Lending the cottage to a friend: good idea?

Two women sitting on a couch, having an argument By Prostock-studio/Shutterstock

Q: “We rarely let anyone use our cottage without us being there, except for a certain friend. Recently, she called to ask if she, her boyfriend, and her kids could stay for the weekend, which was fine with us. But after, she texted that her boyfriend’s children also came and stayed the night. I am not okay with her inviting additional guests without our knowledge. Am I wrong? And why am I feeling like the jerk for having to come up with a way to say that wasn’t okay?” 

A: No, you are not wrong, but you are also in a bit of a tricky situation in the personal hurt feelings department. Judging by the tales of frustration told by my cottage contacts, this specific offence seems to happen all the time but with various subtle nuances, from a cousin who left non-relatives for a few solo nights at the cottage without clearing it first, to that shameful summer classic where the “kids”—having been entrusted to stay up at the lake by themselves—host a giant booze and drug-fuelled shaker that causes personal injury, property damage, and the undying enmity of cottage neighbours. 

One couple I know had arranged for friends to “cottage sit” when they were away on a long vacation. Months later, they started meeting strangers who complimented them on their cottage, particularly mentioning the wonder of the outdoor hot tub. Some even sent photos of the fun times. Turns out, the friends who were looking after the joint held a good-sized dinner party, inviting people the owners had never met, and capped the night with hot tub cocktails. Someone even reprogrammed the Apple TV so they could access different video services. There was no physical damage to the cottage, but plenty of hurt feelings. 

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Of course the first response by anyone who has experienced this sort of thing is total outrage, mixed with varying degrees of personal violation and then bitter disappointment in the culprits involved. And no matter where the offence falls on the sliding scale, the howling plea—with face raised to heaven—is always the same: “What could ever make them think that this would be okay?” Herein, I think, is the crux of the issue, namely some form of miscommunication between rational people that leads to very unpleasant and squirmy personal dilemmas. Because in most cases—except the ones involving rotten and untrustworthy offspring—the players are all generally respectable adults connected by family or friendship, not some skid-bomb low-lifes who defiled a cottage they rented on Airbnb.

Long-time readers of this magazine, especially those interested in figuring out how to successfully share a family cottage with siblings and relatives without bloodshed or buckets of tears, will know that the only proper solution to co-ownership is to have a well-lawyered contract drawn up, one that specifies and stipulates and provides paths of settlement for any contingency possibly imaginable. I think it’s the lack of the same that causes these hurtful cottage misuses that we are talking about here. For instance, was the cousin who let strangers stay at the cabin made specifically aware that this was not allowed by the owner? Or was it just assumed a nominally intelligent person would ask first? You know what they say about assumptions.

From your letter, it doesn’t appear that you explicitly told your friend that it was okay for her to use the place and include her children and boyfriend, but no one else. So some people might take this to indicate that since you are okay with your friend and her group using the place, you wouldn’t object to others that she has vetted joining along. The logic being that if you trust her, you must trust her judgement as well. I am generally not a forgiving person, but it doesn’t sound like your friend operated with malice or recklessness toward the stewardship of your cottage.

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I personally suspect that your friend got sandbagged by her boyfriend when he showed up with his own kids without telling her. Is that possible? If so, it changes the narrative a bit. What was she supposed to do? Send them back down the highway? She probably should have called you right away to make sure it was okay, and I’m guessing you would have been fine with the extra kids. She could also have stayed silent and you would have been none the wiser, but instead she chose to fess up later, albeit by text. To me, this indicates some crisis of conscience on her part. Should it count in her favour?

That “why am I feeling like a jerk” feeling seems to be universal. I think it comes from one party feeling wronged, but unwilling to confront the other party with this information for fear of being seen as petty or small minded. “What’s the big deal? So we had a couple of extra guests. Lighten up.” But you are not a jerk. You’re someone with hurt feelings caused by poor communications. You want to let your friend know how you feel, but a finger poke to the chest is a bad idea. Full-out accusation—especially without knowing all the pertinent details—will surely cause you to look like a true jerk and threaten your relationship.

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So what’s the solution? You could choose to say nothing and decline to share the cottage with her again, which would probably make you feel bad for a long time and lose a friend. Or you could call her up and say what’s on your mind, which is the grown-up thing to do. This sounds great on paper, of course, but what you really want, deep down, is some form of an apology and an acknowledgement that she acted improperly. Which is something you might not get. Then what? I’m thinking that if you simply explain your feelings in a straightforward manner everything will work out just fine. But if the offence of two extra kids for a one-night stay is that upsetting, you either need to adjust your expectations or do some friend pruning.

It does occur to me that your uncomfortable situation could have been avoided entirely if you had chosen to rent your cottage to your friend, rather than lend it. With a rental arrangement details are spelled out: a time frame, what household items are provided, which boats and toys are available, and how many occupants are allowed on the cottage property. Standard stuff. The rental option lets you be upfront with rules and expected behaviour and your friend would not have to feel beholden or worry about breaking cottage rules. You could give her a really good deal, a fraction of what you could easily charge to ordinary renters. Call it your special rate, reserved for your nearest and dearest friends.

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