We had a problem getting our damage deposit back at an earlier apartment because of a moisture problem they wanted us to repair. We fought them and I eventually got our deposit back.
Now, our current landlord is being very difficult about our damage deposit, which is quite large, and I'm afraid they will try to keep it unfairly.
How can tenants protect their deposits from unjustified claims?
Answer: My philosophy for all real estate transaction is to "hope for the best, but plan for the worst." In other words, try to anticipate any problems that might occur and come up with solutions before they happen.
When you rent a property, you typically expect the landlord to refund your full damage deposit when you move out ("hope for the best), but you should take as many steps as possible to make sure that you don't have problems getting your money back if the landlord does not want to give it to you ("plan for the worst").
For example, it is crucial that you take your initial move-in checklist very seriously and fill it out as completely as possible. When you move out a year or two later, this is the only record you have of the condition that the apartment was in when you moved in. Ideally, you will walk through the apartment with the landlord or property manager and discuss each and every defect, no matter how minor or insignificant, and make detailed notes about each defect on the move-in checklist.
However, in the real world, it's not unusual for an apartment manager to hand a new renter a blank move-in checklist and say, "Fill this out and bring it back to me when you're done." If this happens to you, don't just breeze through the apartment and mark everything as "OK." Make detailed notes about every single blemish and discoloration, just as you would if the landlord was walking through the room with you. As I said before, this is the only evidence you have if you end up in small claims court with the landlord trying to get a refund of your damage deposit.
Being the super-cautious landlord that I am, I not only accompany my tenants during the walk-through inspection of the property, I shoot video of the entire property, inside and out, as we are inspecting it. This gives me a color video recording of exactly what the property looked like on the day the tenants inspected it. I also make sure to get the tenants in the picture occasionally so that they can be seen and hear talking about that property. If I ever end up in court, I want to be able to prove that the tenants and I inspected the property together and that they agreed to the property's condition "as is" when they moved in. Fortunately, I've always had good tenants so I've never had to go to court over damages, but the point is that I have "planned for the worst" by anticipating potential arguments that might come up.
As a tenant, you could do the same thing. If you don't own a video camera, most digital cameras shoot video and if nothing else you could use your cell phone camera. Video is best but if you don't have video capability still pictures are better than nothing. I recommend using the highest quality camera that you have available to you because you want to get high resolutions pictures of everything.
I prefer video rather than still pictures because you can pan around the room and shoot video as you walk through the apartment. I generally shoot the video in one long take, walking from room to room and panning from side to side and open and down to cover every nook and cranny.
If the camera has on on-screen date and time feature, make sure you turn it on so that the date and time of the inspection is permanently recorded on the video.
If the landlord or apartment manager is there, be sure to get him or her in the picture a few times for the reasons described above.
If there are any problem areas or defects you are especially concerned about, ask the landlord about them on the video. That way, you have a record of the property condition and any kind of verbal agreement you made about it with the landlord.
Without the video or photos, it would be up to your memory and your word against the landlord if there were any disputes over the rental condition at a later date.