The Landlord-Tenant Act says that the timeline for a landlord to begin repairs doesn’t start until they receive a written request from tenants. It’s a good idea to document that the repair request has been sent and received by sending the letter both certified and regular first class mail, and keeping a copy for your own records. A tenant can also personally deliver the letter, but it is a good idea to have a witness present to confirm it was delivered, or have the landlord sign and date a copy that you keep. Always keep a copy of the letter. Documenting that the landlord received the letter is very important because other legal remedies only become available after the landlord has received the letter. It’s also a very good idea to document the severity of the repair problems by taking photographs with a copy of the day’s newspaper in each frame to prove the date.
It is okay to notify your landlord verbally of a repair problem, but it’s important to follow up with a written letter. Always keep a copy of the letter as this documentation may protect you from claims that you didn’t send notice of request for repairs.
One remedy under the law, repair and deduct, requires that you also include an estimate of how much you think the repair would cost to fix. See below for more detailed information on the risks and benefits of repair and deduct as a legal remedy.
State law lays out specific timeframes in which the landlord must take action to begin the repairs once having received written notice. They are:
Note that the law requires the landlord to take action to take remedial action to begin the repairs within the timeline, and to complete the repairs promptly. It does not necessarily mean the landlord must complete the repairs within the above stated timelines.
If the landlord has not begun the repair within these timeframes, tenants have a few options under the law. They each require a specific legal process and each have their limitations. See step 4 below for more options to consider. For detailed information about each step, see the Washington Law Help document Tenants’ Repair Remedies.
The law allows tenants to break their lease and move with no penalty if the landlord has taken no action to begin the repairs during the timeframes required and within a reasonable time. (The Landlord Tenant Act doesn’t define reasonable time.) The required repair must also be substantial enough to warrant the tenant moving out of the unit. The tenant must give the landlord written notice of their intent to vacate the premises. Before breaking your lease, consult with an attorney for advice on how to proceed in your specific situation.
However, there are some risks associated with this remedy. This option may not be helpful if you are a month-to-month tenant or do not have the option to move. Even though this right is laid out clearly in the law, your landlord may not recognize your right to break your lease due to unmade repairs and may try to withhold your deposit and/or charge you rent and penalties for breaking the lease. Since these laws are self-enforced, it’s up to you to get the documentation you need to protect yourself against a landlord’s claims. The landlord may send you a bill, take you to Small Claims Court, or send you to collections, claiming that you broke your lease. If you can, try and negotiate with your landlord before you leave to get something in writing, signed by the landlord, stating that you are released from your lease on a specific date with no further financial obligation.
RCW 59.18.090 states the tenant can break the lease after the appropriate timeframe expires starting from when the landlord received a written repair request and the repair still goes on uncompleted “within a reasonable time.” The Landlord-Tenant Act does not state what is “reasonable.” Anytime you are considering breaking a lease, it is important to consult with an attorney. If possible, document the landlord’s attempt to repair if it is inadequate to fix the problem. Tenants may have a stronger case to break the lease based on the severity of the need for repair. For example, having no hot water or heat may have a different standard of reasonableness than replacing a cabinet.
If you must break your lease, it is best practice to:
Be aware that landlords may post a claim on your credit that you have broken the lease, which will make it extremely difficult for you to rent in the future. You may be able to, with time and effort, remove this from your credit record if it was placed there inappropriately. See Credit & Collections for more information.
In certain cases, tenants may also make the repairs themselves if the landlord has not begun the repair within the specified timeframes. There are specific limitations on the amount a tenant can spend and there is a specific process required. See Washington Law Help’s Tenants: What to do if Your Rental Needs Repairs for detailed information. You cannot use repair and deduct for cosmetic repairs. Repair and deduct may not be useful for tenants who cannot afford the cost of the repair up front, or for extensive repairs that will cost above the legally allotted amounts. There could be potential consequences if the repairs are not made by an appropriately certified individual or if the repairs alter the unit in a substantial way.
