THE FEARLESS CONSUMER- Picture this: Wise tenants take precautions

If you're a UVA student in the heady first days of a new relationship, remember this: What you don't do now to protect yourself can lead to heartache and expense nine months down the road. No, I haven't changed my name to the Contraceptive Consumer; I'm talking about your relationship with your landlord. 

Obviously, students aren't the only consumers who can profit by taking stock of a rental agreement, and August isn't the only time they should do it. This time of year, however, I tend to think of May and how fractious things can get when thousands of students leave town and later discover– often while living far from Charlottesville– that the security deposit they looked forward to receiving has unaccountably shrunk, sometimes radically. 

I write more columns on landlord-tenant disputes than on any other kind of business transaction (and yes, that includes rogue towing companies). What makes these conflicts especially frustrating is that, in most cases, two simple things can short-circuit later disagreement over the property's condition: taking pictures and filling out forms that describe the condition of the property today. 

Don't think it's worth the bother? It is– and not just for tenants, either; a set of clear, sufficiently detailed pictures of every room (as well as porches, front and back yards, and any other structures the tenant will have access to) can be just as valuable for a landlord whose tenants aren't inclined to uphold their end of the deal. 

But let's focus here on what renters can do to establish the property's condition from the beginning. In addition to getting good, well-lighted pictures (or making a video), fill out a move-in report. If you don't want to create your own form, you can pick one up at Student Legal Services at UVA, or Google "tenant move-in report," and you'll find one on the city website for Gaithersburg, Maryland. 

Once you have your pictures or videos and have completed the move-in report, mail copies to your landlord by certified mail. Include a note saying that if anything seems open to dispute, the landlord should contact you immediately. Stay on top of this; for one thing, it signals that you take the transaction seriously, and expect the same in return. 

Next, get renter's insurance if you're not already covered by your parents' homeowner's policy. Renter's insurance costs almost nothing, but can mean the difference between being able to replace lost or damaged items and having to go without– and when we're talking about such things as laptops, digital cameras, and iPods, the cost can be higher than most students are prepared to absorb. 

As Student Legal Services' website points out, it works the other way as well: If you're ever "responsible for bodily injury or property damage to others," the negligible price of a policy could be one of the best investments you ever make. 

So you've documented the property's condition and insured yourself and your stuff. Now what? Take care of the place. Few landlords who habitually rent to students, I'd wager, expect them to devote their free time to housekeeping. But they do have the right to expect that their property will suffer no more than normal wear and tear during your tenancy. 

You, on the other hand, have an equal right to expect that your security deposit will be reduced only by a fair amount for any damages beyond normal wear and tear. 

Finally, when it's close to move-out time, give your landlord plenty of notice and say that you (or, if that's not possible, a friend) will be present during the final inspection. Have your pictures or videos and move-in report on hand, and if you believe the landlord is inflating any damages, be ready to either pursue the matter– e.g., in small-claims court– or to take the loss and go into your next rental relationship a much savvier consumer. 

Do you have a consumer problem or question? Email the Fearless Consumer or write her at 100 Second Street NW, Charlottesville 22902.