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Repair Process Back to top

1) State law requires landlords to make repairs to your unit.

State law outlines landlords’ obligations to keep your unit safe and livable. Landlords must maintain their units to comply with all local codes that govern housing quality and provide adequate heat, hot water and locks. They must also maintain all structural components and appliances furnished by them and more. Read the full text of RCW 59.18.060 for a complete list of landlord duties. Also, some local cities and counties have additional requirements for landlords. See our Resources: Repairs section below for more detailed information.

2) Do not withhold rent to get the landlord to make repairs.

The law does not allow a tenant to withhold the rent even when the landlord is not making necessary repairs. In fact, if tenants want access to legal remedies, the law requires them to first be current in rent. You can still request repairs from your landlord if you’re not current in your rent, but you cannot access your remedies under the Landlord-Tenant Act. Withholding your rent will enable your landlord to initiate an eviction action against you for nonpayment. There are other remedies available to tenants to get repairs done while minimizing the threat of housing loss.

3) Tenants may experience retaliation for asserting their rights under landlord-tenant law.

Be aware that some landlords may retaliate against you by issuing you a termination notice when you ask for repairs. While retaliation is illegal under landlord-tenant law, it still may be difficult to protect yourself against. Tenants without term leases may be vulnerable to retaliation in the form of a No Cause Notice to vacate. Seattle renters have additional protection in the form of the Just Cause Eviction Ordinance. See our Seattle Laws webpage for more information.

 

Steps to Request a Repair Back to top

 1) Put your repair request in writing & document repairs. 

 2) Wait the proper timeframe. 

 3) Survey your options under the law. 

     3a) Break your lease & move. 

     3b) Make the repair & deduct the cost from your rent. 

     3c) Put rent in escrow. 

     3d) Seek a court order for reduced rent. 

 4) Negotiate with your landlord. 

     4a) Request mediation. 

     4b) Call local Code Enforcement. 

     4c) Sue the landlord to get compensated for unmade repairs.  


1) Put your repair request in writing & document repairs.  To Steps

The Landlord-Tenant Act says that the timeline for a landlord to begin repairs doesn’t start until they receive a written request from tenants. It’s a good idea to document that the repair request has been sent and received by sending the letter both certified and regular first class mail – and keep a copy for your own records. A tenant can also personally deliver the letter, but it is a good idea to have a witness present to confirm it was delivered, or have the landlord sign and date a copy that you keep.

Always keep a copy of the letter. Documenting that the landlord received the letter is very important because other legal remedies only become available after the landlord has received the letter. It’s also a very good idea to document the severity of the repair problems by taking photographs with a copy of the day’s newspaper in each frame to prove the date.

It is okay to notify your landlord verbally of a repair problem, but it’s important to follow up with a written letter. Always keep a copy of the letter, as this documentation may protect you from claims that you didn’t send notice of request for repairs.

One remedy under the law, repair and deduct, requires that you also include an estimate of how much you think the repair would cost to fix. See below for more detailed information on the risks and benefits of repair and deduct as a legal remedy.

2) Wait the proper timeframe.    To Steps

State law lays out specific timeframes in which the landlord must take action to begin repairs once they receive written notice. They are:

  • Not more than 24 hours – where the defective condition deprives the tenant of hot or cold water, heat or electricity, or is imminently hazardous to life.
  • Not more than 72 hours – where the defective condition deprives the tenant of the use of a refrigerator, range and oven, or a major plumbing fixture supplied by the landlord.
  • Not more than 10 days in all other cases. This includes landlord duties defined under the law RCW 59.18.060, among others.

Note that the law requires the landlord to take remedial action to begin the repairs within the timeline and to complete the repairs promptly. It does not necessarily mean the landlord must complete the repairs within the above stated timelines.

3) Survey your options under the law.    To Steps

If the landlord has not begun repairs within these timeframes, tenants have a few options under the law. Each option requires a specific legal process, and each has its limitations. See Step 4 below for more options to consider. For detailed information about each step, see the Northwest Justice Project document Tenants: What to Do If Your Rental Needs Repairs.

