…they decide kids dont count, etc. I suspect there is a clause prohibiting parties. Just maybe. I just feel as though the op has not shared the whole story, or every detail.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    I skimmed it briefly anddon’t see a no-party provision, but upon further reflection, I think we are going down a rabbit trail. If this was about occupancy levels I’m sure that would have been told to the OP and been part of the correspondences given to Chris.

  • Justin

    Here’s an interesting legal question.

    Can the OP have access to the past rentals and future ones (next 1 or 2). Something smells fishy here. I truly wonder if this damage happened, and for lack of payment, the buck is being passed.

    I’d be interested to see if the MGMT notate the “scuff” on paperwork for future renters. I’ll eat my hat if the 500 is actually applied to repairing the minute damage. Therefore, there’s a strong likelihood other tenants are going to be privy to the same “scam”.

  • Carver Clark Farrow


    The OP wouldn’t even need an attorney to do it. Just go the the court clerk and have them issue a records subpoena.

  • AUSSIEtraveller

    all lawyers are dodgy esp U.S. lawyers !!! As bad as politicians. Why are so many politicians also lawyers.

    Think how much better the world would be without ANY lawyers.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    In this country, we try to overcome our prejudices and not stereotype.

  • AUSSIEtraveller

    what a big failure that has been !!!

    3rd world status soon.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    I do tend to forget that facts are not important to the true believers.

    1. Which rule did the OP break?
    2. What DavidYoung proposed can easily be done without an attorney. And if she prevails, she will be also be entitled to the costs of serving the subpoena.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    What are you blathering on about now?

  • Grant Ritchie

    Dark, dark deeds in the California night. Scratch MY floor, will you!

  • Cyn2

    Many people bring coolers on road trips, regardless of reason for the trip. Many of the family may have driven to Aptos to attend the funeral.

  • emanon256

    I totally agree. My whole floor is full of light scratches like that. Every time I buff them out, just walking around makes new ones. I let it go for a while, and now I have so many I don’t notice them anymore, it just looks like aged wood. I’ll buff them out before I sell.

  • DavidYoung2

    Unlike Australia, we don’t need ‘solicitors’ and ‘barristers’ to file a small claims suit, It costs about $35.00 and (at least in California) can be done on-line. There are NO lawyers allowed – each person tells their story to the judge and he makes a decision. It’s simple, easy and relatively quick.

  • AUSSIEtraveller

    yeh great & then owner just ignores the decision & then you have to employ a lawyer at stupidly high cost !!!

  • EdB

    You really don’t have any clue about the legal system in the US, do you?

  • AUSSIEtraveller

    on the contrary, know it’s the dodgiest in the western world.

    Commit a crime & buy your way out !!!

    Unfortunately this U.S. “disease” has come to Australia,

  • EdB

    Like I said. You really have no clue about our legal system. All you can do is make broad generalization.

  • AUSSIEtraveller

    know enough to know it’s by far the worst in the western world.

    How did you let it get so bad ?

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    Don’t fall into the trap that I did. I fed him after midnight and look what it got me. He (she?) enjoys this. Sadly, I indulged him/her.

  • dave3029

    I must admit, I’ve had a few vacation rentals before myself and never
    gave a second thought about doing a walk-through with the rental company
    before taking possession. I’ve done it with apartments and cars I’ve
    rented, but never thought to do so for a vacation rental.

    Thanks for this, Chris – – lesson learned. I won’t overlook this ever again!

  • EdB

    You keep proving my point you have no clue about our legal system with your mistaken broad generalization.

  • EdB

    Yeah. I dealt with it before in the past. I just love giving them the rope to hang itself with from the broad, uninformed, mistaken generalization it makes. At least we don’t have to powder our wigs in the US. ;)

  • DavidYoung2

    Please know before you post. After a judgement, the judgement creditor places a lien on the property and a ‘keeper’ on any receipts from the rental company. They can also get an “OJD” to force the debtor to come to court and, under penalty of perjury and threat of jail, reveal all of their assets.

    So rather than go through all that (the expense of which gets tacked onto the existing judgement), the rental company will cough up the $500.

    Oh, yeah, no lawyers. Just fill out the forms and file them with the court and have a private process server deliver them to the debtor.

  • DavidYoung2

    It’s not bad, just different. In Australia, government regulations tell you exactly what you can and can’t do. Here in the US, we use our own judgement and have legal recourse if something goes wrong.

    You can’t wipe your butt in NSW without permission of the Industrial Relations Commission. The regulations imposed by local Councils are crazy (as are the accompanying Council fees). The ATO (Australia Tax Office) are crazed, but the worst is the NSW office of ‘Fair Trading.’ Basically they can override any business decision you make if they think it’s “Deceptive or Misleading” conduct.

    I’d rather have a judge and jury decide if my actions are right or wrong rather than some government bureaucrat.

    Understand I’m not bagging on Australia, but I do understand it’s different (not better, not worse.) And other than (1) paying A$ 22,00 for a six pack of Crownies at the bottle shop and (2) not knowing on which side of the road they should drive, Australia is a wonderful place.

  • TMMao

    We once were charged a major cleaning fee because a sandstorm had blown through after we checked out. The sand came through the same window that was open when we checked in, and it was stuck in the same open position when we checked out. Ended up taking a morning off work and going to small claims court to get that deposit back, but it was worth it to see the face of the homeowner when the judge ruled against her.

  • pauletteb

    And just how did you become such a hater? Nearly every post of yours is actually an anti-US rant. You’re unlike any Aussie I’ve ever met.

  • pauletteb

    Obviously there are trolls Down Under too.