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Know Your Rights » Moving Out » Deposits

Deposits FAQ

How long does the landlord have to return my deposit?

RCW 59.18.280 states that the landlord has 14 days from the time the rental agreement ends and the tenant vacates the unit to postmark the return of the deposit or a written statement detailing why portions of the deposit were withheld. The correspondence must be postmarked by the 14th day. The landlord must send the letter or deposit check to the forwarding address you provided them or to your last known address (usually the property you just vacated). If they do not return the deposit money or a statement detailing why it is being withheld within that timeframe, they have waived their right to keep the deposit.

The law says that a small claims judge may order a landlord to pay up to double the deposit amount if they intentionally refused to provide the written statement or deposit. This is why it’s important to keep documentation that you notified them of your forwarding address. The forwarding address can be to your new home or the address of a trusted family member or friend.

If my landlord didn’t get a statement to me in 14 days, can I still be charged for damages?

Yes. The ability for a landlord to charge damages is a completely separate legal issue from whether the landlord appropriately handled the deposit. Regardless of the status of the deposit, the landlord is legally entitled to pursue a tenant for damages (either actual or unfounded claims). The landlord may decide to pursue this matter in Small Claims Court, hire an attorney, or refer the matter to a collection agency.

More often than not a landlord will send you to collections for debts not covered by the deposit. If the collection action proceeds, this will greatly harm your credit and limit your future housing and employment opportunities. Other landlords can use your credit record as a determining factor in whether or not to rent to you. If you disagree with the amount owed, always write a letter of dispute to the collections agency. Send the letter within the first 30 days you hear from the collection agency in order to preserve all your legal rights. It is important that you do not ignore collection notices. Please see Disputing a Debt with a Collection Agency or Washington LawHelp’s Debtors’ Rights: Dealing with Collection Agencies.

Can the landlord require me to have the carpets professionally cleaned before I move out? Can the landlord legally charge me for carpet cleaning or repainting the walls when I move out?

Take a look at the lease to see what specific requirements, if any, the landlord requires upon move-out. If you signed a lease agreeing to professionally clean the carpets, you may be charged for it if you don’t comply. If the lease doesn’t have specific requirements, it defaults to the state law, RCW 59.18.130 which requires renters to return the unit to the condition it was in upon move-in, minus normal wear and tear.

The landlord may charge for carpet cleaning or painting if there are damages caused by the tenant beyond normal wear and tear. Providing documentation of the condition of the unit may be useful in the case that the tenant and landlord disagree whether the damages were normal wear and tear or caused by the tenant.

What kinds of deposits can the landlord collect from me when I move in?

Landlords regularly collect security, damage and pet deposits. Some landlords also collect deposits to hold a unit for a prospective tenant. Landlords must provide a written agreement that states the amount, terms and conditions under which this money is refundable.

What’s the difference between a security deposit and a damage deposit?

A security deposit is a deposit to secure fulfillment of all the terms of a lease. A damage deposit can be used to cover the cost of physical damages to the unit caused by the tenants or guests of the tenants, and may also be used to cover any monetary damages against your landlord as a result of the tenancy, such as unpaid back rent. Look to the written rental agreement to see exactly how your landlord intends to use the deposit money you paid when you moved into the unit. RCW 59.18.260 states that the rental agreement must specifically state the terms and conditions under which the deposit money is refundable, and the landlord can only deduct money in accordance with those terms and state laws.

If I moved out without giving proper notice, can the landlord both keep my entire deposit and charge me for the following month’s rent?

Generally, the landlord cannot require you to forfeit your entire security deposit. The rental agreement cannot include a provision that automatically forfeits a security deposit for a violation of the rental agreement. (Keep in mind that a lease that ends at its term, such as a one-year lease, does not require either party to give notice.) Many times a lease will state the tenant waives a refund of their deposit if they fail to give the proper 20-day termination notice when they vacate the unit. This language may be an illegal waiver of your rights under the landlord tenant act. Under RCW 59.18.230(2) law prohibits a lease to include language that could waive those rights.

