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Chapter Six: Residential Leases

Disclaimer: This chapter includes information about the law. This is general information and is not legal advice that applies to your specific situation. Additionally, laws change, and the City of Seattle and contributors to this manual do not guarantee that representations of the law are complete and up-to-date. If you need legal advice -- information that applies to your specific situation -- you should consult a lawyer. See Chapter 4 for information additional information on when to hire a lawyer. Additionally, the following organizations provide free or low cost legal assistance for landlord tenant matters:

  • King County Bar Association Housing Justice Poject ahttp://www.kcba.org/legalhelp/hjp/clients.aspx (206) 267-7090
  • The Northwest Justice Project at http://www.nwjustice.org.

This chapter primarily focuses on the ins and outs of residential leases. A lease is a legally binding contract between a landlord and/or property owner and a tenant for a specific period of time. Leases define the rights and responsibilities of both parties, and include information such as rent fees and restrictions on use of space.

In Washington State, the Residential Landlord and Tenant Act is the primary law governing relationships between residential landlords and tenants. This chapter is not meant to serve as a substitute for legal advice, but to raise fundamental points about signing a lease. The Washington State Bar Association website is an excellent resource to determine the law and if and when to seek legal council. www.wsba.org.


Residential Landlord and Tenant Act

Residential Landlord and Tenant Act defines the rights and obligations of both landlord and tenant in a residential lease. The ordinance covers issues such as security deposits, maintenance, subleases and evictions and it applies to both written and oral leases. On the City of Seattle Department of Planning and Development website there is a comprehensive document which outlines the Landlord -Tenant laws for both Washington State and for the City of Seattle.

It is in tenants' best interest to obtain a written lease. While some oral leases are enforceable in Washington (such as a month to month lease), certain leases must be in writing to be enforceable (for example, a lease with a term of greater than one year, including options to extend). Additionally, written leases are crucial in court disputes over lease terms. Beware of landlords who refuse to enter into a written lease.

In addition, keep in mind that the Landlord - Tenant Act does not apply to all leases, for example

a commercial or industrial lease, or occupancy under an agreement to purchase. For a list of leases exempted from the Landlord - Tenant Act, see http://apps.leg.wa.gov/rcw/default.aspx?cite=59.18.040.

TIP: Always demand a written lease!

Key Statute Components

This section discusses key components of the Washington State Landlord-Tenant Act.

  • Security Deposits and Pre-paid rent
  • Lockouts and Retaliation
  • Late Rent
  • Maintenance and Repairs
  • Assignments and Sublets
  • Renewing the Lease
  • Landlord's Responsibilities

Security Deposits and Prepaid Rent

Tenants pay security deposits to landlords in order to cover the costs of repairs and/or any unpaid rent. The amount varies, depending on the circumstances. Ordinarily, a residential landlord will ask for a deposit equal to one or 1.5 months' rent although in Washington State landlords are able to specify any amount they deem appropriate for a deposit. On occasion, landlords charge more -- for example, if the tenant represents an increased risk due to a history of unstable employment, past rental problems (i.e. consistently late payments) or bad credit. In Washington State, a landlord may not collect a deposit unless the rental agreement is in writing and includes terms and conditions under which the landlord may withhold all or part of the deposit. If a fee is collected that is non-refundable it must be stated in writing in the lease agreement.

Basics:

  • Landlords must give tenants a receipt for a security deposit that includes the owner's name, the date it was received and a description of the unit. The landlord or person collecting the deposit on behalf of the landlord must sign the receipt.
  • A checklist or statement describing the condition of the unit must be filled out. The landlord and the tenant must sign it and the tenant must be given a copy.
  • The deposit must be placed in a trust account or in a bank or escrow company. The tenant must be informed in writing where the deposits are being kept.
  • If any amount is deducted from the security deposit prior to its return, the landlord must provide a written, itemized statement of the deduction amounts within 14 days of vacancy. If your landlord does not provide a written statement of deductions within 14 days of your move-out, s/he cannot take any deductions.
  • A security deposit must be delivered to you personally or placed in the mail to your last known address within 14 days of your move-out. If the landlord intentionally refuses to refund the security deposit, you can sue for twice the amount of the deposit and any legal fees or other costs incurred while trying to secure the return of your deposit funds.
  • If you damage the apartment and your security deposit does not cover the cost of the repairs, the landlord can sue you for additional monies to cover the balance of the repair costs. The landlord may not withhold your deposit for normal wear and tear to the rental property.
  • Landlords are also at liberty to request first and last month's rent, charge a non-refundable cleaning fee , however, all of these charges must be stipulated in the lease in writing. A landlord may charge a prospective tenant for the customary or actual costs of a screening or background check, however the charges must be agreed to in writing and the landlord must advise the prospective about the nature of the screening and the person's right to dispute the result.

