How to avoid vacation rental cleaning fees? Do this before you check in

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By Christopher Elliott

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 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 the most outrageous cleaning fee claims in my career. More on that in a minute.

Why should you 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. It was only the advent of cell phones with cameras, several lawsuits, and advice from this site that forced the major car rental companies to stop this unethical money grab.

Now, vacation rental owners are trying the same thing.

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. (Related: Can I get my Airbnb cleaning fees refunded for this dirty rental?)

I’ve already said it, but let me say it again:

Take. Lots. Of. Pictures.

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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 were not going to 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 when we spoke on the phone, it was clear that we had a lot in common. After a few polite conversations to work out some of the early problems, we struck up 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.

At their suggestion, they bypassed the rental agency 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.

But that presented us with a dilemma. How much should we tell the owners about the actual condition of their home? I had already mentioned some of the big issues, like the stained carpet, the internet connection and the bad smell emanating from the bathroom.

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 clearly 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.

Do dust bunnies on the floor of a vacation rental justify extra cleaning fees?
One of the “gotcha” images of an errant dust bunny hiding behind a door. The cleaning company sent it to the owners to justify a deep cleaning.

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 said anything to me about them. They were there for us to discover on our own.

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. This is what the routers next to the living room sofa looked like after he left:

Is this pile of tangled wires a justification for extra cleaning charges at this vacation rental?
“Bunched” internet routers used as a justification for a deep clean on our property. The technicians who tried to fix the slow internet connection them this way. We did not want to move them and potentially cause another outage.

The double exterior side door stopped working in December. The outside door handle started to come loose 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 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 all the way down.

You can probably guess where this is going.

A blurry photo of some dust on a floor board at this property -- used as proof that the renter did not clean the home properly.
A dusty ledge in one of the dark hallways of the vacation rental used by the cleaning company to justify an extra deep cleaning fee. We cleaned this ledge a week before checking out.

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.

It wasn’t easy. We tried to respect the owner’s desire to use environmentally friendly cleaning products. But vinegar isn’t as effective as bleach or a bathroom cleaning agent. The vacuum cleaner sputtered and coughed but picked up almost nothing, so we resorted to getting on our hands and knees to pick up debris.

I waited for the vacation rental agency to contact me so we could review their expectations for the home. We’d already paid a cleaning fee, so I knew someone would show up soon to ensure the vacation rental was cleaned to professional standards. Like most vacation rental guests, we are not professional cleaners.

Here are the instructions from our contract:

Cleaning Information:

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. Trask 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 the fact 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. Bizarrely, the report also claimed we had added furniture to the house, specifically 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.

Why did they do this?

It turns out the “professional” cleaner is a sole proprietor who advertises “an array of home-related services including private home management, absentee owner homewatch / homesitting, cohosting on vacation platforms, and professional vacation and residential cleaning to discerning homeowners in Sedona and the Verde Valley.”

Why would she tell the owners their house was “filthy” based on such flimsy evidence? Why would a professional cleaner file a report like that instead of doing her job, which is to clean a home professionally?

After some thought and a little investigation, I came up with a few possible answers.

First, the woman had documented ties to the vacation rental company. And the vacation rental company was not happy that the owners had bypassed them and rented directly to us. Maybe they wanted to make sure it never happened again.

Also, I’ve spoken with vacation rental managers who say cleaning fees are up to 40 percent profit. So if you can squeeze an extra cleaning fee from a tenant, that’s more money for you.

Was this a real cleaning professional or just someone who wanted to make a quick buck? I wondered that as I read all the other services she offered — private home managing, housesitting, providing cohosting services. Where did professional cleaning rank on that list?

One thing was clear: The cleaner did not have an eye for details. She had missed the moved furniture from the last tenant. She’d also overlooked the spots on the carpet, the nonworking door and the toilet problems. Worse, she posted her false report directly online with no password protection, where anyone could read it.

Based on her own description of her services, and her sloppy documentation, I had no confidence in her report.

The online records were instructive, though. It revealed that the owners were brand new to the vacation rental industry. Before us, the longest rental was roughly two weeks. We were the first long-term tenants in the home, which had now — sorry for repeating myself here — gone many months without a professional cleaning.

I could tell the cleaner’s report was having the intended effect, though. And unfortunately, the owners were 3,000 miles away on the East Coast, so they couldn’t just drive over and take a look at the place.

Coming to terms with reality

As a former homeowner, I could empathize with the vacation rental owners. Once someone builds a narrative about the condition of your house, it’s difficult to undo that in your mind. Even if you have the photos to prove it.

The owners sent their real estate agent over to the house a few days later. She documented the burned-out lightbulbs, the loose door handle on the exterior door, and the window shade that wouldn’t go all the way down. These were all problems that I had either mentioned to the owners by phone but for which I had no documentation or that I had overlooked because I assumed the owner knew they were pre-existing.

I shared the real estate agent’s “gotcha” photos with my kids. The only thing we noticed was very minor: A small porcelain knob on the kitchen cabinet had come undone, dropped to the ground and shattered. My son confessed to that. I immediately offered to pay for the replacement.

I can’t wait to see the bill!

The professional cleaner and vacation rental company appear to be pushing the owner to pursue me for everything. I’m expecting a bill for a deep cleaning, new lightbulbs, a new window shade, and maybe even a new door.

Will I pay? I’m not sure yet. I genuinely like the owners and I’m upset that their housecleaner scared them with an inaccurate report. I’d like to help them with any additional cleaning expenses, the lightbulbs, and to fix the broken cabinet knob. But I’m not keen on paying for the rest.

I keep coming back to this: What if I was 3,000 miles away and someone told me my tenants had left my house “filthy”? Of course, I would feel helpless — and furious.

I definitely want to do the right thing. But what is the right thing? Should you hold a vacation rental guest responsible for normal wear and tear? If you do, where does it end? Should vacation rentals start charging guests to clean an exterior door? Or for window blinds that don’t go all the way down?

What if hotels adopt these practices and begin adding extra fees for regular maintenance? I think that’s a real possibility.

In the meantime, I’ve become deeply paranoid about pre-existing damage. When I checked into the Holiday Inn San Antonio-Riverwalk, I fixated on the hairline cracks in the sink. Would I get a bill from the hotel for the damage?

A few days later, at Disney’s Saratoga Springs Resort & Spa, I couldn’t stop noticing discoloration on one of the kitchen tiles. Should I have reported that after I checked in? (Related: Why is travel so expensive now? You probably won’t like this answer.)

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 a 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. If you have kids, talk to them about what they may have damaged but not told you about.

I have more information on avoiding vacation rental scams in my vacation rental guide.

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.

The owners presented me with a $1,000 cleaning bill, which included a maintenance fee charged by the vacation rental management agency. I agreed to pay for half of it and we settled the case.

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Christopher Elliott

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 three nationally syndicated columns. He also publishes the Elliott Report, a news site for consumers, and Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on X, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter. He is based in Panamá City.

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