   3a) Break your lease & move.    To Steps

The law allows tenants to break their lease and move with no penalty if the landlord has taken no action to begin the repairs during the timeframes required and within a reasonable time. (The Landlord-Tenant Act doesn’t define reasonable time.) The required repair must also be substantial enough to warrant the tenant moving out of the unit. The tenant must give the landlord written notice of their intent to vacate the premises. Before breaking your lease, consult with an attorney for advice on how to proceed in your specific situation.

However, there are some risks associated with this remedy. This option may not be helpful if you are a month-to-month tenant or do not have the option to move. Even though this right is laid out clearly in the law, your landlord may not recognize your right to break your lease due to unmade repairs and may try to withhold your deposit and/or charge you rent and penalties for breaking the lease. Since these laws are self-enforced, it’s up to you to get the documentation you need to protect yourself against a landlord’s claims. The landlord may send you a bill, take you to Small Claims Court, or send you to collections, claiming that you broke your lease. If you can, try to negotiate with your landlord before you leave to get something in writing, signed by the landlord, stating that you are released from your lease on a specific date with no further financial obligation.

RCW 59.18.090 states the tenant can break the lease after the appropriate timeframe expires starting from when the landlord received a written repair request and the repair still goes on uncompleted “within a reasonable time.” The Landlord-Tenant Act does not state what is “reasonable.” Anytime you are considering breaking a lease, it is important to consult with an attorney. If possible, document the landlord’s attempt to repair if it is inadequate to fix the problem. Tenants may have a stronger case to break the lease based on the severity of the need for repair. For example, having no hot water or heat may have a different standard of reasonableness than replacing a cabinet.

If you must break your lease, it is best practice to:

  • Keep a copy of your repair letter.
  • Keep a copy of your receipt for certified mail or other documentation that shows that you sent the repair letter to the landlord.
  • Wait the appropriate timeframe.
  • Take photographs of other documentation or receipts related to the defective condition with a copy of the day’s newspaper visible in each frame to prove the date.
  • Serve the landlord a second written notice by certified and regular first class mail that you are breaking the lease as permitted under state law. Keep a copy of the notice for yourself.
  • Return the unit back to its initial condition, not including normal wear and tear or damage resulting from landlord’s failure to fix things they have a duty to fix, remove all of your possessions after moving out, and return the key.
  • Photograph or otherwise document that you returned the unit back to its initial condition.
  • Speak to an attorney to get advice on your specific situation.

Be aware that landlords may post a claim on your credit that you have broken the lease, which will make it extremely difficult for you to rent in the future. You may be able to, with time and effort, remove this from your credit record if it was placed there inappropriately. See Credit Reports on the Washington State Office of the Attorney General website for more information.

   3b) Make the repair & deduct the cost from your rent.

 To Steps

In certain cases, tenants may also make the repairs themselves if the landlord has not begun the repair within the specified timeframes. There are specific limitations on the amount a tenant can spend and there is a specific process required – see Northwest Justice Project’s Tenants: What to Do If Your Rental Needs Repairs for detailed information. You cannot use repair and deduct for cosmetic repairs. Repair and deduct may not be useful for tenants who cannot afford the cost of the repair up front, or for extensive repairs that will cost above the legally allotted amounts. There could be potential consequences if the repairs are not made by an appropriately certified individual, or if the repairs alter the unit in a substantial way.

Even if you follow the law to the letter, your rights to use repair and deduct may not be respected by your landlord who may serve you a 3-Day Pay or Vacate Notice. If the landlord does this, you may decide to pay all of your rent under protest – including the amount you were going to deduct for repairs – and sue the landlord in Small Claims Court for the cost of the repairs.