Even if you follow the law to the letter, your rights to use repair and deduct may not be respected by your landlord and they may serve you a 14-day pay or vacate notice. If the landlord does so you may decide to pay all of your rent, including the amount you were going to deduct for repairs, under protest and sue the landlord in Small Claims Court for the cost of the repairs.
Some tenants choose not to open themselves up to being served a “14-Day Pay or Vacate Notice” by skipping the step of deducting the rent from the landlord and instead writing a demand letter for compensation from their landlord. If the landlord refuses the tenant can also pursue that money in Small Claims Court. Before using any of the repair remedies above, tenants should consult with an attorney to get advice and information on their specific situation.
This requires a specific legal process which is very complicated and extremely difficult to do effectively. See detailed information at Tenants: What to do if Your Rental Needs Repairs.
You may be able to go to court to ask a judge to issue an order to reduce your rent based on the landlord’s refusal to make necessary repairs. Such a court order would reduce your future rent payments until the landlord can show to the court completion of the repairs. This would prevent a landlord from trying to evict you if the court order gave permission to pay reduced rent. The court or arbitrator must first specify a time period in which the landlord may opt to do repairs before the tenant begins them. To seek legal advice on this process, review the Legal Assistance Guide.
Since laws regarding repairs have their limitations, and are self-enforced, you may want to access resources to gain leverage in your negotiations with your landlord. Below are some more options you can try to persuade your landlord to make repairs necessary in your unit.
Many counties in Washington have mediation services that assist landlords and tenants to resolve disputes. Mediators know landlord-tenant laws and may be able to assist you in the process of negotiating with your landlord. It is important to know that starting this process may not necessarily be well received by your landlord, and could raise potential issues with your landlord, including retaliation. Find out more about mediation at Resolution Washington. Many of these services are free or low cost.
Many cities have Code Enforcement inspectors that will come out to ensure that residential units are in compliance with local building codes. Typically Code Enforcement will want you to first go through the initial repair process of notifying the landlord in writing of the need for a repair and to wait the appropriate timeframe. Response varies from city to city, and not all municipalities agree to do inspections.
Be aware that if your unit lacks water or electricity, or any other problem that makes it unlivable, it could be condemned by the city. If the unit is condemned, you will be required to vacate the unit. Call Code Enforcement to describe your situation and ask them what actions they are likely to take so that you can gather more information before you make the decision to file a complaint.
Some municipalities will be able to impose fines on the landlord, or otherwise penalize code violations. If the city provides inspections, be sure to ask for a copy of their report as this documentation can be very helpful.
The Seattle Department of Construction and Inspection (SDCI) can be reached at 206-684-5700. Search for your city code enforcement office online or call City Hall and ask for the office that enforces building codes. They are otherwise known as the Planning, Development, or Building Code Enforcement departments.
Warranty of habitability is implied by both case law and the residential landlord-tenant act. The warranty of habitability is the landlord’s guarantee that residential property is safe enough to live in. If the unit is partially or totally uninhabitable because the landlord failed to make needed repairs, the tenant may be able to sue in Small Claims Court for a partial or total rent reduction for the period the unit was unlivable. See Warranty of Habitability for more information.
Bring evidence to document the severity of the repairs that may help the judge determine the appropriate amount of rent reduction to award. Thorough documentation of the severity of the repair is useful, including code inspection reports, witness reports and photographs. This also may be useful as leverage in your negotiations with your landlord. It is important to note that there may be potential consequences for suing your landlord while you are living in the unit. Your landlord may decide to countersue you in Small Claims Court for any costs they believe you owe. Additionally, they may take retaliatory action against you, including terminating your tenancy. Speak with an attorney for advice and information on how best to proceed.
Tenants Union Tenant Counselors are not attorneys, and this information should not be considered legal advice. Please read our full Tenant Union Disclaimer.