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  • Writer's pictureKathleen Hughes

When Your Vacation Home Becomes Everybody's Vacation Home, WSJ Next

Updated: Feb 13, 2019


When Your Vacation Home Becomes Everybody's Vacation Home

Sure, a house on the water or in the mountains sounds like a great idea. Until it becomes a crash pad for friends.

By Kathleen A. Hughes

October 31, 2011

We love our friends dearly. But do we really want them in our bed?

That's a dilemma faced by many of those who buy second homes or retirement homes in desirable locales. My husband and I recently learned this the hard way after buying a loft in Manhattan as a future retirement spot.

We suddenly found ourselves facing a series of hints or outright requests from friends to use the space when we're not there—as a crash pad.

"Great! Now we'll have a place to stay in New York!" was the enthusiastic response of friends, colleagues and even a few distant

acquaintances. (Part of the problem was that I managed to publicly announce the purchase in a recent article for this newspaper about the conflicts that arise when spouses have different retirement dreams.)

But we quickly learned that saying "no," or just

failing to offer hospitality, can be very awkward, creating tensions in friendships that had never known a cross moment.

"Why can't you just give me the keys?" asked one friend at a party after explaining that he and his wife were heading to Manhattan to see a play. When my husband politely declined, sputtering something about the strict co-op rules, our friend said, "I'm not talking to you anymore!" and walked away. That left my husband standing next to the wife, weakly suggesting midtown hotels.

The Brave and the Pitiful

More people seem to be heading for the same social quicksand. There are roughly 7.9 million vacation homes in the U.S., according to the National Association of Realtors, and the recent plummet in housing prices is leading more people to consider taking the leap.

"Some vacation homes are dirt cheap," says Walter Molony, a spokesman for the

association. "It's largely a middle-age, middle-income, baby-boomer phenomenon," he M adds. "It's a lifestyle purchase."

But how do you avoid having your lifestyle, not to mention your relationships, ruined when friends and family start to vie for free use of your home? The typical owner spends only 39 nights a year in a vacation home. That leaves 326 days a year up for grabs.

Interviews with dozens of vacation-home owners show they fall into two groups. The happiest ones, the minority, find it relatively easy to set limits and boundaries. They may be willing to share the place occasionally, but they don't hesitate to say, "Sorry, it's for family only," or, "Sorry, it's not available." Some don't mention the property to friends at all. And a brave few don't hesitate to ask guests to chip in to help cover costs, averting resentment (at least on the owners' part).

Meanwhile, the rest of us—those concerned with pleasing others—may hand over the keys only to be faced with repeat visitors, time-consuming arrangements, damaged homes and a total loss of privacy. And that's on top of the mortgage and maintenance costs. Most people in this group—let's call it the doormat group—either learn to set limits eventually or wind up in so much turmoil that they sell the overused and battered house.

Sweet and Sour

Consider the aptly named Toni Sweet. Twenty-one years ago, Ms. Sweet, a former bereavement counselor, and her husband bought a 200-year-old converted barn in Tuscany and split their time between Italy and Manhattan Beach, Calif. The home in Italy overlooked a piazza, had thick stone walls and, more important, six bedrooms.

Word spread. "Everyone wanted to come and visit us," recalls Ms. Sweet, who says she received 20 to 30 requests a year to visit. "It was just a nightmare. We had more friends than we knew what to do with."

Then friends of friends and children of friends began to show up. One teacher brought "hordes" of guests. People approached Ms. Sweet at church and at parties, asking to stay there. "People were very bold," she recalls.

Ms. Sweet soon found herself driving guests to the same tourist spots over and over again. Her Italian neighbors began to laugh at her as she hung the guests' sheets out to dry. "Are you going to Pisa again today?" they asked. (Ha. Ha. Ha.)

It took about 10 years, but Ms. Sweet finally toughened up. She stopped answering the phone. She directed friends to nearby bed-and-breakfasts.

"When you're a giving person, you have to be able to go to the other extreme," she says. New

rules: Guests could come only when the Sweets were there. They had to have their own car and agenda. Ms. Sweet stopped cooking for everyone.

Still, the couple finally sold the home six years ago, and they now live in Del Mar, Calif. Ms. Sweet thinks if she had just been willing to charge all those people, she might still own the place. "It would have paid for itself," she says with a sigh.

Money Helps

Some crash-pad owners do finally decide to charge friends. Tom Haddock, a real-estate investor in Reston, Va., rented out his condo in Ocean City, Md., for 25 years until he tired of renting to strangers. But then the two-level condo with ocean views was just sitting there empty some of the time. He began to turn over the keys to friends and family, no charge.

