A long time ago a good friend of mine asked me to post something about landlord/tenant law, namely: how does a tenant make sure they get their deposit back? Here is what I know as a lawyer and a tenant:
1. It Starts on Day One. You have to start working on getting your deposit back from the very beginning, before you even sign a lease. This is a relationship, and as we all know, in a relationship if you start out badly its likely to end badly. Alternatively, if it starts out well the way to keep it good is to set up clear boundaries (like in a written lease) and keep the lines of communication open. If you assert your rights from the beginning then a landlord will know that you intend to assert your rights throughout the tenancy.
2. Choose Wisely. If you have a bad feeling about your landlord because they avoid answering questions or give only partial answers, then its likely they will act that way during the rest of your relationship with them. Even if you are desperate to find a home you should consider the consequences of having a landlord who may keep your deposit, fail to make necessary repairs, and even try to evict you. If you are nervous about your landlord but still think you want to rent from them then at least you are aware of the potential problem and can take the necessary precautions (read further).
3. Get it in writing and do a walk-through. In Washington, if you give the landlord a deposit then there must be a written rental agreement that outlines the terms of the lease and a written checklist describing the property. If they do not do this then they are not entitled to take your deposit. Make sure that you get a copy of the lease.
4. What is normal wear and tear? A landlord may not withhold your deposit for damage to the property that is “normal wear and tear.” Unfortunately normal wear and tear is not defined in the Residential Landlord/Tenant Act (RLTA). This is one of those vague legal phrases that is useful because its flexible and not-so-useful because its (ehem) flexible. As a general rule it refers to the gradual deterioration of the home resulting from use, lapse of time, and to a certain extent the operation of the elements (earth, air, wind, but probably not fire). In court a landlord has the burden to show evidence of damage above normal wear and tear, thus the checklist from #3.
5. Keep a Landlord Diary. If you have a feeling that your landlord is trying to pull a fast one its a good idea to write a down a brief description of the contact you have with your landlord. Write down the date, what you talked about, and a short description of what happened: if you talked on the phone, if they came by the home, or if they talked to you at the grocery store. Hold on to all receipts, letters, and emails you exchange (keep copies of everything that you send to the landlord too). This helps for two reasons, first, if the landlord knows that you are keeping track of everything they are less likely to want to try to take advantage of you. Second, you have a paper record of your relationship that you can submit as an attachment to a declaration if your dispute gets all the way into court. These types of statements are much more persuasive than a statement like, “Some time in July my landlord told me I had to move out in August.”
6. Mow the lawn, take out the trash. I know not everyone has a rental with a lawn but this suggestion has to do with keeping the home looking well-kept. Landlords must give tenants 24 hours notice before they can enter the property, but that does not prevent them from driving by the home and looking at the general state of affairs from the street. The less reason you give a landlord to suspect there is damage to their home, the less likely they are going to harass you. At evictions court, trash and lawn disrepair is a popular landlord complaint. The idea here is do the best you can to keep the outside of the house looking like its not neglected.
7. Get your deposit if you sublease the house. If you decide to sublease the home, make sure t0 get a deposit from the person who is subleasing. You are still liable for the damage the subleasor does to the property because your name is on the lease. You should also get permission in writing to sublease because usually that is what the original lease requires and, more importantly, its another way to protect yourself from a future dispute.
8. Don’t allow extra tenants without writing. If you want to get a roommate then you should get written permission from the landlord. Another frequent complaint from landlords is that the tenant has allowed other people who are not on the lease to live in the home. They either want more rent from that person or attribute some of the damage to a home to the extra tenant.
9. Written statement of deposits money spent required. In Washington a landlord is required to give a tenant’s deposit back within 14 days of the end of the lease term. Along with the deposit they are required to give the tenant a written statement of the money spent on repairs above normal wear an tear. If the landlord fails to give you back your deposit with a statement describing what money was spent within that time period then the tenant is entitled to get back the full deposit amount. To enforce this law you have to make sure to give the landlord your forwarding address.
If the landlord refuses to give you your deposit back and doesn’t give you an accounting of the expenses using the deposit then you may take the issue to small claims court (for links to municipal and district Cts).
10. Don’t trash the place. Obviously.
It would be really great to hear what has worked for other people! If you have suggestions or stories we would really like comments on this post.