No compelling case made for city's inspecting rentals

A city of Beaufort staff proposal to charge a $100 inspection fee each time a new tenant occupies a long-term rental unit looks like a solution in search of a problem.

It also looks like government intrusion into private transactions and a revenue grab.

The proposal, discussed briefly at a City Council workshop April 19, is still preliminary and met immediate resistance from some officials -- and for good reason. The proposal has potential problems and unintended consequences. Here are a few:

  • Beaufort planners said the idea for inspections came as the city considered standards for short-term rentals to protect neighboring properties from traffic, parking, noise and aesthetic problems. Although inspecting long-term rental properties would include factors that impose upon neighbors, it also would include interior items that have nothing to do with a property's outward appearance or the general public's interest.
  • The fee would be passed along to the renters -- as all taxes and fees are -- and not just in direct forms, such as up-front deposits. Some owners might deem inspections too much of a hassle and opt not to rent their properties. That would reduce the inventory of rental properties -- much of it in acceptable condition -- raising the price to renters.
  • The staff suggested that the city work with owners of apartment complexes to allow them to save costs by conducting their own inspections. Set aside the absurdity of putting the business to be regulated in charge of regulation. This invites favoritism and what can come with it, and it is biased against those with just a few properties to rent.
  • But the most compelling reason to take a pass on this idea: Renters tend to favor living in a place that is attractive and safe, so owners have an incentive to make their properties attractive and safe. This is how the free market operates, and it usually governs private transactions well -- at least until government fouls the system of incentives and disincentives in the name of protection.

    Of course, it is true that some owners do not properly maintain their properties. It also is true that some renters let their lawns go to seed and foist unsightly messes upon their neighbors. But there already is recourse for both situations -- through state law and the courts in the case of improperly maintained properties and through city nuisance codes in the case of unsightly property.

    Unfortunately, the city has a spotty record on code enforcement. That does not inspire confidence that more rules will offer a solution.