Approach it like renting a car. Before you drive the car off the lot, someone 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.