After reading all the posts I was starting to feel quite depressed. DH and I were very fortunate last year and came into a large sum of money. Purchasing the cottage was meant to benefit not only our immediate family, but the wider family, and as I said some close friends. We are delighted we are able to do this.
I think we will be adopting Jenjay's suggestions as that is exactly what I would expect. Its a shame we are forced to point out to people the obvious, but I do think now that getting something for nothing might be the problem in itself.
By the way the legal drinking age here is 18 so there are no issues for us as noone under 18 would be staying here alone. Niece is going to be told that due to her and her friends irresponsible behaviour her access to cottage will be limited to when her parents are there.
I think I will also inform people that I will only deal with bookings by email, as I seem to be spending too much time fielding calls. DH likes the idea of a $100 non-negotiable fee, to be held for bond or cleaning but I think only certain people will be actually called on to pay it.
If I may be honest, I don't think it's reading the posts here that should depress you; it's the behavior of the people who have abused your generosity in real life. It's wonderful that you want to share the cottage with family and friends, and you don't need to stop doing that. But establishing some rules, and even an upfront fee required of everyone, is completely reasonable, and not rude or ungenerous in the least.
As I mentioned before, don't think of the rules as punishments because of a few bad apples, but as helpful guides for people who want
to treat the property with respect but just don't know exactly what that means to you. For example, if a relative lent me their vacation cabin and didn't mentioned anything about rules, chores, etc., I would probably assume they didn't have any beyond what *I* thought was obvious (like not making a hole in the wall)--I would assume they had that all taken care of "behind the scenes" and that I didn't need to do anything (like laundry or vacuuming) because if I did, surely they would have told
me so. And then later if I heard that my relative was mad at me, or was even banning me from using the cabin again because I didn't clean it, I would be really embarrassed, and maybe even upset at the lack of communication.
Note: I am definitely not saying you were at fault here, because it sounds like your previous bad guests were really bad, and they might not have obeyed rules even if you had given them some. But for the in-between people, who want
to do the right thing but don't automatically know what that is, rules would probably be really appreciated. And don't present them half-heartedly, as though you don't really want to and don't think they're important; just be straight-forward and upfront about them.
Also, I think it's actually more polite to require the fee (if you have one) upfront from everyone
(or at least, everyone upon their first time staying in the cabin). As others have said, you can refund it later if they left the cabin in good condition, and having proved themselves once at the cabin, maybe you can choose to waive the fee for later visits if there continue to be no problems. But, among people who have never stayed at the cabin, I think it could be construed as rude to only ask for the fee upfront from select people, because this means you have to make assumptions about them based on other situations, personality, closeness, etc.. Requiring it of everyone for their first stay is more objective and if someone balks, they won't be able to point out that you let Cousin Susie stay there without paying even though it was her
first time (thus forcing you to admit that you plain trust Cousin Susie more).