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Rental contracts can make or break a trip

Getting a vacation house or condo can be a great alternative to hotels. But be sure you can live with the landlord's rules.

The joy of renting a house or condo instead of a hotel room is that you get a more individual experience: cooking for yourself, for instance, or perhaps having a yard to yourself, opening your front door to the wide world instead of a dim hallway littered with leftover room-service dishes.

But often, renting a house or condo also means signing a contract instead of relying on hotel rules. It's tempting to sign these densely worded agreements and be done with it, especially when you already have paid a deposit. But it's imperative to pay attention. As I've just been reminded, those contracts can be important, and they can vary tremendously depending on the landlord.

My immersion in this issue began a few weeks ago when my wife, Mary Frances, and I joined a few friends in organizing a college-buddy reunion near San Francisco. We settled on renting a beach-adjacent house, where six or eight of us would sleep and where we would host one or two gatherings of about 15 people.

Soon a house was found, a price of $375 nightly agreed upon and a deposit check mailed. The landlords seemed nice. But then the rental contract came. It required that we spend two hours cleaning the rental house before departure or pay the landlord $100. This was non-refundable and separate from the refundable $500 security deposit. It required that we bring our own towels and sheets or pay $150 extra for those. Most notably, it required that no more than eight people occupy the home at any time. If the landlord learned that the number had been exceeded, the contract said, the tenant would pay an extra $300 per day, retroactive to the first day of the stay. That could have added up to as much as $900 for us.

We've rented plenty of vacation houses, in some cases (often in Mexico) with no written contract, and perhaps that made us too complacent. Distracted by other chores, we scanned the contract briefly (missing most of the odd and onerous details), forgot about it for a few days and eventually sent a copy to a fellow organizer who is a lawyer. He called back a few hours later, alarmed and astonished at the eight-page contract.

Then came a flurry of phone calls (among ourselves, then to the landlords), efforts at negotiation, and ultimately our withdrawal from the deal. We landed another house nearby, at the same price but with a less restrictive contract.

The adventure cost us nothing but time and trouble. But we were lucky. By the time we backed out, we were within 30 days of our arrival. If the landlord had insisted on keeping our deposit and we had insisted that we acted with reasonable haste as soon as we learned the conditions, we could have had a legal fight on our hands.

In those cases when a consumer and landlord end up at odds over a vacation rental property, the most likely legal venue for a dispute is small claims court in the county where the property is located, said California Deputy Attorney General Jerry Smilowitz.

If we had been smarter, we would have done things differently.

Consider the routine at two Southern California vacation property management companies: Penny Realty, which manages about 200 vacation rental units along Pacific and Mission beaches in San Diego, and Gayle's Resort Rentals, which handles 88 properties in and around Big Bear Lake.

Most renters reserve a property by giving their credit card number by phone or by making a phone reservation and following up with a check. The usual deposit at Penny is 25 percent of the total bill, along with a processing fee of $35 and a refundable cleaning and phone deposit of $300. At Gayle's, the deposit is 50 percent of the total, with a $30 processing fee plus a security and cleaning deposit equal to one night's rent.

After the management company receives the deposit, it typically sends a confirmation statement that includes the conditions that renters must meet (no pets, for instance). If you cancel any time after making a deposit and at least 30 days before arrival, management typically keeps a cancellation fee _ $125 in the case of Penny, $30 in the case of Gayle's.

Once you've made full payment, the landlord or management company typically reserves the right to keep all the money if you cancel and a replacement renter can't be found. Even if a replacement renter is found, under many pacts, you're on the hook for the cancellation fee.

The perilous part of this process is that as a renter, you don't always find out the details of the landlord's requirements until you've already parted with money and agreed to forfeit some of it if you back out. If you haven't done business with a landlord or management company before, ask for copies of rental conditions before you make that deposit.

Penny Realty's management says it uses the same agreement on all properties, although there are occasional exceptions, such as the owner who forbids guests from using the house's spa.

Jeffrey Clack, a Penny vacation rental agent, said the pacts limit the number of people sleeping in the house, but usually don't set a number of non-overnight guests who can visit. Instead, he said, the company's standard contract includes a clause giving the management company power to evict guests (and keep all money) if guests throw a party or smuggle in pets. Because "party" is left undefined, he said, the management company has room to make judgment calls.

At Gayle's, office manager Nancy Frye reported that the standard contract, about two pages, limits the number of overnight guests (but not non-overnight visitors). To renters who mention party plans, Frye said, she also gives rules spelling out the tenants' obligations to abide by city noise and nuisance laws.

Frye's advice to consumers on rental contracts is simple: "Please read it." But under her company's timetable, most renters have already paid for half their stay before they see the contract.

Frye agrees that it would be wise to ask for a contract before making a first payment and said she would happily provide one. But so far, she said, nobody has asked.