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Types of Rental Agreements Back to top

The landlord must provide a copy of the rental agreement to each tenant that signs it. The tenant may request one free replacement copy during the tenancy. There are three different types of rental agreements:

1) Month-to-Month Rental Agreements do not contain specific time limits. The tenancy continues until one party or the other issues a notice to vacate or terminate tenancy of 20 days’ written notice given before the rent is due. (Seattle Tenants have Just Cause Eviction protection that requires landlords to give more notice in some cases and restricts terminations of tenancy to 18 Just Cause reasons.) Month-to-month tenancies can be verbal or written. Verbal rental agreements are legal in Washington State and are considered to be month-to-month tenancies. If your landlord takes any kind of deposit or nonrefundable fee from you, the rental agreement must be in writing and state the terms and conditions under which your money is refundable.

2) A One-Way Lease is month-to-month but charges you a termination fee or waives your deposit if you move out before a certain number of months. One-way leases are illegal in the City of Seattle. They are called one-way leases because they only benefit one party: the landlord. See Seattle Landlord-Tenant Information for more about protections against one-way leases.

3) Fixed-Term Leases are rental agreements for a specific period of time. They must be in writing. One-year leases are very common. Under RCW 59.18.210, leases over 12 months must be notarized in order to be valid. Leases also restrict the landlord from increasing the rent or changing the rules of tenancy during the fixed term. Tenants are obligated to meet the conditions of the lease for the full term or face penalties.

RCW 59.18.220 states that the tenancy ends at the end of the stated lease term. A lease expires at the end of the lease term unless the contract states otherwise. Typically, a one-year lease may contain language that converts the tenancy to month-to-month at the end of the stated lease term. This means that for a tenant whose lease does not have language automatically extending its term, neither party needs to give written notice, and the tenant must either move out or negotiate a new term. See Columbia Legal Services’ Lease Overview, an example of a model lease developed specifically for Seattle tenants.

 

Rule Changes & Rent Increases Back to top

A landlord cannot change any aspect of a lease during the fixed-term period except by mutual agreement. Therefore, rent is fixed during the lease term. In month-to-month tenancies, however, landlords can change the rules of tenancy more easily. In fact, the landlord is only required to give tenants 30 days’ written notice to change a term of the tenancy, including a rent increase (RCW 59.18.140). An exception to this general rule concerns a rent increase in the City of Seattle where a tenant is entitled to 60 days’ prior written notice for an increase of 10% or more in a 12-month period (SMC 7.24.030).

Because rent control is illegal in Washington State (RCW 35.21.830), landlords can raise the rent as much as they see fit, as long as they comply with the appropriate notice period and have not issued the notice to discriminate or retaliate against the tenant.

Rent increases go into effect in the first full month following the notice of the increase. For instance, if your rent is due on the first of the month, and your landlord gives 30 days’ written notice of a rent increase on the 15th of September, the new rent amount will not go into effect until November 1st. If your landlord gave you notice of a rent increase in the middle of the month, the rent increase will go into effect the first of the month following the 30- or 60-day notice period. A tenant paying a rent increase without 30 days’ notice generally indicates their agreement to accept the increase without the proper written notice.

If you have been given less than the required amount of notice, you can contest an improper rent increase. See our Sample Letter: Improper Rule Change / Fee or Rent Increase. However, a rent increase without proper notice may not be adequate defense against an eviction. Tenants who are not given proper notice may still decide to pay the rent increase (if they are able to) in order to avoid the possibility that the landlord will file an eviction against them. If your landlord does not acknowledge their legal obligations to provide proper notice and instead serves you a 3-Day Notice to Pay or Vacate, a tenant can pay the rent increase by writing “payment under protest” on their check. The tenant can then pursue the difference owed from the improper rent increase in Small Claims Court.

Some tenants will choose not to pay the increase at all and just pay their regular amount. The risk is that the tenant could end up in eviction court for rent nonpayment after service of the 3-Day Notice to Pay or Vacate, and may not necessarily win in court. This can be a risky choice, because whenever a landlord files an eviction lawsuit against a tenant, it creates a permanent record of eviction regardless of whether or not the tenant wins.

 

Breaking a Lease Back to top

The Landlord-Tenant Act allows only four reasons for breaking a lease during the term. They are:

There may be any number of other valid reasons renters choose to break their leases, including: health reasons, irreconcilable problems with neighbors or management, noise problems, and concerns about safety or security. As serious as these problems may be, the Landlord-Tenant Act does not explicitly allow tenants to break their lease for these reasons. Tenants may still negotiate with their landlords to be released from their leases early.

