During the exhausting process of moving into a new apartment, the last thing on your mind is moving-out day, but since your landlord is probably holding a sizable chunk of your money in the form of a security deposit, it's risky not to prepare for the end of your tenancy right from the beginning. Before you start unpacking dishes and hanging prints on the walls, take a few simple steps to avoid the misunderstandings and disagreements that have made disputes over security deposits legendary.
Give your unit a thorough inspection before you move in. (Better yet, do it before you sign the lease!) It's best to inspect the premises before you move in; it will be easier to spot problems while the place is bare.
Check the place over for damage, dirt, mildew, and obvious wear and tear. Don't neglect to check out things that might not be readily apparent, such as water pressure and sink drainage in the kitchen and bathrooms, the operation of appliances, the appearance of floors and walls, and the condition of the pads under the carpet.
Make a detailed inventory of what you find. The best way to do this is with a good checklist. The more you record about the unit when you move in, the better position you'll be in when moving out to show that certain problems already existed before you moved into the unit.
In some states (see list), landlords are required to give new tenants a written statement on the condition of the unit at move-in time, including a comprehensive list of existing damage. Check your state security deposit rules for the exact requirements in your state, including the type of inspection required at the end of the tenancy.
Regardless of whether or not it's required by law, many landlords provide a checklist to new tenants, but some do not. You can write up a checklist yourself or use one such as the Landlord-Tenant Checklist available in the Nolo store.
Ideally, you and your landlord should fill out the checklist together to prevent any disputes or disagreements. Otherwise, it's smart to bring along a roommate or a friend so that there's at least one other witness to the condition of the unit at move-in time. If you spot problems, describe specifically what is wrong. Rather than simply noting "damage to carpet," for example, state "cigarette burns, frayed edges in carpet next to picture window." The more detailed you are, the clearer it is that you're not responsible for those damages. You and your landlord should both sign the checklist after completing it. Make a copy so that each of you has one.
At the end of your tenancy, you'll make another inspection of the same items, noting their condition at move-out time. If items that were okay at move-in are now damaged, your landlord may hold you responsible for fixing them, but you'll be protected from being billed for damage that existed before you moved in.
States Where Landlord Must Provide Move-In Statements on the Condition of the Rental Unit
Besides completing a checklist, it's also a good idea to document the condition of your unit with photographs or video. Whether you take a photo with your phone or use a separate camera, print out two sets of the photos as soon as possible. Give one set to your landlord. Each of you should date and sign both sets of photos. If you make a video, clearly state the time and date when the video was made and send the landlord a copy.
Repeat this process when moving out.
If, despite your efforts, your landlord tries to hold on to some or all of your security deposit when you move, read Nolo's article Get Your Security Deposit Back.
For all the practical and legal information you need to deal with your landlord when moving in and inspecting the rental unit, see Every Tenant's Legal Guide, by Janet Portman and Marcia Stewart (Nolo).