How to Beat the 'Move In, Move Out' Trap

About a third of us live in rental homes and if that’s the case for you, you probably had to pay some sort of security deposit. And the day will come when you’ll need to move out, and I’ll bet you’ll want that money back!  But your landlord may have other ideas. So how can you make sure your security deposit is returned?

Here with the answers is Real Estate expert John Adams:

Q: John, you claim that the number one complaint about landlords in Georgia is that they keep the security deposit at the end of a lease, even when there’s no damage. How can that be true?

A: That may be more of a perception than it is a solid fact, but there are certainly plenty of disagreements between landlords and tenants over the return of the security deposit. It happens with surprising frequency, but a dispute can easily be avoided with a MOVE IN INSPECTION and a dozen or so photos.

Q: OK, let’s break this down. What is a security deposit and who gets it at the end of a lease?

In Georgia, the security deposit is paid by a tenant to a landlord to secure the tenant’s performance under the terms of the lease.

That means that if the tenant doesn’t pay the rent when it is due, the landlord can take it our of the security deposit.

Q: That seems fair.

A: In addition, at the end of the lease, the tenant agrees to return the dwelling in the same condition it is on the day they move in, except for normal wear and tear.

Most often, if there’s going to be a dispute, this is where it happens - over WHAT constitutes NORMAL WEAR and TEAR versus WHAT is DAMAGE.

Q: Well, if the landlord is holding the security deposit, it seems like he pretty much gets to decide what amount to keep and what amount to return. Is that the way it works?

A: Well, that’s not the way it’s SUPPOSED to work.

Georgia law deals very clearly with rental security deposits. And as long as both landlord and tenant follow the requirements of the law, the system usually works very well. Here’s how it works:

1.  Prior to the acceptance of a security deposit, the landlord is required to give the tenant a written statement called a MOVE IN INSPECTION FORM, detailing any existing damage to the dwelling. The tenant is required to sign that form, or, if he disagrees with the list of damages, provide a written statement of the items HE feels are already damaged.

2. The law says that the MOVE IN INSPECTION FORM becomes the definitive list of existing damages once landlord and tenant agree on the condition at move-in.

3. Assuming the tenant pays his rent, all of the security deposit is to be returned at the end of the lease. That is true, UNLESS there are DAMAGES caused by the tenant or his guests that are beyond normal wear and tear.

4.  When the tenant moves out, the landlord is required to provide a written list of any damages and their estimated cost, and may deduct that amount from the security deposit. The landlord has three (3) banking days to provide that list to the tenant.

5.  If the tenant disagrees with the list of damages, he must provide a written statement of his disagreement, telling the landlord exactly what he disputes. The tenant has five (5) banking days after move out to provide that statement to the landlord.

Q: This all sounds good so far. Is there more?

6.  If either side fails to perform their duties within the timeframe specified, they give up all their rights to keep or get back any portion of the security deposit.

So the MOVE IN MOVE OUT INSPECTION form is vitally important if you hope to get back ANY of your security deposit in Georgia.

Q: What if your landlord doesn’t want to perform a MOVE IN inspection?

YOU SHOULD INSIST on a move in inspection, and if he refuses, you should perform the MOVE IN INSPECTION yourself, sign and date it, and send him a copy.

Q: Are there any loopholes in this process?


If a landlord owns TEN or fewer units, and owns the property in his own name, he is exempt from the requirements of a move in and move out inspection.

Q: So, how can a renter protect himself?

Again, YOU SHOULD INSIST on a move in inspection, and if the landlord refuses, you should perform the MOVE IN INSPECTION yourself, sign and date it, and send him a copy.

Q:  Assuming I have done all this, I had the move in inspection, and I had the move out inspection, and the landlord and I simply disagree? What happens then?

If you simply can not agree, your next step is small claims court, where you both tell your story to the judge, and let the judge decide.

Q:  Wow, sounds like a dangerous journey. Is there anything else you can do to protect yourself from a cheating landlord?

A:  My advice is to take LOTs of PHOTOS of EACH ROOM, and specifically of all EXISTING DAMAGES before you move in.  Email copies of the pictures to the landlord. Then do the same thing when you move out.  Your pictures will tell the truth.