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How to Avoid Small Claims Disputes

Simple ways to head off conflicts with your landlord and avoid a court date.

smallclaimsdisputes0326If you have ever watched Judge Judy, you probably have the impression that most small claims cases involve landlord/tenant issues. Despite what you may have seen on TV, the majority of disputes between landlords and tenants can be avoided if you take some simple precautions.

The most common reason that tenants and landlords end up in small claims court is disagreements over the return of the tenant’s security deposit. Security deposits are payments imposed at the beginning of a tenancy, which the landlord holds until the tenant moves out. When a tenancy ends, the deposit is either returned to the tenant in whole or in part, or is retained by the landlord as payment for reasonable costs, usually associated with cleaning or repairs. To be considered reasonable, these costs cannot relate to conditions that existed before the tenancy began or to damage that amounts to “normal wear and tear.”

So how do you avoid fighting over your deposit when you move out? Approach it as though you were renting a car. Before you drive the car off the lot, someone from the rental agency comes out with a little diagram of the car and notes any scratches, dents, or other damage. When you return the car, you go through a similar routine, looking for anything that is significantly different from before. You should be prepared to do the same thing when you are renting an apartment. Before you move in, request that the landlord do a walk-through with you. Ask the landlord to bring a checklist of items that he looks for when a tenant moves out. You can take photographs, write things down — whatever it takes to have a clear record of how the apartment looked before you moved in.

When you move out, request another walk-through and ask the landlord to bring to your attention any problems he sees so that you can discuss anything that seems unreasonable. After this final walk-through, most tenants and landlords can agree on the deductions, or at least agree that any minor disputes are not worth the trouble of going to court.

Of course, it is not always the tenant who seeks redress through small claims court. Landlords will sometimes turn to small claims court to collect unpaid rent from a former tenant. As a tenant, you can protect yourself against this type of suit by keeping good records of your rent payments. If your landlord has a habit of “losing” your check or failing to deposit it promptly, ask him to provide you with a receipt at the time of payment. When you are preparing to move out, you can ask to review the landlord’s ledger of your rent history and can use your records to dispute any rent payments that have not been properly credited.

Over the course of a tenancy, especially a long one, there are bound to be some disagreements between the landlord and tenant. Making the effort to resolve these disagreements through open communication and careful documentation can save both parties the time, stress, and cost of going to small claims court. Judge Judy can always find a different case.