Beach vacation marred by hurricane indoors


September 27, 1998|By Mike Burns

SUMMER ended last week, astronomically speaking, the autumnal equinox marking the start of fall. Hope you had a good summer vacation.

Since you asked, thank you, we didn't have a good one. Actually, it has to rank with the all-time worst. It wasn't the gray skies but the gray ink that did us in.

The beach is our family's usual destination. And because that seems to be everyone's favorite vacation spot, we planned early. The reservation was made and the contract signed in March, for a week in an apartment house where we had previously stayed. Carriage and crib were rented for the baby. We left home with carefully packed auto, and excited expectations, to reach our vacation home at the designated time.

The first hint that something was amiss was finding that four sets of stairs had to be negotiated to reach the main floor, where the beds and kitchen and living room were. We had been told by the agent that it was a one-flight walk-up. The initial two sets of stairs led to an auxiliary bedroom.

Trash, mold and motes

On the main floor, things were in shambles. Trash on the floor, mold around the bathtub, garbage odors escaping from the stuffed trash can in the middle of the kitchen. Food and utensils were left on the counter, spoiled food in the refrigerator. Vertical shades over the deck door falling apart, the broken pieces of edging littering the floor. Dust-laden sleeper sofa erupting with silvery motes, beds still covered with dirty bedding. On the deck were two bare old chairs, not the equipment we had expected from past visits.

Don't anybody sit down, my wife ordered the children. You don't know what's gone on here. The gash in the screen of the TV, the broken bric-a-brac advertised that this place was a security-deposit just begging to be forfeited.

The kids were sent outside, as I looked around. The lower-level bedroom was in similar disarray. Old paint cans and furnace filters were piled in the only clothes closet, emitting an unmistakable smell.

The rental agent showed up after a couple of phone calls. She insisted that the owner took good care of the property and inspected it before renting.

However, the rental agency disclaimed responsibility for cleaning the unit because this supposedly fastidious owner had allowed his friends to use the unit before us.

That group had no lease, so the agency did not have the unit cleaned, she explained. There was no inspection of the premises prior to our arrival, for the same reason. No other quarters were available. We departed after a few hours, with no sign of cleaning crew or remedy, and evening approaching. Angry at having lost our week's vacation at the beach, we returned home with a commitment to recover our deposit in some manner.

That's when we started reading the fine print on the back of the rental contract.

By fine print I mean type barely decipherable with prescription reading glasses and a magnifying glass, written in light gray ink, in typical lawyerly circumlocution. According to the contract, we agreed that we had inspected the premises prior to signing and it was acceptable "as is" or, alternatively, we waived the right to withhold rent for any deficiency or to claim that its condition had been misrepresented.

We had agreed to immediately inspect the apartment on arrival for things that could result in injury to anyone -- and to pay the agency or owner for any injuries sustained on the property "for any cause whatsoever." But the agency and owner acknowledged no specific obligation to make repairs of the reported defects.

And although the weekly rental period, stated in large print on the front of the contract, was to begin at 2 p.m., the fine print on the back declared that the agent had until 6 p.m. to clean the unit, an hour after the check-in office had closed. (In our case, no cleaners had appeared by 5: 30 p.m. so the job could not have been completed even in the grace period.)

More fine print disclosed, to those of eagle eyesight, that the agency reserved the right to remove the tenants if repairs for fire or other damage had to be made. The hapless tenants would be charged a proportionate share of the rent for the time they actually occupied the unit, with nothing more than a brusque goodbye from the rental office.

Beach rental agencies and landlords make their money during the summer season. So they don't want to cancel contracts.

Agency obligation

But they do have an obligation to inspect the housing units before they turn them over to people who have rented in good faith. They have an obligation to correct the situation instead of falling back on legalese disclaimers.

Strong as it is, the beach trade still relies on the confidence of tourists in the integrity of these rental agencies. People plan for a whole year to enjoy a week or two at the ocean. If it turns out badly, they will not come back.

No one can control the weather. That's accepted. What is not accepted is the take-it-or-leave (without refund) attitude of arrogant rental agencies. Gray skies, maybe. Gray ink, not again.

Mike Burns is The Sun's editorial writer in Carroll County.

Pub Date: 9/27/98

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