Tenant Rights in Washington

Tenants in disputes with landlords are one of the most underserved populations in need of legal services.  Landlords can afford to hire attorneys and attorneys are attracted to repeat clients.  Tenants, on the other hand, are far less likely to need legal services again, and their claims are typically not large enough to entice lawyer involvement.

I have written about tenant rights, spoken to the media about claims against landlords, investigated suspicious fires that displaced tenants and destroyed their belongings, and discussed disputes with more than one hundred tenants throughout Western Washington.  One point of confusion many tenants have is what relief they are entitled to (and is practically obtainable), and what they are not.  It is impossible to address here every scenario, and the following is not intended to be legal advice, but rather, general principles often applicable to common landlord-tenant disputes.  Nothing here should take the place of or be considered as actual legal advice applicable to your case and situation.

Remedies Available to Tenants

  1. Generally, if a landlord violates his or her duties under the Residential Landlord Tenant Act (RLTA), the most common relief available is for a tenant to move out before termination of the lease agreement.  There are too many caveats and prerequisites to list here, but the points below elaborate on why moving out is the primary and most practical relief available.
  2. Even though it seems more practical than moving somewhere else, a tenant cannot always force a landlord to bring a rental up to par with your expectations under the lease, or even up to code.  Sometimes landlords cannot afford it.  Sometimes landlords do not care to rent the unit out.  This does not mean, however, that the landlord can go rent the same unit, not up to code, to another tenant.  There are significant penalties for landlords who rent a condemned dwelling.
  3. If monetary damages are available, they typically fall under one of these two categories: (1) moving expenses, and (2) deposit refund.  If a tenant is forced to move out early or on short notice, he or she may be entitled to compensation for moving expenses and other increased costs.  As for the deposit refund, the RLTA spells out very specific requirements for landlords demanding security deposits as the outset of the tenancy.  Namely, the landlord must have the tenant fill out a move-in inspection form (identifying defects in the dwelling so the tenant cannot be held responsible for them later), and the landlord must mail the tenant, within 14 days of move-out, an itemized list of deductions from the deposit, and any refund.  These issues are more complex than they sound, however, so you should consult with an attorney if you have concerns over your deposit.  More on what a landlord can charge you for below.
  4. A tenant can make a claim for damage to his or her personal property resulting from the landlord’s breach of his or her duties under the RLTA.  For instance, if a tenant reports to a landlord in writing the consistent spread of mold, and the landlord fails to reasonably begin remedying the problem within the time provided under the Act, the landlord can be liable to replace property damaged by the spread of mold, provided that the tenant also used reasonable care to prevent the mold from spreading.  On that note, as an important caveat, generally the tenant is responsible for preventing mold from growing and spreading, unless there is something about the dwelling itself that is conducive to mold growth, e.g. insufficiently sealed windows, rotted drywall or wall studs.
  5. Under most circumstances, there are no punitive damages in Washington.  This means a landlord generally cannot be punished by being forced to pay damages commensurate with the egregiousness of the conduct.  Rather, Washington law primarily allows for compensatory damages for actual losses.
  6. In most cases, emotional distress and other “non-economic” damages–those for which there is no price tag–are not recoverable in landlord-tenant disputes.

What a Landlord Can Charge For

There is considerable confusion (and sometimes worse) regarding what a landlord can and cannot charge you for, often times for landlords and their lawyers.  Here are some more general principles.  Again, nothing below should replace actual legal advice applicable to your case and situation.

  1. A tenant cannot be charged for “reasonable wear and tear.”  This term is difficult to define generally, but as an example, flattening or slight fraying of a carpet due to ordinary, repeated traveling on it.  In contrast, accidentally burning a hole in carpet is typically not reasonable wear and tear.  Generally, reasonable wear and tear refers to the natural aging of products through everyday use.  Things that are not reasonable wear and tear generally result from one specific incident.
  2. One of the most commonly disputed facts is what property damage existed prior to move-in, and what did not.  The move-in inspection form is supposed to reduce or eliminate such dispute, but it only works if tenants take it seriously and document all damage they see upon move-in.
  3. A landlord typically cannot charge you the cost of brand new carpet or a brand new appliance.  More often, the landlord can only charge the cost to replace a similarly used carpet or stove.  For instance, if a tenant ruins a carpet that is 9 years old with a 10 year expected life, the tenant will owe the landlord for the lost year, or 10% of the cost.  Often times landlords attempt to get tenants to finance “new stuff” for the unit, a tactic not supported under Washington law.  If a landlord’s property is damaged, he or she is entitled to be put in the same position he would have been in but for the damage, but not a better position, with the tenant paying for brand new carpet.

No blog post can advise you as to legal rights and steps to take in your specific situation because there are too many variables involved: the terms of the lease, the facts and evidence available, and the ordinances in any given municipality, which may be more restrictive than State law.  Because everyone should consult with a lawyer, and yet finding a lawyer is so difficult for tenants, I’ve compiled a list of tenant resources below.