The laws governing security deposits in the state of Washington are fairly standard. There is no limit on how much landlords can ask for, but there are strict regulations that determine when a landlord can legally deduct from the deposit at the end of the lease. Washington law also has the benefit of being fairly easy to read and understand—always a good thing for tenants without legal backgrounds.
Deposits have no cap—but can’t be charged without a written lease
In Washington, landlords are free to charge tenants any amount as a security deposit. However, a landlord and tenant must sign a written lease in order for the landlord to collect a deposit—if the lease is oral, the landlord has no right to request a security deposit.1
Landlords must store security deposits in trust accounts
When they receive a security deposit, a landlord must store the money in one of three places:
- A state or federal financial institution
- A formal trust set up solely for security deposits
- With a licensed escrow agent
The landlord must provide the tenant with a receipt for the deposit, as well as a written notice of where the deposit is being held (although the law never specifies a timeline for when the landlord has to provide such a notice). The landlord isn’t required to pay any interest earned on the deposit to the tenant—they may keep it for themselves.2
Landlords must transfer deposits if the property is sold
If a landlord sells their property, they must transfer the deposit to the new owner. Similarly, if a landlord is foreclosed on, they must ensure that the deposit transfers to the party foreclosing on the property. Alternately, they can “promptly” and “immediately” (as per the law) return the deposit to the tenant. If they fail to do so, the landlord is potentially liable for double the amount of the deposit, plus the tenant’s attorney fees.2
Landlords can only keep a deposit under specific circumstances
Leases in Washington are explicitly required to spell out the fact that some (or all) of a security deposit can be withheld if the apartment is damaged. If a lease fails to state this, the deposit must be refunded to the tenant at the end of the tenancy as long as their rent is paid up.
At the beginning of a tenancy in Washington, a landlord must give their tenant a written record of the current state of the property. The law specifically states that the landlord must note the “condition and cleanliness” of the unit, including the “walls, floors, countertops, carpets, drapes, furniture, and appliances.” The written checklist must be signed and dated by the landlord. A failure to do this means the landlord may be liable to the tenant for an amount equal to the deposit, plus attorney fees.
Landlords must return deposits within 21 days
A landlord must return any unused portion of a deposit to a tenant within 21 days of the end of the lease (or alternately, within 21 days of the tenant’s abandonment of the property). At this time, the landlord must also provide the tenant with a “full and specific statement” laying out exactly why any funds were withheld. If the landlord neglects to do any of this, they are liable to the tenant for an amount equal to the deposit. If a court finds that the landlord intentionally failed to comply with this law, they may be forced to pay the tenant double the amount of the deposit (as well as, of course, returning the deposit) and the tenant’s court costs.3
Landlords may delay because of circumstances beyond their control
The law says that a landlord may have a defense if circumstances “beyond the landlord's control” made it impossible for them to return the deposit and provide the statement in time.3 But what exactly does that mean? Only one published court decision has pondered the question.4 A landlord was late returning a tenant’s security deposit—but the facts of the case revealed that after the apartment had been vacated, he waited 12 more days before allowing contractors access to perform renovations. Had he hired the contractors promptly, the court determined, he would not have been late returning the unused deposit.
The court found that for circumstances to truly be “beyond” a landlord’s control, the landlord must demonstrate that they did everything possible to send the deposit and statement before the deadline. For example, if a contractor was late getting back to the landlord with an estimate, the landlord must show that even despite the contractor’s delay, they promptly hired that contractor and did everything in their power to obtain a timely estimate.
Make sure your lease doesn’t include any unenforceable terms—and that both landlord and tenant understand their responsibilities under the rental agreement.
The information provided on this website does not, and is not intended to, constitute legal advice.
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