Since landlord-tenant laws are self enforced, it is up to you as a tenant to proactively take steps to ensure the conditions of the unit are thoroughly documented when you move in and when you vacate. The following questions outline your rights regarding the use of your deposit and give you information on how to protect yourself from deposit loss. You can also read the Washington Law Help document Recovering Your Security Deposit. Click links below to read the laws that pertain to your situation.
1) Is the landlord asking you to pay a holding deposit to secure tenancy?
If a prospective landlord takes a deposit from you to hold a unit before you move in, they must also provide you with a receipt and a written statement outlining the conditions under which that money is refundable. If the prospective tenant moves into the unit, the landlord must credit the amount towards the security deposit or first month’s rent. If the tenant chooses not to occupy the unit, the landlord may legally keep the holding deposit as long as it follows the conditions laid out in their written statement. If a landlord violates these requirements, they may be liable for the holding deposit amount, as well as a penalty up to two times the fee or deposit, court costs and attorneys’ fees.
Section 8 (Housing Choice) Voucher tenants have particular considerations regarding holding deposits. The landlord may not withhold a deposit or fee from a Section 8 tenant if the unit fails a tenant-based rental assistance program housing inspection by a qualified inspector. The landlord may also choose to no longer hold the unit for a Section 8 renter if the housing inspection did not occur within 10 days of the collection of the fee or deposit. If the unit fails inspection, after notifying the tenant that the unit did not pass, the landlord must promptly send the tenant the refund of the deposit or fee by mail with prepaid postage.
2. Did the landlord provide you with a move-in checklist?
In order to legally take a deposit from a tenant, the landlord must provide a written checklist that details the conditions of the unit at the beginning of the tenancy. The checklist must be signed by both the landlord and tenant. According to It must contain a detailed list of the conditions of the property, including the structural components, flooring, windows, and all appliances supplied by the landlord. Tenants have the right to request one free replacement copy of the checklist.
If the landlord takes a deposit from you when you move in, but does not provide you with the written checklist, the landlord is liable to you for the entire amount of the deposit. Deposit Negotiation below details information on how to pursue your landlord for the return of your deposit money.
Before signing a lease, it is a good idea to survey the unit first. Make sure it is the exact unit you will move into, and not a model unit. Test the faucets, light switches, toilets and appliances to make sure they are in good working order. Check the seals around the bathtub or shower. Make sure the bathroom is properly ventilated to prevent mold. Look under all sinks for mold or leaks. Scrutinize the condition of the carpet and walls. Mark on the checklist all stains or frayed edges of the carpet or dents, holes and flaking paint on walls. You may also want to take detailed photographs of the condition of the unit upon move in. Place a copy of the day’s newspaper in each frame in order to prove the date. Date stamps on cameras or cell phone cameras may not be accepted by Small Claims Court judges because they can be altered. Photos with proper date proof can help document the condition of the unit when you move in. If you notice problems that the landlord agrees to fix prior to moving in, be sure to get it in writing with approximate dates for when they will make repairs. If the landlord never provided a move-in checklist, they may have waived their right to withhold your deposit. However, this may not prevent them from still attempting to charge you for damages.
It is very common for a tenant to notice problems after having completed the checklist following move-in. The tenant should take their copy of the checklist and write in the new problems, including their initials and the date for when each new item was discovered. The tenant can request that the landlord sign the updated checklist, but the landlord is not obligated to do so.
3) Did you receive a rental agreement in writing?
Verbal rental agreements are valid in Washington State, but landlords must give tenants a rental agreement in writing in order to collect a deposit. The rental agreement must state the terms and conditions under which the deposit is refundable, as well as where the deposit is being held. You may be able to argue that your deposit has been withheld illegally if the landlord does not provide you with a written rental agreement and does not return your deposit.
4) How much is the deposit?
There is no limit on how much a landlord can charge for a deposit. Often landlords will ask for an extra deposit if you have less than perfect credit. You can find more information on the Housing Search page. If you negotiate a monthly payment plan for the deposit to spread out the costs of moving in, be sure the plan is in writing. It is very important to always get receipts for money you pay to the landlord. If you don’t have documentation, the landlord could claim you never paid your deposit. Make copies of these receipts and related documentation, and keep them in a safe place for your entire tenancy.
5) Is the landlord charging nonrefundable fees? Is any portion of the deposit considered nonrefundable?
The landlord can legally charge you fees to move into a unit. The most common fees are for cleaning. However, fees must be specifically designated as non-refundable and cannot be considered deposits. Under the law, deposits are by nature refundable. If your landlord declares a portion of the deposit as nonrefundable upon move-in, or does not specifically designate a fee as non-refundable in the rental agreement, the fee is to be treated as a refundable deposit. In addition, if the landlord charges you non-refundable fees and does not provide you with a written rental agreement, the landlord is liable for the return of those non-refundable fees.
6) Did the landlord charge you a nonrefundable cleaning fee?
The landlord cannot charge you for normal cleaning after you vacate if you already paid a nonrefundable cleaning fee when you moved in. However, if the unit required extra cleaning due to tenant-caused damage, the landlord may be able to charge you for additional cleaning costs.
7) Is your deposit being held in a trust account?
The landlord must hold your deposit money in a trust account and provide you with the name and address of the financial institution. The landlord is legally entitled to any interest garnered on the deposit money unless another agreement is reached between you. If the property is sold, your deposit money should be transferred from the old owner to the new owner, who must provide the name and address of the financial institution where the money is being held. You may want to check with your new landlord to ensure that the deposit money has been transferred.
See Deposit Process for information on how to recover your security deposit.