The best protection for tenants breaking their leases is to get something in writing and signed by their landlord agreeing upon a mutual termination of the lease that releases the tenant from any further financial obligation and guarantees a return of the deposit according to the terms set out in the lease. It is up to each individual tenant to try to negotiate with their landlord. It’s a good idea to consult an attorney to review the terms of the agreement and provide legal advice on how to proceed. This may be difficult, because landlords often don’t have a financial incentive to release tenants from leases and are not required to do so.

If a tenant breaks a lease, the landlord can mitigate their damages by continuing to charge the tenant rent until they’re able to re-rent the unit. If a landlord has to re-rent the unit at a lower amount than what is stated in the lease, the tenant can be charged the difference for the remainder of the lease period. The landlord can also charge for actual advertising costs, though there is no specific standard for how much they can charge, beyond the cost of mitigating the damages (RCW 59.18.310). Instead of, or in addition to, continuing to charge rent, they may attempt to withhold the tenant’s deposit or charge them a termination fee.

Read your lease carefully to see if it includes a termination fee or specific forfeiture of your deposit for breaking your lease. Remember, RCW 59.18.310 provides language requiring the landlord to only 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.

Some tenants will try to work with the landlord to advertise the unit themselves and find a replacement renter before vacating the unit. Tenants can then request that the landlord screen the replacement, and if the landlord is willing to rent to them, they can sign a new lease. The new tenant can pay the prorated amount of rent for the month the old tenant wants to move out, and then the new tenant can begin making rent payments for the following month to the landlord. This is not subletting, because the lease is strictly between the new renter and the landlord. A sublet is a lease between the original tenant on the lease and a new tenant living in the unit. Most rental agreements prohibit subleases. It is still a good idea to have a written agreement with the landlord that the old tenant will be released from the lease under no penalty, though the landlord is not required to sign such a document.

 

Restricted Language in a Rental Agreement Back to top

If a lease contains a section or language that attempts to waive your rights defined in the Landlord-Tenant Act (RCW 59.18), that particular section is considered unenforceable. The rest of the lease will still be valid. No rental agreement may forego your rights or remedies, require you to pay attorneys’ fees that aren’t authorized by law, indemnify the landlord from costs for which they are responsible, or create a lien against the tenant’s property. Read the language of the law for a full list.

If a landlord deliberately includes this kind of language in the lease with the knowledge that it is prohibited, the tenant can seek up to a $500 penalty, damages, court costs and attorneys’ fees.

The Landlord-Tenant Act states that tenants must comply with all reasonable restrictions and rules spelled out in a rental agreement. If the rule is unreasonable, then the tenant may not have to comply with it – however the statute does not spell out what is a reasonable rule. It is intentionally left broad as there can be many different types of rules in a rental agreement.

It is a good idea to consult with an attorney to seek advice on whether a lease provision is reasonable or not. If a tenant is going to make an argument for unreasonableness, they should evaluate how extreme the rule appears. For example, a rule that states the tenant can have absolutely no guests over would likely be unreasonable as it is a strict rule that serves no discernible purpose. However, if the guest policy states that a guest can stay for no more than 14 days at a time, it may be considered a reasonable restriction.

 

Resources: Rental Agreements Back to top

 

FAQs: Rental Agreements Back to top


Q: Does my landlord have to provide me with a copy of the rental
      agreement I sign
?
To FAQs

Yes. The landlord must provide a copy of the rental agreement to each tenant who signs it. The tenant may request one free replacement copy during the tenancy.

Q: Am I still covered under the Residential Landlord-Tenant Act
      even though I don’t have a written rental agreement
?
To FAQs

Verbal tenancies are legal in Washington State and are considered valid month-to-month agreements.

Q: Who isn’t covered as a tenant under the Residential
      Landlord-Tenant Act
?
To FAQs

Types of tenancies that are not covered by the Landlord-Tenant Act are commercial leases or owners of manufactured homes who rent space in manufactured home parks. RCW 59.18.040 outlines the other living arrangements exempt from coverage under the Landlord-Tenant Act: people in medical, religious, educational, recreational or correctional institutions; people in contracts to purchase their homes; people staying in hotels or motels; migrant workers whose housing is provided by their employers; and people whose residency depends on their employment.

Q: Are there any restrictions on how much my landlord can raise
      the rent
?
To FAQs

No. Rent control is illegal in Washington State, as stated in RCW 35.21.830. However, Seattle tenants are entitled to 60 days’ notice before rent increases of 10% or more in a 12-month period per Seattle’s Rental Agreement Regulation Ordinance (SMC 7.24.030). And tenants living outside of Seattle are entitled to a written notice of a rent increase 30 days before the end of the rental period. In addition, rent increases cannot be discriminatory or retaliatory.

