Deposit Best Practices
1) Document the condition of the unit when you move in and when you 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. 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. 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. You can also take detailed photographs of the unit’s condition upon move in. 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.
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 details information on how to pursue your landlord for the return of your deposit money.
It’s a good idea for you to obtain thorough documentation of the condition you leave the unit in when you vacate. This will be your proof in case the landlord charges you for extra cleaning or damages you did not cause. One way to do this is to take detailed photographs of the unit before you leave. Putting a copy of the day’s newspaper in each frame will prove the date it was taken (small claims judges will often not accept camera date stamps because they can be tampered with). You can also ask the landlord to do a walk-out inspection with you, though they are not legally required to do so. 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. You can also ask neighbors, friends or professional movers to provide written documentation as to the condition of the unit upon move out. Be sure to give your landlord a forwarding address for yourself or a dependable friend when you vacate.
2) Protect your deposit by documenting damages as they occur during your tenancy.
Tenants in Washington State are responsible for returning the unit to the condition it was in at the beginning of their tenancy, minus normal wear and tear. This includes repairing or covering the cost of repairs for anything damaged in the unit by the tenants or their guests. It is important to document repair concerns not only to get them fixed, but also to protect yourself against a landlord’s claim that you caused the problem.
The tenant is not responsible for damage to the unit resulting from the landlord’s negligence. However, if a tenant never notified a landlord of a small leak that over a long period of time damaged the unit, the tenant will likely be liable for resulting damage. As such, it is critical that all issues with the rental be reported to the landlord immediately in writing. Keeping a copy of any repair letters can help protect tenants from such charges. See Repairs for more information on documenting repair concerns.
2) Provide at least 20 days written notice before you vacate.
The Landlord-Tenant Act requires that month-to-month tenants give landlords at least 20 days written notice before vacating their units. If you are unsure about what kind of rental agreement you have, see more details in Rental Agreements. The landlord must receive written notice of your move-out date 20 days before the end of the rental period. For example, if your rent is due on the first of the month, and you plan to vacate by 30th, then the landlord must receive your written notice by the 10th of the month. Be sure to get proof that you sent your notice to vacate by sending it certified mail and regular first class mail and keeping a copy for your records. If you do not give your landlord proper 20 days written notice, or if you stay longer than the date you gave notice for, your landlord can charge you for the following month’s rent.
If your rental agreement states that your rent is due on an irregular day of the month, such as the 15th, just count 20 days backward from that date to determine that day of the month that your notice must be received by the landlord. The 20-day period is calculated from the day that your rent is due, not including any grace period you may be allowed before your rent is considered late.
Tenants on fixed term leases, such as a 6-month or one year lease, are committed to living in the unit for the full lease period. Look to your rental agreement to see what the notice terms are. If there are no specific notice terms dictated there, RCW 59.18.220 states that the tenancy ends when the lease ends. It is still a best practice to always give your landlord some notice before you move out to let them know what your plans are. Read detailed information on breaking your lease at Rental Agreements. The landlord may claim that you are still in possession of the property if you still hold the keys after the termination date, and may charge you for the following month’s rent.
Be sure to provide a valid forwarding address to your landlord to send your deposit accounting and refund. Also be sure to notify the post office of your forwarding address. If you don’t have a secure new address, or do not wish to disclose your new address, you can provide the address of a reliable friend or relative. Your landlord is obligated under RCW 59.18.280 to send your deposit statement within 14 days to your last known address. If you do not provide them with a new address for you, they may end up sending it to the unit you just vacated, and will not reach you unless you have your mail forwarded.
3) Document the condition of the unit before you vacate.
It’s a good idea for you to obtain thorough documentation of the condition you leave the unit in when you vacate. This will be your proof in case the landlord charges you for extra cleaning or damages you did not cause. One way to do this is to take detailed photographs of the unit before you leave. Putting a copy of the day’s newspaper in each frame will prove the date it was taken (small claims judges will often not accept camera date stamps because they can be tampered with). You can also ask the landlord to do a walk-out inspection with you, though they are not legally required to do so. You can also ask neighbors, friends or professional movers to provide written documentation as to the condition of the unit upon move out.
4) Wait 14 days.
The landlord has 14 days from the time that the rental agreement ends and the tenant vacates the unit to postmark the return of the deposit or put something in writing detailing how the deposit money was used. The correspondence must be postmarked by the 14th day, so it is a good idea to keep the envelope it was mailed in. 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, the landlord is liable to return the entire amount of the deposit, though this does not mean the landlord cannot still pursue damage claims through the court system. 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.
5) Determine if the landlord’s deductions are legal. (If your landlord hasn’t sent you anything in writing, you can skip to the next step.)
Landlords can legally charge for any damages to the unit caused by tenants or the guests of tenants. There is no specific standard for how much the landlord can legally deduct from a deposit for any damage. Tenants are required to return the unit to the condition they found it in when they moved in, minus normal wear and tear. Normal wear and tear is not defined in the Landlord-Tenant Act. Tenants can argue that wear and tear will be greater over time, and that it includes all normal uses of the premises. Generally speaking normal wear and tear may be greater over time. For example, wear and tear of carpet in a unit that a tenant has lived in for 6 years will most likely be greater than wear after 6 months. The rental agreement should also detail what the deposit can be used for. Common deductions include damages, cleaning costs, unpaid rent or fees, or utility bills.
If the deposit 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 says “$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.
6) Evaluate your arguments for the return of your deposit.
Consider the following questions to determine whether your deposit has been illegally withheld:
- Did the landlord provide you with a move-in checklist?
- Did you pay a nonrefundable cleaning fee when you moved in?
- Did the landlord designate a nonrefundable fee as a deposit?
- Did the landlord put something in writing to you regarding your deposit within 14 days from when you vacated?
- Is the landlord charging you for normal wear and tear or for damages you did not cause, or for pre-existing damages?
- Is the landlord charging you above what is reasonable to make a repair? For example, charging $100 to replace a light bulb?
- Did the lease require you to pay for professional cleaning?
See Deposit Negotiation for ideas on how to try and get your deposit returned to you.