After you find a home, apartment, or condo to rent and sign the paperwork to move in, it is time to relax and enjoy yourself after the hard work of the move. But don’t be too quick to arrange that bubble bath or pop the champagne in celebration. First of all you should take an inventory of the condition of the premises, document it, and get your landlord to sign off on the description or “punch list” of items that might be in disrepair. Otherwise in a year or two when you get ready to move out you might be asked to forfeit your security deposit for problems that were already there when you moved in and are really not your responsibility.

Here’s how it works. When you rent a car at the airport, for example, most car rental agencies first do what they call a “walk-around” of the vehicle. They literally walk around it with a clipboard in hand and jot down notes related to the condition of the car. Maybe it has a ding in the door, a crack in the windshield, or only half as much gasoline as it is supposed to have in the tank. This process protects both the renter and the car rental company, because it ensures that you don’t pay for scratches or upholstery stains caused by the last person to use the car. Similarly, if you return the car with a bashed bumper and the walk-around report shows that the bumper was fine when you drove off the lot, the rental company has evidence and can charge you to fix it.

The same thing applies to renting a home, and it is a great idea to ensure fairness to everyone involved. Realtors who specialize in rentals and leases even have standardized move-in forms that both the renter and the landlord sign and date. They list all items and their current condition before you move into a place, so that you are not held responsible for damage to the rental that was done before you signed the lease. If your new landlord doesn’t have one of these move-in forms, you should ask him or her to get one from a neighborhood real estate office. Any friendly real estate broker will likely give you a photocopied form to use, just to win your business so that if you decide to rent or buy in the future you’ll give them a call.

But if you can’t get an official form, just make your own. Dedicate one page of a legal pad to each room in the house, and don’t forget to include closets, attics, basements, balconies, and other out-of-the-way spaces. Go through each room with the landlord and jot down notes about any telltale stains, nail holes, broken fixtures, leaky faucets, missing doorknobs, scuffed hardwoods, non-working appliances, or other items of interest. Both of you agree to it, sign it, date it, and keep a copy. When it’s time to move out just compare the condition of the home to the move-in description. You are never legally responsible for normal wear and tear, but significant problems can result in ugly misunderstandings. Having a good move-in inventory solves those kinds of problems long before they have a chance to happen and is a win-win for both renters and landlords.

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