Lockouts and Retaliation

In Seattle, lockouts are illegal in any type of residential rental unit. No exceptions to this law apply. Key information about lockouts and retaliation:

  • Changing locks and removing doors to a residential rental unit are prohibited.
  • Cutting off heat, utilities or water service is considered to be a lockout. This does not include interruptions to utility service caused by the tenant's failure to pay bills or by the utility company's inability to provide service due to blackouts, water main breaks, etc.
  • Removing windows, fuse box, furniture or other fixtures.
  • Removing a tenant from the premises except through the formal court eviction process.
  • Evicting, increasing rent, or threatening a tenant for reporting code violations to DPD or the Seattle Police Department.
  • Entering the tenant's unit without the tenant's consent , except in an emergency. Landlord should give at least two days notice of a specific time for entering for repairs, services or inspection, or a one day notice when showing the unit to prospective purchasers or tenants.
  • Prohibiting a tenant or a tenant's authorized agent accompanied by the tenant from distributing information in the building, posting information on bulletin boards in accordance with building rules, contacting other tenants, assisting tenants to organize and hold meetings in community rooms or common areas.

In addition, a tenant is prohibited from:

  • Changing or adding locks to unit doors.
  • Removing owner supplied fixtures, furniture, or services.
  • Willfully or negligently damaging the building or rental unit.

Late Rent

If you can't pay your rent on time, contact your landlord immediately to discuss your situation and alternative payment arrangements. This might prevent your landlord from taking further action If non-payment persists, your landlord may commence the eviction process.

In Washington State, your lease agreement states the due date of your rent payment and unless written into the agreement does not allow for a grace period. Additionally the law does not specifically address late fees, landlords can assess them and can set the amount, however the law states that they must be "reasonable". There is a bit of fine print here, however, in Washington State terms of a lease cannot be changed during the term of the lease, so if the assessment of late fees is not outlined in the lease, the landlord cannot assess them. Changes to the lease must be mutually agreed upon between landlord and tenant in writing.

If you are renting without a contract/lease (month to month) landlords cannot assess late fees without putting the rule in writing and delivering it to the tenant 30 days before the next rent check is due. In cases of month to month rental situations the City of Seattle has a Just Cause Eviction Ordinance which specifies the only reason for which a tenant may be required to move and requires owners to state the reason in writing for ending the tenancy when giving a termination notice. Good reasons include:

  • The tenant fails to pay rent within three days of a notice to pay rent or vacate.
  • The owner has notified the tenant in writing of overdue rent at least 4 times in a 12 month period.

Maintenance and Repairs

The law requires landlords to provide a safe and healthy living environment compliant with the Seattle Building Code. Tenants are responsible for any property damage as a result of their and their guests' activities. If your landlord does not abide by his/her maintenance and repairs duties, consider the following actions:

  • Request in writing that the landlord make repairs within a specified period of time.
  • State in the notice that if the landlord fails to make the repairs within 14 days, you will contact either the City of Seattle Department of Planning and Development or the Seattle Police Department to file a complaint.
  • After providing the landlord with written notice of the need for repairs, pay for the repairs yourself and deduct from your rent; HOWEVER, you MUST follow certain procedures to do this. See RCW 59.18.100 or the City of Seattle Department of Planning and Development memo at www.cityofseattle.net/DPD/cms/groups/pan/@pan/@publication/documents/web_informational/dpdp_018328.pdf

Assignments and Sublets

If you must move out of the unit before the lease expires, you ordinarily may assign or sublet the apartment to another person. Although an assignment is different from a sublease, both typically require the landlord's consent. You must review your written lease to determine the specific requirements.

Subletting means granting occupancy of the unit to another person or subtenant. You act as a pseudo-landlord to the new tenant, but remain obligated to your landlord - legally and financially - until the lease expires or is terminated.

Assigning a lease involves assigning your rights and obligations to another person: the assignee tenant. Upon the effective date of the assignment, you are no longer obligated under the lease, legally or financially.

Residential leases usually provide that the landlord must approve of any proposed subtenant, and that the tenant must still meet the rental standards of the apartment. For example, if the landlord requires a certain amount of monthly income to rent the unit, the subtenant must also meet those standards.

Renewing the Lease

At the end of your lease term, you can either renew the term for a specified period of time or stay on as a month-to-month tenant with the landlord's consent. As a month-to-month tenant, the terms and conditions of the original lease still apply; the only difference is that the lease term is legitimate only one month at a time.

Typically, if a tenant is holding over in a month-to-month tenancy, the monthly rent will be increased by an amount specified in the initial lease. A month-to-month tenancy is still fully covered by the Ordinance. In addition, both tenant and landlord are still responsible for providing the other party with at least a 30-day notice to terminate the lease.