Some tenants choose not to open themselves up to being served a 3-Day Pay or Vacate Notice by skipping the step of deducting the repair costs from the rent and instead write a demand letter for compensation from their landlord. If the landlord refuses, the tenant can also pursue the money in Small Claims Court. Before using any of the repair remedies above, tenants should consult with an attorney to get advice and information on their specific situation.

   3c) Put rent in escrow. 

 To Steps

This requires a specific legal process which is very complicated and extremely difficult to do effectively. You can find detailed information in Northwest Justice Project’s Tenants: What to Do If Your Rental Needs Repairs.

   3d) Seek a court order for reduced rent.

 To Steps

You may be able to go to court to ask a judge to issue an order to reduce your rent based on the landlord’s refusal to make necessary repairs. Such a court order would reduce your future rent payments until the landlord can show completion of the repairs to the court. This would prevent a landlord from trying to evict you if the court order gave permission to pay reduced rent. The court or arbitrator must first specify a time period in which the landlord may opt to do repairs before the tenant begins them. To seek legal advice on this process, review our Legal Assistance Guide.

4) Negotiate with your landlord.

 To Steps

Since laws regarding repairs have their limitations and are self-enforced, you may want to access resources to gain leverage in your negotiations with your landlord. Below are some more options you can try to persuade your landlord to make repairs necessary in your unit.

   4a) Request mediation.

 To Steps

Many counties in Washington have mediation services that assist landlords and tenants to resolve disputes. Mediators know landlord-tenant laws and may be able to assist you in the process of negotiating with your landlord. It is important to know that starting this process may not necessarily be well received by your landlord and could raise potential problems, including landlord retaliation. Find out more about mediation at Resolution Washington. Many of these services are free or low cost.

   4b) Call local Code Enforcement.

 To Steps

Many cities have Code Enforcement inspectors who can come out to ensure that residential units are in compliance with local building codes. Typically Code Enforcement will want you to first go through the initial repair process of notifying the landlord in writing of the need for a repair and waiting the appropriate timeframe. Response varies from city to city, and not all municipalities agree to do inspections.

Be aware that if your unit lacks water or electricity, or any other problem that makes it unlivable, it could be condemned by the city. If the unit is condemned, you will be required to vacate the unit. Call Code Enforcement to describe your situation and ask them what actions they are likely to take so that you can gather more information before you make the decision to file a complaint.

Some municipalities will be able to impose fines on the landlord, or otherwise penalize code violations. If the city provides inspections, be sure to ask for a copy of their report as this documentation can be very helpful.

For rental units located within Seattle city limits, the Seattle Department of Planning & Development (DPD) can be reached at 206.615.0808 for filing complaints. If you live outside Seattle, search for your city code enforcement office online, or call City Hall and ask for the office that enforces building codes. They are otherwise known as the Planning, Development or Building Code Enforcement departments.

   4c) Sue the landlord to get compensated for unmade repairs.  To Steps

“Warranty of habitability” is implied by both case law and the Landlord-Tenant Act. The warranty of habitability is the landlord's guarantee that residential property is safe enough to live in. If the unit is partially or totally uninhabitable because the landlord failed to make needed repairs, the tenant may be able to sue in Small Claims Court for a partial or total rent reduction for the period the unit was unlivable.

Bring evidence to document the severity of the repairs that may help the judge determine the appropriate amount of rent reduction to award. Thorough documentation of the severity of the repair is useful, including code inspection reports, witness reports and photographs. This also may be useful as leverage in your negotiations with your landlord. It is important to note that there may be potential consequences for suing your landlord while you are living in the unit. Your landlord may decide to countersue you in Small Claims Court for any costs they believe you owe. Additionally, they may take retaliatory action against you, including terminating your tenancy. Speak with an attorney for advice and information on how best to proceed.