Q: I signed a lease before I saw the apartment, and now I don’t want to
      move in. What can I do
?
To FAQs

Always look at the actual unit you’re going to be renting before agreeing to sign a lease. You may be able to negotiate with your landlord to be removed from the lease if the unit isn’t right for you. If you break your lease and move, you may still be held liable for the monetary penalties written into the law and/or your lease. If the unit you’re renting has repair problems, your landlord has the obligation to fix them. See our Repairs webpage for more information. 

Q: They showed me a “model unit” and then I saw the actual unit I’m 
      renting, and it’s a total disaster zone! What can I do?
      Can I sue them for false advertising?
To FAQs

Always look at the actual unit you’re going to be renting before agreeing to sign a rental agreement. If the unit you’re renting has repair problems, your landlord has the obligation to fix them. See our Repairs webpage for more details. It may be possible for you to file a lawsuit against your landlord for false advertising, but legal assistance for this kind of lawsuit can be difficult to come by. See our Legal Assistance Guide webpage for more information.

Q: I just signed a lease and then changed my mind about living there. 
      Is there a grace period in Washington State that allows me to back
      out of a contract within 24 hours of signing it?
To FAQs

There is no grace period in Washington State. Once you sign a lease, you are committed to fulfilling its terms unless the landlord agrees to release you from it. If they do agree to release you from your rental agreement, be sure to get it in writing and signed by your landlord.

Some tenants will try to find a replacement renter to move into the unit and sign a new lease with the landlord. That would entail having your landlord screen the other person and having them sign a new lease, which would require the landlord’s consent.

Q: Is the landlord allowed to make any rules they want? To FAQs

The landlord cannot enforce any rules of a rental agreement that infringe on or waive your rights as a tenant under any federal, state or local law. RCW 59.18.230 lays out tenants’ rights in regards to rental agreements. You cannot sign away your rights under the law. For example, if a rental contract requires that the tenants be responsible for all repairs needed in the unit, regardless of whether or not they caused the damages, that specific provision of the contract is not enforceable. The rest of the contract, however, is still valid and enforceable. In addition, RCW 59.18.140 states that tenants must conform to all reasonable rules and restrictions placed by the landlord. You may be able to argue that certain rules are unreasonable, and thus unenforceable.

Q: Does rent have to be due on the first of the month? To FAQs

While traditionally due on the first of the month, rent can be due any day of the month. The day that rent is due will be determined in your rental agreement or in a verbal contract with your landlord. Sometimes landlords agree to accept partial payments in increments throughout the month or weekly payments. It is a good idea to solidify these kinds of agreements in writing with your landlord.

Q: Is the landlord required to prorate my move-in or move-out dates? To FAQs

There is no law that requires landlords to prorate rent when a tenant moves in or vacates a unit. Often, landlords will prorate tenants’ first days or weeks in the unit in order to collect full rent on the first of the following month. Landlords are not legally obligated to prorate the rent when you vacate, even if you don’t stay through the end of the month. If you are vacating in the middle of the month, you may be able to negotiate with your landlord to prorate your rent based on your move out date. Under RCW 59.18.200, state law requires you to give 20 days’ notice in writing to vacate if your lease does not end at its term. Be sure to do so or the landlord may charge you the following month.

Q: Can the landlord enforce rules of tenancy that violate my rights 
      under the law?
To FAQs

RCW 59.18.230 states that tenants cannot sign away their rights under the law. The landlord cannot legally enforce any terms of the lease that violate any state or local laws. For instance, the landlord is still responsible for making all repairs for defective conditions that are not caused by the tenant, or guests of the tenant, even if the tenant signs a lease stating that they agree to make all repairs necessary during their tenancy. The inclusion of a clause that violates other tenant protection laws does not make the entire lease invalid. However, those clauses that do conflict with state law are not enforceable.

Q: I have a two-year lease. Is this valid? To FAQs

Leases longer than one year are only valid if they are notarized. You may want to consult with an attorney since your lease may either become a month-to-month agreement after the first year, or there might be other factors to consider to determine the validity.

Q: I broke my lease and moved out. Can my landlord charge me for 
      the remainder of the rent due under the lease?
To FAQs

RCW 59.18.310 states that the landlord can continue to charge you rent until the unit is re-rented, and that they can charge you for advertising costs. If they end up having to rent the unit at less than what your lease required you to pay, they can collect the difference for the full term of the lease. They have to make a reasonable effort to re-rent the unit after you vacate. Some tenants will try to find a replacement renter to take over their lease. This would entail having your landlord screen the other person, and having the new tenant sign a new lease. This would have to be done with the landlord’s consent.

