Knowing your rights as a tenant is like defensive driving: By doing it before an incident happens, you can protect yourself from loss of money, evictions and lawsuits.
Finding a place to live does not look the same for everyone. People may have a number of barriers such as income restrictions, criminal records, disabilities, etc. But even for someone with the perfect rental history and background, it is still important to know your rights.
As a tenant, you not only have laws protecting you, but you also have responsibilities. During the first steps of searching for housing, it is important to know what landlords are looking for in a tenant. Landlords will often do a background check looking at an applicant’s credit score, criminal record, and income history. If you have barriers to renting, prepare yourself by asking landlords what would cause an automatic denial of an application to save yourself time and money.
Make sure you are aware of what is on your record and know your credit score. Each individual has the right to one copy of their credit report per year. Once you are aware of what is on your credit report, you can work on cleaning it up. You will also be better prepared to explain the circumstances and what you are doing to improve it to a landlord.
Furthermore, be sure to check your legal records. Landlords can file an eviction with a court in as quickly as three days. Eviction filings are publicly accessible and can be searchable by name through electronic court records. Eviction filings are permanent, though a tenant can ask a court to issue an order of limited dissemination, which would bar the filing from appearing in a tenant screening report.
Once you have examined all this information, you can start house hunting. If you find that you have a number of barriers restricting your ability to rent, look for a landlord willing to work with your special circumstances. Individual landlords are more likely to be flexible than large management companies.
You can also look into getting statements of support from people who can speak to your being a good tenant, such as former landlords, probation officers, neighbors or roommates. They can be a great resource to advocate for you or assist with your housing search. Once you find a property you are interested in, start preparing questions about and researching the housing, property and management.
Deposits & communicating with landlords
It is important to have good communication with landlords even before you secure property. When contacting your landlord, make sure you have written copies of your communications. This is important when it comes to holding and damage deposits.
Upon move-in, make sure you have seen the exact unit that you will be moving into. Oftentimes, landlords will show a model room to all tenants. Reasons given may be your unit is undergoing repairs and/or maintenance, or your unit is in use. But landlords are allowed access to any occupied unit with a 24-hour notice, so make sure you see your exact unit before signing anything.
After a unit is offered to a prospective tenant, he or she may be asked to place a holding deposit to “reserve” it. If the tenant moves in, the deposit must be used for either first month’s rent or toward the security deposit. If the tenant declines to move in, the landlord may keep the deposit. However if an applicant is denied approval to rent, the landlord must return the holding deposit.
Also, once you have seen your unit and choose to move in, do not hesitate to do a walk-through and take pictures of original conditions upon move-in. This will help when you move out and it’s time to get your damage deposit back.
No one wants to be that annoying tenant – but as a renter, you have the legal right to ask your landlord for necessary repairs at any time. It is best to make repair requests in written form. Once landlords receive these, they must begin to fix the problem(s) within a certain amount of time depending on the problem. If your landlord does not begin repairs, speak with an attorney to discuss your legal options. Never withhold rent, because this may lead to the beginning of the eviction process due to rent nonpayment. Instead, wait the allotted time, and if repairs are not made, seek legal help before taking action.
With reasonable cause, landlords can evict tenants at any time – but they do have restrictions. Renters in Seattle have some protection from the “Just Cause” Ordinance, which lists specific reasons landlords may evict a tenant. For example, a tenant can receive a 3-Day Notice to Pay or Vacate due to nonpayment of complete rent. A tenant can receive a 10-Day Notice to Comply or Vacate if they have not complied with rules, such as having a pet in their residence without landlord approval. Finally, a landlord may file a 3-Day Notice for Waste or Nuisance for eviction if a tenant has participated in illegal activity on the premises or causes major damage or unlawful harassment.
Landlords cannot retaliate against tenants due to a conflict of some sort. For example, they cannot lock out a resident. If a landlord is trying to evict, they must go through the legal eviction process. Landlords cannot shut off utilities, take or sell a tenant’s property, or rent condemned property. If your landlord is performing any of these actions, seek legal help immediately.
Solid Ground provides a number of services for tenants, such as a tenant services hotline, Rent Smart workshops, and legislative advocacy – and maintains a For Tenants website with a wealth of self-help information for renters. If ever unsure, just remember these important tips from one of our very own tenant counselors, Trish Abbate:
1) Be proactive! Take responsibility and know your rights.
2) Stay current on rent to be able to assert your rights under the law.
3) Never withhold rent over repairs!
4) Document all communication with landlords in writing.
5) View your actual unit and read the rental agreement before signing.