Every one of us, more than likely, has at some time has rented a place to live or offered space for rent to another person. The landlord-tenant contract, therefore, is one of the most frequently occurring legal interactions in existence. It is also an interaction with great potential for disagreements. Fortunately, the state of Washington has enacted a very strong Landlord-Tenant Act, outlining rights, obligations, and remedies for those involved in domicile rental arrangements.
Upkeep and Repairs
The law stipulates that a landlord must maintain the premises in compliance with specific building codes and local ordinances, must keep common areas clean and safe, and must preserve facilities and appliances in reasonably good working order. Damage caused by weather, acts of God (such as earthquakes and accidents), or unknown third parties are generally the responsibility of the landlord.
A tenant also has a responsibility to keep the rented unit clean and safe and may not deliberately or negligently destroy, damage, or remove any part of the premises. If major repairs are needed, the tenant is required to notify the landlord, in writing. Once notified of a defective condition and unless circumstances are beyond the landlord’s control, the landlord is obliged to make repairs in a timely manner as follows:
- 24 hours to restore hot or cold water, heat, or electricity
- 24 hours to remedy a condition that is imminently hazardous to life
- 72 hours to repair major plumbing fixtures and, if supplied by the landlord, the refrigerator, range, and oven
- not more than 10 days for other repairs.
Withholding Rent for Repairs
Except for the limited right to make minor repairs and deduct their cost from the rent, a tenant has no right to withhold rent. The cost per repair may not exceed certain limits, which should be spelled out in the rental agreement, and reasonable notice to the landlord is required.
Unless the rental agreement provides otherwise, the tenant has no obligation to insure the premises. However, tenants should consider purchasing renter’s insurance on personal property and liability insurance for claims by third parties (such as guests) for personal injuries occurring on the premises, since the landlord’s insurance covers only the property/
Landlords have the right to prohibit pets or establish their own rules and restrictions pertaining to pets. For example, landlords may require references and extra fees to cover special cleaning. Washington law does not automatically grant tenants the right to cohabitate with pets.
Right of Entry
In general, with tenant consent, a landlord has a right of entry to inspect the premises, make repairs, supply necessary or agreed services, or show the property to potential tenants, purchasers, or contractors. Entry is limited to reasonable times, and two days’ notice of intent to enter is required. A landlord may enter the premises without the tenant’s consent if an emergency or abandonment occurs, or if the landlord obtains a court order. A landlord may not abuse his or her right of access to the premises to harass a tenant.
The action by a landlord to remove a tenant from a rental unit is known as an eviction or an “unlawful detainer.” Most local housing codes define “just cause” for an eviction and outline procedures that must be followed.
In an eviction based on nonpayment of rent, a tenant may assert a claim for money owed the tenant by the landlord. The tenant’s claim (sometimes known as an equitable defense or setoff) must be related to the tenancy, such as the tenant’s payment of a gas bill that was the landlord’s responsibility under the rental agreement. In eviction actions, strict rules and procedures must be observed.
Generally, a legal eviction process involves:
- Proper notice. Before evicting a tenant, the landlord must serve the required eviction notices using proper procedures.
- Filing of a lawsuit. If the tenant fails to move out, a lawsuit must be filed to evict the tenant.
- Entitlement to a court hearing. If the tenant disputes the reasons for the eviction, the tenant is entitled to a court hearing.
- Sheriff’s involvement. If the tenant loses the court hearing, the sheriff is ordered to physically evict the tenant and remove his or her property from the unit. Only the sheriff, not the landlord, can physically remove a tenant who does not comply with an eviction notice and only after an unlawful detainer lawsuit has been filed.
- Liability for attorneys’ fees. In an eviction dispute, the successful party is entitled to recoup costs and attorney fees from the other party.
Landlords are generally prohibited from locking a tenant out of the premises, from taking a tenant’s property for nonpayment of rent (except for abandoned property under certain conditions), or from intentionally terminating a tenant’s utility service. Various penalties exist for violating these protections.
Retaliatory evictions are also illegal. A landlord may not terminate a tenancy or increase rent or change other terms of the rental agreement to retaliate against a tenant who asserts his or her rights under the Landlord-Tenant Act or reports violations of housing codes or ordinances.
Settlement of Disputes
In the event of a dispute, the landlord and tenant may agree to arbitration, asking a neutral party to settle the disagreement. The process is usually quick and inexpensive, with any administrative fee shared equally unless otherwise allocated by the arbitrator.
Landlord-tenant problems can also be resolved through informal mediation. In mediation, a third party intervenes between two disputing parties in an effort to reach an agreement, compromise, or reconciliation. Unlike arbitration, where the arbiter decides the outcome, mediation is intended to help the landlord and tenant reach mutual agreement. Mediation can be requested by either a landlord or tenant and may be available without charge from city or county agencies. If the parties do not reach agreement through the mediation process, they may pursue legal remedies.
We Can Help
A copy of the Landlord-Tenant Act may be obtained by calling the Washington State Office of the Attorney General at 800-551-4636. In addition, the Attorney General’s office can provide a referral to low-cost dispute resolution centers in your area.
If your landlord-tenant dispute cannot be resolved through these efforts, especially if you are involved in an eviction, you should obtain advice from an attorney experienced in these matters. At the Deno Millikan Law Firm, our attorneys have deep knowledge of landlord-tenant law. We stand ready to assist you in the resolution of your dispute and ensure your legal rights are protected. Contact us today at 425-259-2222.