$300 smoking 'fine' crosses the line

Rent it Right

Q: We recently rented a vacation house that had a "no smoking" policy. We honored it, but during an evening when we were away, our adult children did not. There was no damage, but you could smell the smoke. The owner "fined" us $300 for the transgression, saying that by imposing a fine, she didn’t have to prove that it actually cost her $300 do deal with the smell. Can she do this? –Christine K.

A: Your owner is attempting an end-run around settled principles of landlord-tenant law. Even though this was a short-term vacation rental, the owner can’t circumvent the law protecting tenants from unreasonable charges like these.

When landlords want to charge tenants for damage beyond normal wear and tear, they must be able to prove that the amount claimed was reasonably necessary to fix the damage. In other words, if tenants treat the place like "Animal House," leaving the owner with six hours of cleaning, she can fairly charge for six hours of her cleaning crew’s time (assuming the crew charges a commercially reasonable price).

What she cannot do is arbitrarily charge any old amount (most commonly, a sum high enough to discourage tenant misbehavior in the first place).