Landlord's Responsibilities

The Ordinance outlines landlords' responsibilities and rules to follow. Key points:

  • Landlords cannot force tenants to renew a lease agreement more than 90 days before the existing agreement terminates.
  • Landlords must provide at least 30 days' written notice of his/her intention not to renew a rental agreement. If the landlord fails to give the required written notice, you may remain in the dwelling unit for 60 days under the same terms and conditions as the last month of the existing agreement.
  • Leases can not include prohibitive provisions such as, "no artists allowed."

Making Art in Residential Spaces

Artists' living spaces often serve a dual live/work purpose. Key points for those who work in a rented residential space include:

  • In 2003, the Seattle Council approved artist live/work spaces in residential-commercial and commercial zones. For more information on artist work/live space from the Department of Planning and Development see Client Assistance Memo (CAM) 114 "Establishing an Artist's Studio/Dwelling in an Existing Building. http://www.cityofseattle.net/dclu/Publications/cam/cam114.pdf
  • Your landlord can prohibit certain types of activities, and failure to abide by the lease may result in your eviction.
  • The Zoning Ordinance and Building Code prohibits certain types of art production in a residential space. See Chapter 13: Important Information from the Department of Planning and Development for more information on the ins and outs of creating art in residential spaces.
  • Ensure that your renter's insurance policy covers your art and/or business activities. See Chapter 19: Insurance

Eviction

If problems or disagreements between you and your landlord arise, s/he might seek to evict you. Eviction, also called an unlawful detainer action, is a legal proceeding that, if successful, terminates your right to live in the rental property. If you receive a summons/complaint for unlawful detainer, you should contact an attorney promptly. The law gives you specific timelines to respond and take actions to protect your interests, and you must act quickly. If you are not able to afford a lawyer, contact the King County Bar Association Housing Justice Poject, (206) 267-7090 or the Northwest Justice Project.

The following is some general information about the law of eviction, but is not intended to be legal advice. By law, landlords must follow a series of procedures before removing tenants. Causes for eviction include:

  • Non-payment of rent;
  • Violating the lease;
  • Damaging the apartment beyond normal wear and tear;
  • The building is damaged, destroyed, or foreclosed;

Before a landlord can sue for eviction, regardless of whether or not you have a written lease, the landlord must serve you with a written notice (a "summons") stating that s/he is commencing eviction proceedings. This is the first step in a legal eviction. The landlord must follow specific requirements for serving you with the summons. Notification can be accomplished by:

  • The landlord must deliver the notice to you in person if you are home. If you are not home a copy can be given to an adult or person with reasonable discretion, who also resides there, and a second copy must be mailed to you at your usual mailing address that is not your workplace or a p.o. box. If the property is empty a notice can be posted in a conspicuous place on the property and a second copy mailed to you.

Landlords must provide notice of how much money is owed, if applicable, and provide a specific timeframe for payment. The following are the legal timeframes landlords must abide by for eviction notice periods:

  • 3 day notice to pay rent or move out.
  • 3 day notice to move out for destroying property or creating a nuisance including drug related activity, gang related activity or unlawful use of a firearm or other deadly weapon that endangers others in or near the premises and that results in an arrest.
  • 3 day notice for trespassers
  • 10 day notice to comply with terms of rental agreement or move out.

Seattle's Just Cause Eviction Ordinance provides for additional notice periods:

  • 20 day notice to terminate your tenancy with a "just cause" in Seattle and only if other notice is not required.
  • 90 day notice to convert to a condominium.
  • 90 day notice for major renovation, rehabilitation, or change of use.
  • 60 day notice for sale of a single family home.
  • Once the eviction process begins, you can be sued for either possession of the apartment, payment of rent, or both. You can also be sued for court costs and attorney fees.

Your landlord cannot remove you or your belongings from the property without a court order. However, only a King County Sheriff can physically remove your belongings from the premises. If the landlord attempts to personally remove your belongings, even if you have stayed beyond the move-out date, call the police immediately.

If you are served with a complaint through a forcible entry or detainer (i.e. an eviction notice) you should immediately consult an attorney. If you cannot afford an attorney, the resources in Chapter 4: Professional Services, as well as those found in earlier in this section on eviction, point you to organizations that offer reduced cost and/or free legal counsel.

Tenants' Rights Resources

Tenants' rights organizations can help you to understand your rights and responsibilities as a tenant. Review the law resources in Chapter 4: Professional Services and turn to Chapter 24: When Disputes Arrive to learn how to handle disputes without resorting to the legal system.

If you are facing an eviction, The Tenants Union of Washington State provides resources for avoiding being evicted: http://tenantsunion.org/rights/27/JustCauseEvictionOrdinance.



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