If a tenant is on a lease and terminates early or without proper notice, the tenant will likely be liable for the rent for the remainder of the rental period or until the unit is re-rented, whichever comes first. The landlord has a duty to make a good faith effort to re-rent the unit, but beyond that, there are no specific requirements for the effort the landlord must put into re-renting the unit.

What if my landlord didn’t give me a written rental agreement, or didn’t do a move-in checklist with me?

RCW 59.18.260 requires that in order to collect deposits from tenants, landlords must put the rental agreement in writing and include the terms and conditions under which the money is refundable. It also requires that the landlord provide a written statement detailing the condition of the unit upon move in. If the landlord collects a deposit without providing the written checklist to the tenant at the beginning of the tenancy, the landlord is liable to the tenant for the amount of the deposit. You can negotiate with your landlord or pursue a small claim lawsuit against them to recover your money if it is not refunded to you after you move out. If the landlord does not provide you with a written rental agreement at the commencement of tenancy, and does not return your deposit after you vacate, you may be able to argue that your deposit has been withheld illegally.

What if my landlord both did not provide me with a move in checklist upon move in, and did not provide me with a written statement regarding the use of my deposit within the 14-day timeline?

A tenant is entitled to pursue the return of deposit money from the landlord under both RCW 59.18.260 and RCW 59.18.280.

What kinds of fees can the landlord charge me?

There are currently no state laws restricting the kind of fees a landlord can charge a tenant upon move-in, nor is there any limit on how much those fees can be. Look to your rental agreement to see what kind of fees the landlord charges. However, RCW 59.18.140 requires that tenants follow all rules of tenancy that are reasonable. You may be able to argue that excessive fees are beyond what is reasonable for a landlord to charge. For instance, an excessive fee might be $100-a-day late fees, or a $300 monthly fee to rent a washer and dryer. In general, if you have the option, do not sign a rental agreement that has any terms or conditions that you are unwilling or unable to conform to. It is much more difficult to argue against a rule of tenancy once you are committed in a lease.

If the landlord charges you any kind of fee during your tenancy without a written lease, the landlord is liable for the amount of any fees collected as non-refundable. If the written rental agreement does not state that a fee is “non-refundable”, the fee is to be treated as a refundable deposit (RCW 59.18.285).

Can a deposit be nonrefundable?

RCW 59.18.285 says that 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.

Does my landlord have to show me receipts for damage repairs deducted from my deposit or charged to me?

While there is no law specifically requiring that the landlord show receipts for contractors’ fees or parts for repairs that were deducted from your deposit, tenants still have the right to ask. However, the landlord must provide a tenant with a specific statement that itemizes what the deposit money was used for under RCW 59.18.280. The statement cannot be a general lump sum, or simply state “no refund.”

What is “normal wear and tear”?

There is no legal standard for normal wear and tear. Tenants can argue that wear and tear will be greater over time, and that it includes all normal uses of the premises. Again, documenting preexisting damages and taking pictures after moving out is the best practice to distinguish wear and tear from damage. See Guide to Damages and Normal Wear and Tear for more information.

If the landlord gave me a written lease, a complete move-in checklist, and a specific written statement within 14 days, does this prevent me from requesting my deposit back or disputing the charges?

No. You may still negotiate with your landlord and pursue small claims court for the return of your deposit. Some common reasons why tenants ask for their deposits back are: the damages were preexisting, the damages were not caused by tenants or tenants’ guests, the charges are unreasonably high (see above question example), or the damage is actually normal wear and tear.

What if my landlord is charging me money above and beyond my deposit amount?

The landlord may charge you for damages costing more than the amount of your deposit. RCW 59.18.060 says that a landlord cannot be held responsible to cover the costs of damages caused by tenants or their guests. You may contest these charges if the damages were preexisting or were not caused by you or your guests. Tenants may still pursue the return of their deposit if the landlord did not get a written response to them within 14 days, or if the landlord did not perform a written checklist upon move-in. The law does not prohibit a landlord from pursuing damage charges. See Washington Law Help’s Debtors’ Rights: Dealing with Collection Agencies document for more information on how to dispute a debt from a landlord.

