Procedural Security Deposit Pitfalls for Washington Landlords

When requiring a security deposit from a renter, a landlord must follow specific steps in order to use the deposit for necessary repairs.  Failure to follow the required steps could result in the tenant recovering their entire security deposit, or even getting twice what they paid for a security deposit!  The important steps include the proper use of a written lease, a checklist of conditions, and timely notice and return of remaining deposit funds after the tenancy has ended.

Written Lease Specifying Terms

Washington requires that a lease be written if a security deposit is charged to a tenant.  The writing must outline what the deposit secures against and under what circumstances a deposit (or part of it) may be recovered by the tenant.  Simply stating that there is a security deposit for “x” dollars may allow a scheming tenant to argue for its return and cause severe annoyance down the road for you, the landlord!  Always use a very detailed lease.

Proper Use of Checklist

The landlord must do a walk-through of the unit with the tenants and fill out a written checklist “specifically describing the condition and cleanliness of or existing damages to the premises and furnishings, including, but not limited to, walls, floors, countertops, carpets, drapes, furniture, and appliances, is provided by the landlord to the tenant at the commencement of the tenancy.” (See, RCW 59.18.260)  This step is very important, and is often a cause for disputes after the tenants have vacated your rental property.  While some landlords may use a checklist, it is important to use it properly.

Scrutinize everything!  It might feel uncomfortable to go through your rental and chronicle all that appears, but your failure to do so opens a potential claim that you have retained too much of the deposit.  The biggest issue when filling out the checklist is to use equivocal language like “the carpet is in acceptable condition.”  What does “acceptable” mean?  Your tenant may argue that they didn’t dump paint all over the guest bedroom carpet; it was like that when they rented it, and that was acceptable to them…  So, use specific language like “the carpet has a small stain in the guest bedroom, approximately the size of a dime.”  You could even take pictures of the rooms and present defects.  Finish off each itemization with a catchall statement such as “no other defects are present, and the item is in proper working order.”  That way, when your renter claims that the window was always cracked, and the frame never allowed for it to be opened, you will have evidence that proves otherwise.  Lastly, be certain that your tenants sign the checklist and that they are given a copy of it for their records.

Timely Submission of Itemized Charges and Any Remaining Deposit Funds

In Washington, you have 2 weeks to provide a written itemization of charges to the tenant’s security deposit, and a return of all remaining funds.  Failure to provide said statement and deposit funds will subject you to a penalty of up to twice the amount of the deposit charged and any attorney’s fees and court costs.  Do not delay in obtaining estimates for damages.  If the costs obviously exceed the amount of your tenant’s deposit, submit a statement accounting for the amount you are certain of, and reserve the right to request additional funds for other damage that is present.  Do not delay or you might be stuck with a damaged rental unit and no deposit funds to repair it.

If you have a landlord-tenant dispute, wish to have your lease updated or need guidance in filling out a checklist, Call (253) 944-1212 for an appointment or email at bboice@boicelawfirm.com.

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3 Comments

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