Best Practices and Tips for Tenants
1) Document All Communications with Your Landlord in Writing
All repair requests must be in writing (RCW 59.18.070). Always keep a copy of your communications with your landlord and proof of mailing, and be sure to get copies of all documents that you sign. You can prove that the letter was sent and received by sending it via email, regular first class mail, and certified mail, return receipt requested. Be sure and keep a copy for your own records. You can also hand deliver the letter and ask your landlord to sign and date your copy of the letter. You can also ask a reliable third party to witness your delivery of the notice to the landlord.
Document all agreements between you and your landlord and any commitments your landlord makes to you, especially payment arrangements. All agreements should be signed and dated by both you and your landlord.
2) Always Get Receipts for Money Paid to the Landlord
State law requires landlords to provide tenants with receipts for rent (or any payment) if they are requested (RCW 59.18.063). You can also document payments by sending them certified mail or making a photocopy of the check or money order before you send it to the landlord, and sending it with a letter stating the amount paid.
Whenever possible, pay using money orders or cashier’s checks instead of cash, and make copies of the money order after it’s filled out but before it’s separated from the stub.
Whenever possible mark checks and money orders “For April [or appropriate month] Rent in Full Only” and keep a copy. This documents that your payment can only be used for rent in the proper month and not for other fees.
3) Do Not Withhold Rent if the Landlord is Not Making Repairs
Tenants must be current in rent in order to access the repair remedies written into the law. Even if the repairs are extremely severe, withholding rent will leave renters vulnerable to eviction. For more information on your rights to get repairs made, see Repairs.
4) Document the Condition of Your Unit When You Move In and Move Out
You can defend yourself against wrongful damage charges after you move out by thoroughly documenting the unit’s condition when you move in and when you vacate. Take detailed photographs of the unit’s condition upon move and move out. Including a copy of the day’s newspaper visible in each frame will prove the date the photo was taken. Small claims court judges may not accept camera date stamps as documentation because they can be tampered with.
Landlords are not required to do move-out inspections. However, you may ask the landlord to walk through the unit with you upon move-out and provide you with a copy of the signed inspection report at the end. Be sure to give your landlord a forwarding address for yourself or a dependable friend when you vacate.
5) Eviction Always Requires a Court Process
Verbal eviction notices are not valid in Washington State. All notices must be in writing and follow a specific legal process (RCW 59.12). In addition, lockouts are illegal (RCW 59.18.290). You can call the police if your landlord has locked you out of your unit or removed your belongings without going through a court process. See Eviction for more detail.
6) Protect Yourself by Verifying When You Move Out of a Unit
To vacate a unit in a month-to-month rental agreement, the landlord must receive written notice from the tenant 20 days prior to the end of the rental period (RCW 59.18.200). For example, the landlord must receive written notice by the 10th of the month if you want to vacate on the 30th of the month (if the month has 30 days in it). It is best to give notice to vacate on or before the 8th of the month.
You must vacate your unit by the end of the month that you gave notice. If you stay even one day past the vacate date, the landlord can legally charge you for the entire following month’s rent. The landlord is not obligated to prorate your rent upon move-out, but you may be able to negotiate with them to get the rent prorated. Remember, get it in writing! If you are on a lease, you normally cannot vacate until the lease expires. See Vacating for further details.
7) Landlords Can Only Enforce Rules Written in the Lease
Landlords cannot legally enforce any terms other than the ones written in your lease. The landlord cannot legally change the rules of tenancy while you’re on a lease for a specified term. Terms and conditions of the lease can only be changed by mutual agreement of landlord and tenant. Once your tenancy becomes month-to-month, your landlord can change the rules (including a rent increase) by giving you 30 days’ written notice (RCW 59.18.140).
Read the lease carefully before you sign. The landlord can enforce any and all reasonable terms written in the contract as long as they don’t contradict any state or local laws. No lease provision can waive the rights listed in RCW 59.18.230. The landlord will try to create lease terms favorable to their own interests. Understand the terms of the lease before you sign the contract. See Rental Agreements for details.
8) There is No Rent Control in Washington State
Once your lease term has ended, there are virtually no restrictions on how much your landlord can raise your rent. All rent increases require 30 days’ written notice. See Rental Agreements for more information. However, Seattle tenants are entitled to 60 days’ written notice of an increase in rent or housing costs if it is above 10% in a 12-month period (SMC 7.24). See Seattle Laws for details.
9) All Seattle Tenants Have Just Cause Eviction Protection
Seattle landlords must have a Just Cause reason to evict you from a property (SMC 22.206). Just Cause evictions include nonpayment of rent, noncompliance with lease terms, chronically late rent payments, and the landlord wishing to occupy the unit themselves. There are 18 total just causes. The notice required for each Just Cause reason varies from 20-90 days. For a list of all Just Cause reasons and notice timeframes, see Just Cause Eviction Protection. Outside of city limits, landlords can ask tenants not protected by term leases to vacate with only 20 days’ written notice.
10) Survivors of Domestic Violence Have Additional Protections Under the Law
Survivors of domestic violence cannot be discriminated against because of their status. Survivors also have the right to legally break their lease to escape an abuser, but must follow the proper legal process. In addition, landlords cannot refuse to rent to you because of your status as a domestic violence survivor. For more information, see Landlord Tenant Issues for Survivors of Domestic Violence, Sexual Assault and/or Stalking from Washington Law Help.
11) Prioritize Paying Rent above Other Expenses
Housing loss makes it virtually impossible to maintain stability in other areas of life. Don’t take any chances with your housing. Document every payment and communication with your landlord to protect yourself against housing loss.
12) Tell Your Story to Improve Tenants’ Rights in Your Community!
Your elected officials need to know how renters are being impacted by rental laws in Seattle and Washington State. You can contact the Seattle Mayor and City Council to tell them your story and improvements you’d like to see for renters. You can also call the Washington State Legislative Hotline at 1.800.562.6000 and tell them your story. You can leave a message for your state Senator, two Representatives and the Governor there. Also, you can find email addresses and information about upcoming bills and ordinances that impact renters at the Tenants Union, the Seattle Department of Planning and Development and Washington State Legislature websites.
Please also see Tenant Action for ways to get involved at the Tenants Union and build power for tenants in your community.