"We were really subsidizing our friends and family," he says. "We would get the nice holiday cards with their mugs saying, 'We had a great time! Maybe next year!' "

His resentment started to grow. "Quite honestly, it felt like people were being cheap," he says. While his guests left gifts, they weren't exactly reciprocal. The carrying costs were about $38,000 a year, and visitors often left a $10 bottle of wine. Meanwhile, he and his wife were cleaning up, literally. Guests would ask, "Did someone change the sheets?"

Then Mr. Haddock had an idea. Last year, he spent four weeks drawing up a proposal and offered friends and family a "club membership": $2,000 a year for the right to three weeks at the condo, plus $10 for each night actually spent there and cleaning costs. Some who had been using the condo at no charge turned him down—but 13 friends quickly signed up.

"Now I'm getting $30,000 a year of income from the families, and I'm not as angry about it as when we were subsidizing everyone," Mr. Haddock says.

Money aside, most owners of vacation homes have horror stories about guests who left the place in shambles. Many of these stories involve children and teenagers.

Three years ago, Ellen Sawyer, who lives in Andover, Mass., let her college-age son and 10 of his friends use her vacation home in Bretton Woods, N.H. "How do we get the smoke out?" asked her son in a phone call after lighting a fire in the fireplace without opening the flue.

Shortly afterward, Ms. Sawyer and her husband, hoping for a relaxing getaway, drove the 140 miles to the condo on a cold winter night. They walked into a disaster zone. The beds weren't made, and Ms. Sawyer's favorite foam pillow was missing. There was a cork in the bathroom cabinet. Her razor had changed showers. A burning bag of microwave popcorn had been tossed in the snow on the deck, where it froze.

Catalog of Grievances

The family bulldog appeared with a ping-pong ball in its mouth, which Ms. Sawyer tried to pry out before even taking off her coat. "I am so angry I can't even call you," she texted her son. She outlined her 15 points of complaint in an email.

One way to solve the entire problem is to buy a second home in a remote location. Or not buy a vacation home in the first place. If you buy a place in a popular destination, such as Hawaii, Florida or New York, you might as well hoist a B&B flag. In those areas, even people who never issue a single invitation often wind up with a full house.

After Richard Tuggle, a Santa Monica, Calif., screenwriter, inherited his parents' home in Jupiter Island, Fla., 10 years ago, he rented it out part time. But he found friends started to tag along when he went there for holidays. He hasn't actually invited anyone, but friends say, "Oh, when are you going to Jupiter Island? We might want to come when you're there."

"I had eight freeloaders over Thanksgiving, Christmas and spring," he says with a laugh. "The freeloader list seems to be growing each year."

So far, Mr. Tuggle is happy to have company in the two-bedroom home, a five-minute walk from the beach. But he does take note of the way guests show their gratitude. "If they leave a bike as a gift, they are welcome back," he says. "If they just leave hair in the tub, they're not."

Spelling It Out

One of the biggest problems is that it's not always clear to homeowners what their own limits are—until a crasher pushes the envelope.

"It's important to let the person with the home lead," says Jan Yager, the author of "When Friendship Hurts." She considers it "very rude and presumptuous" to put someone in the position of having to say no. "The really good friends will know you well enough to know that you don't want anyone else staying there," she adds.

But will they? Some boundaries are fuzzy. A few visits may be fine; the third or fourth may be the point of no return. Bob Spence, the developer of the Palms, a private-residence club in Costa Rica, says he has let about 30 friends stay free in vacation homes he has owned in San Francisco, Lake Tahoe and Oregon. He and his wife created a "Welcome Sheet" that talks about how finicky they are. They back this up with 5x7 laminated cards listing the rules: "When you finish showering, use the squeegee."

That was going fairly well. But then a few friends wanted to use the homes over and over again. "It's not available anymore," said Mr. Spence.

"It's a little awkward," he concedes.

Indeed, those who have tried to crash and failed don't really want to talk about it. A neighbor of mine, who insisted on anonymity, confided that she recently called a friend with a second home in Hawaii and said, "I'm thinking about coming to visit you." The response: "That would be great. I'll give you the name of a hotel."

"It took me a minute to digest it," said my neighbor. "She was saying she would love for me to come—but she didn't want me in the house."

I haven't even reached the one-year mark of owning a second home, but I'm already tempted to sell. Our loft is in a Manhattan co-op with very strict rules, and we signed a lease agreement

that specifies who can visit and for how long. "Everyone you have ever known will want to pass through here," warned my downstairs neighbor.

If you know me and you're reading this: Please don't ask me to stay there. The people in the building won't like it, we don't have a washer and dryer, and the toilet might overflow, flooding the apartment downstairs. I actually don't want everyone I know in my bed, and I'm worried about the guy downstairs.

I'm really sorry.

Ms. Hughes is a writer in Rolling Hills, Calif. She can be reached at

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