The Humanist Dilemma: The Cost of Letting a Friend Use Your Beach House for Free

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Beach Brain: I have the good fortune to own a house in a quiet beach community. Over the years we’ve hosted many family and friends, and I enjoy every minute of it. Even though it’s lots of work, it’s a labor of love.

A good friend—who had been to our home many times—asked if I’d consider renting it to her for five days. I said yes, but that she only had to pay for the cost of our cleaning crew. I assumed it would be an easy “changeover” with five hours between her check-out and our seasonal renters’ check-in.

When I arrived at the house at noon on change-over day, the cleaning crew showed me that the door to one of the bedrooms had been pulled closed and the doorknob had come off, so we couldn’t get into the room. Luckily, I found a locksmith to install a new knob right away. I was distressed because not being informed promptly about this problem had put my rental in jeopardy.

Then I found the garbage bin was overflowing. I spent time consolidating all the trash, then loaded it into my car to take it away.

Finally, when I checked the locker where we keep the beach chairs and umbrellas promised in our listing, I found two of the chairs missing. In another scramble, I purchased two new chairs.

It wasn’t until the next day that I was able to make contact with my friend. She raved about what a great time they had. It was clear she had no inkling of the nerve-wracking, work-filled afternoon she had left me, so I gently brought things up.

She said she had planned to call me about the doorknob, but forgot. She said that the cleaning crew showed up at the agreed upon check-out time, but she wasn’t ready to leave, so it was a big rush to get out of the house. She seemed oblivious about the mess of trash she left.

As for the chairs, she had decided to spend the day on the beach after check-out and was using our chairs, assuming it was okay since the renters weren’t arriving until later. I had no idea she was out there on the chairs while I was racing around trying to replace them, and I had already sent the receipt to her for reimbursement before I spoke with her.

Now she says she wants the beach chairs since she paid for them, and I find myself really offended. I texted her, “Come get them anytime.”  I’m not planning to go to the house just to retrieve them for her. If I were in her shoes, having had the gift of a beach house at no cost, and now realizing I had caused my host unnecessary hassle, I would have said, “I’ll send you a check right away and I hope you enjoy the chairs.”

Am I wrong to be hurt? I don’t imagine there is anything else to be said, and since we share a circle of friends, I need to just let this go. But if she asks me to bring her the chairs next time I’m at the beach, can I say no? And do I explain my feelings (again)?

—Burned (and not by the sun)

Dear Burned,

Beach brain indeed! It’s a real thing that people get mellow to the point of mental marshmallow after spending time at the beach, which is an excuse we can extend to your guest.

(And there can be guest brain even without a beach. I once had two families stay at my house. One showed up with their dog, blithely noting they hadn’t asked but knew we wouldn’t mind—in fact, we did mind and would have said no. Then they proceeded to take some of the food the other family brought for their own use and tossed it onto the kitchen floor for the dog, saying, “Don’t worry, we’ll clean it up later.” I said, “I’ll clean it up now, before someone slips on the grease.”)

My take-away is: you don’t know what you’re going to get with guests until they arrive and/or leave. What I see in your case is not a particularly egregious guest but rather a failure to communicate—on both sides, starting with you. Before the visit, you might have explained the ins and outs of running a rental, including how critical it was for your friend to be cleared out at the appointed time, and to let you know immediately if there were any problems you’d need to take care of before the renters arrived. You might have given explicit instructions about what you wanted done with the garbage—and frankly, if your guest was paying for the cleaning crew, she may reasonably have assumed they’d take care of that. On the other side, your friend should have made more effort to tell you about the doorknob and let someone know she was on the beach with the chairs.

Furthermore, you really should have contacted your friend to discuss the missing chairs before summarily sending her the bill for the new ones. And she should have informed you that she had returned the chairs, rather than paying for and then demanding the chairs. I suspect she was hurt that you slapped her with the bill, just as you were hurt by her then claiming the chairs.

This all seems like very small potatoes between such long-standing good friends. You two could have had an amicable discussion about who would keep the new chairs and who would pay for them, and you might have had a good laugh about the mix-up. I agree she should have made them a gift in light of your generosity and all the trouble you went to (in fact, she should have provided a very generous token of appreciation for the free five-day stay, even if there had been no issues). But I suspect she felt stung by your criticism and invoice, just as you felt miffed about her loose ends and reaction. If this was, as you claim, a labor of love, it didn’t take much for the two of you to become disenchanted.

In the future, maybe you should accept rent (and a damage deposit) from everyone who spends one or more nights in your house, whether they are friends or strangers. A financial commitment would either make your guests more responsible, or compensate you if it didn’t have the desired effect.

Although this case may seem like first-world nit-picks to readers who don’t have these particular issues in their lives, it’s typical of the little things that can undermine any friendship, whether it’s about a house at the beach, or one roommate eating the food another roommate was counting on for dinner. It’s critical for people to spell out their expectations, rather than expect others to divine and follow directions they’ve articulated only in their minds. “Mi casa es su casa” is subject to interpretation.

This particular episode boils down to the value of a couple of chairs vs. that of a long friendship. Since it’s unlikely your friend actually wants to own the chairs, you can offer her a refund—and maybe then she’ll counter by telling you to keep them as a gift. But a greater gift would be if this episode teaches both of you something about communication and consideration, and how not to let relatively insignificant glitches undermine a relatively significant relationship.