 

Relocation Assistance Back to top

A state law passed in 2005 guarantees relocation assistance for renters whose properties are shut down by local officials due to the landlord’s negligence. The relocation assistance is $2,000 or three times the rent, whichever is greater. Cities and counties also have the option of paying the assistance to families upfront to help prevent homelessness and relieve the burden on local service agencies, and then collect the cost from the property owner. Tenant relocation assistance is not triggered by natural disasters or “acts of God.” While relocation assistance is provided for by the law, it is important to note that actually collecting from the landlord can be extremely difficult. Speak to an attorney for more information on how best to proceed.

If you are the resident of a motel, hotel or other transient lodging for more than 30 days, you are considered a tenant for the purposes of this statute and are eligible to seek relocation assistance.

A Seattle relocation assistance law provides benefits for residential tenants within the city limits who will be displaced by housing demolition, substantial rehabilitation, change of use, or removal of use restrictions on assisted housing. Benefits include payment of relocation assistance to low-income tenants and advance notice of the planned development. The Department of Planning & Development (DPD) may also issue an emergency order directing the housing to be vacated if there is an imminent threat to the health or safety of the occupants. Tenants who are required to vacate because of an emergency order are entitled to relocation assistance if they meet certain conditions. For more information, call the DPD at 206.615.0808 

Mold & Indoor Air Quality Back to top

Mold growth is common in the Pacific Northwest and extremely troubling. Many tenants report respiratory problems resulting from mold and mold allergies. These are very real concerns, and unfortunately the law falls far short of adequately addressing renters’ concerns with mold growth in their homes. Mold is only addressed in state law as a requirement for landlords to provide written information to tenants about mold and its health impacts (RCW 59.18.060 (12)).

Mold issues are generally considered to be repair concerns. While landlords do not have specific legal mandates to take care of mold problems, they are legally required to fix the problems that cause mold growth: moisture control and lack of adequate ventilation. Tenants can document these problems like any other repair issue and begin the process by documenting their repair requests in writing. Tenants can also document any health concerns, and it may be helpful to get a doctor’s note, especially if the tenant has pre-existing conditions and is more prone to problems because of mold.

Local Code Enforcement may be useful in helping you determine what repairs the landlord is responsible for. Mold testing can be informative but is often costly and will likely not ultimately influence your landlord to make the repairs necessary to make your unit livable.

Other factors such as smoking, chemical fumes and pesticides can impact renters’ health and aggravate asthma and allergies. There are currently not enough strong legal standards to regulate landlords’ use of chemicals in rental units, and it is up to individual landlords to determine whether or not they’ll allow smoking in buildings. Disabled tenants may be able to make reasonable accommodation requests to make the unit livable, and you may be able to negotiate with your landlord to solve other indoor air quality problems. Individuals or groups of tenants may be able to petition landlords to request nonsmoking policies and the enforcement of current lease terms.

 

Pest Infestations Back to top 

Landlords are obligated under state law to manage infestations in rental units, with an exception: in single family residences where the infestation is caused by the tenant. Infestations are considered repair issues and tenants should follow the Repair Process described above. If possible, document the infestation with photographs of signs of the infestation.

  

Repair Resources Back to top 

 

FAQs: Repairs Back to top


Q: What is the landlord required to repair?  To FAQs

 Landlords are responsible to make all repairs in the unit except in cases where tenants or invitees of the tenant cause the damage. Tenants may also be liable for repairs that are the result of unreported issues in the apartment if those issues cause further damage in the unit. State law outlines landlords’ obligations to keep your unit safe and livable. Landlords must also maintain their units to comply with all local codes that govern housing quality. Landlords must also provide adequate heat and hot water, provide adequate locks, maintain all structural components in reasonably good repair, and more. Read RCW 59.18.060 for a complete list of landlord duties.

Q: What repairs can my landlord hold me responsible for?  To FAQs

RCW 59.18.130 outlines a tenant’s responsibilities under landlord-tenant law. Tenants must keep their units clean and sanitary, dispose of garbage from inside their units, properly use the facilities and appliances supplied by the landlord, maintain smoke detector batteries and more. Tenants also must not damage the property or allow guests to damage the property. Tenants can be held responsible for damages caused by them or visitors invited to the property. A tenant cannot be legally charged for damages caused by the landlord’s negligence or for damage resulting from normal wear and tear in the unit. See our Deposits webpage for more details.