If the statement is specifically itemized but the deductions seem very high, a tenant can call local contractors and try to get estimates for those types of repairs. For example, if the written statement from your landlord charges you $500 for a broken light switch, the tenant can try to get something in writing from local electricians stating whether that is a reasonable charge for rates in the area.

My landlord sent me a check returning only a portion of my deposit. Should I cash it if I believe that I am still owed more of the deposit back?

While cashing a deposit refund check does not explicitly waive your rights to continue to dispute the landlord’s use of the remainder of your deposit, it may be a good idea to say so in a letter to the landlord before you cash the check. You may also write on the check, “Cashing of check does not waive claim for additional amounts due.” In the case that the landlord writes “Cashing of this check constitutes full satisfaction and/or waiver of all actual or potential claims” or a similar phrase on the check, you can cross out this language and write in language similar to above. Ultimately, it would be ideal for you to wait to cash the check, though it may not have any legal impact.

What is the landlord supposed to do with my deposit money during my tenancy?

RCW 59.18.270 requires that the landlord must put all security or damage deposit money into a trust account, a bank or licensed escrow agent in Washington state. The landlord must provide the tenant with a written receipt for the deposit and the name and address of the depository, as well as inform the tenant of any change to the depository.

Is there a requirement that the landlord pay me the interest accrued on my deposit money?

No. The landlord gets to keep all interest garnered from deposit money unless otherwise agreed upon, as detailed in RCW 59.18.270.

What happens to my deposit money if the property is sold to a new landlord?

In RCW 59.18.270, landlords are required to transfer deposit money to the new landlord. That landlord must then provide the tenants with the name, address and location of the financial institution where the money is being held.

What happens to my deposit if my rental unit is being foreclosed on?

If the property goes into foreclosure and is sold at an auction the old owner must refund the deposit back to the tenant, or transfer the deposit to the new owner of the property. If the old owner fails to do either they can be liable to the tenant for twice the amount of the deposit, court or arbitration costs, and attorney’s fees.

Can I ask my landlord to use my deposit to pay for rent if I get behind?

Your landlord may agree to apply your deposit towards your rent, but it is very uncommon and they are not legally obligated to do so. Usually the landlord will want to use your deposit for possible damages to the unit first, and then begin an eviction action against you to compel you to pay the rent. If that doesn’t work and you move out, the landlord may use it for back rent if your lease states this is a valid use of a security deposit.

When I moved in, I paid last month’s rent, but my rent was raised over time. Now I’m about to vacate the unit, and the landlord is asking me to pay the difference between the two. Is that legal?

Last month’s rent payments do appreciate in value over time, and the landlord does have the right to collect the difference. Let’s say you moved into a unit 10 years ago and paid $500 for your last month’s rent. If the rent had been raised over time to be $650 a month by the time you moved out, your landlord could charge you the difference in the last month you live in the unit.

Am I entitled to get my deposit back if I break my lease?

It depends. The landlord must send a written accounting of how they used the deposit money within 14 days after the landlord learns of your abandonment of the unit. Look to the lease to see the specific terms and conditions under which the deposit is refundable. The landlord can generally use the deposit towards any unpaid rent or any damages the tenant causes to the unit during their tenancy. RCW 59.18.310 allows the landlord only to mitigate the damages caused when the tenant broke their lease. Damages include any lost rent and the cost of advertising the unit for re-rental. If your landlord tries to charge you more than their actual damages, or continues to charge you rent in addition to taking your deposit or charging you a termination fee, you could argue that the landlord is attempting to penalize you. The law does not allow landlords to penalize tenants above and beyond the mitigation of damages for loss of rent due to a tenant’s breaking the lease. However, it is unclear how the courts will interpret this law. Speak to an attorney for more information and advice on your specific situation.