Q: What if the landlord isn’t making a reasonable effort to re-rent 
     
my unit after I’ve broken my lease and moved out?

To FAQs

With documentation, you may be able to negotiate with the landlord to avoid paying a portion of repayment if you can establish that the landlord isn’t making a reasonable effort to re-rent the unit after you’ve vacated. You may be able to recover some of the rent money you pay in Small Claims Court after the fact, or to directly negotiate with the landlord to get the rent charges reduced or eliminated. Some landlords will work with tenants to get assistance finding new renters.

Q: 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?

To FAQs

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)(a), the 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.

Q: Can my landlord charge me a “termination fee” for breaking my 
      lease?
To FAQs

It depends on what’s written in the lease. It is not uncommon to see termination fees included in rental agreements. However, RCW 59.18.310 allows the landlord to mitigate the damages caused when the tenant broke their lease. They can continue to charge the tenant rent until the unit is re-rented, as described above, or they may decide to deduct the lost rent from the tenant’s deposit. The law does not allow landlords to charge tenants penalties above and beyond the mitigation of damages for loss of rent due to a tenant’s breaking the lease.

Q: What happens to my lease if the ownership of the property changes? To FAQs

The lease, as well as your security deposit and all other money held by the landlord, should be passed to the new landlord. RCW 59.18.060(14) requires that the tenant shall be immediately notified in writing of any changes to the landlord either by personal service, or conspicuously posted and sent First Class Mail. No terms of the lease can be changed except by mutual agreement, and the lease must be honored through the entire term unless the property is foreclosed on during the lease term, and the new purchaser wishes to occupy the home as their primary residence. RCW 59.18.270 dictates the terms of the deposit changeover.

Q: Do I have to sign a lease addendum if my landlord requires it? To FAQs

Tenants do not have to agree to changes to any aspect of a fixed-term lease unless they want to. The landlord can take no valid legal action against you if you do not agree to sign a lease addendum. However, the landlord could decide not to renew your lease at the end of its term if you do not sign. It’s a good idea to seek legal assistance regarding lease addendums if you are unsure.

Q: Do I have to move out at the end of my lease? To FAQs

Look to the specific terms of the rental agreement to find out whether it automatically reverts to a month-to-month tenancy. Many leases automatically roll over into a month-to-month tenancy but must say so in the lease language. If the lease does not have specific month-to-month language, then RCW 59.18.220 states that the tenancy ends at the end of the lease term. If your lease states that your tenancy ends, you are required to vacate at the end of the lease period. You may ask to stay longer by communicating with your landlord in writing or asking to sign a new lease. If the landlord accepts the rent for the following month after the term of your original lease ends, then you have established a month-to-month tenancy.

Q: If my lease is ending, do I still have to give 20-days' notice? To FAQs

It is still a good idea to give your landlord 20 days’ notice even if your lease is ending. You must give 20 days’ notice if your lease automatically becomes a month-to-month tenancy following the fixed-term period.

Q: What can I do if my landlord doesn’t give me 30- or 60-days' 
      written notice of a rent increase?
To FAQs

If your landlord gave you notice of a rent increase in the middle of the month, the rent increase will go into effect the first of the month following the 30- or 60-day notice period. A tenant paying a rent increase without 30-days’ notice may indicate to the landlord their agreement to accept the increase without the proper written notice.

A tenant can send the landlord a letter informing them of the improper notice and a copy of the law. See Sample Letter: Improper Rule Change / Fee or Rent Increase. If your landlord does not acknowledge their legal obligations to provide proper notice and instead serves you a 3-Day Pay or Vacate Notice, a tenant can pay the rent increase by writing on their check “payment under protest.” The tenant can then pursue the difference owed from the improper rent increase in Small Claims Court.

Some tenants will choose not to pay the increase at all and just pay their regular amount. The risk is that the tenant could end up in eviction court for rent nonpayment after service of the 3-Day Notice to Pay or Vacate, and may not necessarily win in court. This can be a risky choice, because whenever a landlord files an eviction lawsuit against a tenant, it creates a permanent record of eviction regardless of whether or not the tenant wins.

Q: What is a sublease? To FAQs

A sublease is a rental agreement (fixed-term or month-to-month) between tenants. For example, a tenant who has a lease with the owner to rent a house may decide they want to rent out rooms to another tenant. A contract is drawn up between the original tenant and the new one, and the new tenant pays their rent to the original tenant instead of the landlord. Most rental agreements prohibit subleases. The original tenant is responsible to the landlord for any damages caused by the sublessor.

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