Q: How much can my landlord charge to fix items that I damage 
      in the unit?
 To FAQs

There are no specific legal standards pertaining to the cost of repairing damages. Tenants may have the opportunity to make the repairs themselves, with permission from the landlord depending on the type and extent of the damage as well as the terms of the lease. The tenant may also be able to negotiate with the landlord to have the repairs made. Generally speaking, a landlord can charge for the cost of materials, the cost of hiring a contractor, or the fair cost of labor comparable to regional rates if the landlord made the repair themselves.

When you vacate a unit, it is always a best practice to thoroughly document the unit before you move out. Otherwise tenants leave themselves open to be charged exorbitant fees or charged for damages that they were not responsible for. Protect yourself with documentation!

Q: Can I withhold rent to force the landlord to make repairs?  To FAQs

No. Tenants must be current in rent in order to access the repair remedies written into the law. Even if the repairs are extremely severe, withholding rent can leave renters vulnerable to eviction.

Q: My landlord began to make a repair within the legal timeframe
      but still has not fixed the problem after a considerable
      amount of time. Can I still break my lease even though  
      they started repairs?

 To FAQs

RCW 59.18.090 states the tenant does have the right to break the lease after the appropriate timeframe expires starting from when the landlord received a written repair request and the repair still goes on uncompleted within a reasonable time. However, there are some risks associated with this remedy, and it is a good idea to consult with an attorney before taking any action. Reasonable is not defined in the Landlord-Tenant Act. If possible, document the landlord’s attempt to repair if it is inadequate to fix the problem. Tenants may have a stronger case to break the lease based on the severity of the need for repair. For example, having no hot water or heat may have a different standard of reasonableness than replacing a cabinet.

Q: I can’t live in my unit because a pipe burst causing a flood. 
      Is my landlord required to put me up in a motel or move me
      to another unit?
 To FAQs

While state law does not specifically require landlords to move tenants to another unit or pay for motel stays, tenants have the right to ask these things of the landlord and negotiate to get them. Tenants can argue that they don’t have the obligation to pay rent for a unit during a time that they’re not able to live there or get full use of the unit. If the landlord disagrees and still asks for full rent, tenants still need to pay rent, but they can document financial and other damages caused because of the flooding (for instance, having to pay for a motel room, driving costs, or other financial damages). You can negotiate with your landlord for these things or take them to Small Claims Court to sue for compensation after the fact. Remember to always put it in writing! See the Repair Process section above for tools you can use to negotiate with your landlord.

Q: My apartment flooded due to faulty plumbing and all my 
      belongings were damaged. Is the landlord responsible to
      pay for the cost?

 To FAQs

State law does not specifically require this, but tenants have an argument that the landlord can be held liable for property damage. If the tenant has documentation that they had previously communicated with the landlord about the problem and the landlord took no action to fix it, the argument is stronger. If the tenant has not communicated with the landlord about the problem, then the tenant can argue that the landlord should have known about the problem. Other tenants in the building may have had similar problems and would be willing to testify or provide written statements. Communicating with other tenants is invaluable. This is another reason why it is helpful for tenants to hold on to copies of all of their repair requests. Landlords cannot be held liable for property damage resulting from a repair problem unless they knew or should have known about the problem. It is also a good idea for renters to get renters’ insurance that will cover the cost of any property damages.

Q: I can’t live in my unit because the mold is impacting my health. 
      Can I legally break my lease because of this?
 To FAQs

Other than a requirement to provide written information (RCW 59.18.060 (12)), there are no state laws governing landlords' responsibilities regarding mold removal. State law does give residential tenants the right to vacate their units and move if the landlord is not making necessary repairs. It will depend on whether or not the landlord attempts to fix the problem causing the mold to grow. The mold itself may not be cause enough to break the lease, but if the landlord fails to fix the leaky pipe causing the moisture that created the mold growth, then the tenant can follow the repair process to eventually break the lease. Thorough documentation is vital if you’d like to use this legal remedy, and there are some risks associated with this course of action. See the Repair Process above and Tenants: What to Do If Your Rental Needs Repairs for details. Tenants living with disabilities may also make reasonable accommodation requests to make the unit livable or to be allowed to vacate. To learn more about protections for disabled tenants and how to make a reasonable accommodation request, review the King County Office of Civil Rights website.

Q: What if I follow the repairs procedure and the landlord still isn’t
      fixing my unit?
 To FAQs

If you’ve tried all the resources available to you and exhausted your legal remedies, you may consider seeking legal help and assistance. See our Legal Assistance Guide for more information.

Q: Can I ask the landlord to put in better carpeting or refurbish 
      the countertops?
 To FAQs

In general, landlord-tenant laws do not cover cosmetic upgrades to units. You may be able to negotiate with your landlord to request upgrades to the property. You can also make improvements to the property yourself, but the landlord has no legal obligation to compensate you for them. If there is a repair problem with the carpeting or countertops, a tenant can ask the landlord to make the repairs through the Repair Process described above.

Q: Are there legal standards for how often a landlord has to replace 
      the carpet or repaint the walls?
 To FAQs

In general, landlord-tenant laws do not cover cosmetic upgrades to units. You may be able to negotiate with your landlord to request upgrades to the property. It is important that you not make any changes to the unit, even if you believe they will improve the property, without getting written permission from your landlord to do so. Keep in mind that any changes you make to the unit, even ones you consider improvements, could be considered damages by the landlord when you move out of the unit. If there is a repair problem with the carpeting or countertops to the extent that they are not useable, a tenant can ask the landlord to make the repairs through the Repair Process described above.

Q: My landlord says that they don’t have to make repairs in my 
      unit because my rent is so cheap. Is this legal?
 To FAQs

All tenants deserve to live in safe and decent housing, regardless of how much rent they pay. The legal standards to make repairs are the same for all residential tenants.

Q: I signed a lease stating that I have to make all the repairs in my 
      unit, and that I have to accept the unit “as is.” Can my landlord
      hold me to this?
 To FAQs

RCW 59.18.230 states that tenants cannot sign away their rights under the law. The landlord is still responsible for making all repairs for defective conditions that are not caused by the tenant or guests of the tenant. If the lease provision waives a duty that is defined under the law as the landlord’s responsibility, that section is legally unenforceable. For example, if a tenant moves into a unit with no working heat, even if the lease says the tenant is responsible for repairs, state law still requires the landlord to maintain appropriate heating for the unit.

Q: My toilet clogs regularly. We had to call a plumber out, and my 
      landlord is charging me the cost of the repair, saying that I use too
      much toilet paper. Is this legal?
 To FAQs

In this situation, the landlord is arguing that the tenant is responsible for the damages that require a costly repair. Unless the tenant has damaged the toilet by flushing things that cause clogs, the tenant has an argument that they were using the facility within normal use and that they are not responsible for the cost of the repair. The tenant can provide documentation in the form of prior repair requests or a report from the plumber clarifying the nature of the plumbing problem. If the move-in checklist indicates that the toilet was working fine when you moved in, it may be difficult to prove that the problems with the toilet were not caused by the tenant.

Q: I injured myself because the landlord didn’t make repairs in my 
      unit. Can I hold my landlord liable for the costs of my medical bills?
To FAQs

You may be able to take your landlord to court to sue for the costs of your medical bills. It is important to have documentation of the repair problems and your landlord’s negligence in fixing them. Seek legal advice from an attorney for a specific situation. Tenants have often found it helpful to consult with an attorney regarding health problems that result from mold. See our Legal Assistance Guide for more information.

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