What if my landlord doesn’t return my security deposit?
Navigating the ins and outs of security deposits can be a daunting task for tenants in Washington State. This comprehensive guide will help you understand the purpose of a security deposit, your rights as a tenant, and the steps you can take to ensure a smooth move-in and move-out process.
What is a security deposit?
A security deposit is a sum of money that a tenant pays to a landlord before moving into a rental unit.
The security deposit serves as a form of financial protection for the landlord in case the tenant fails to fulfill their obligations under the rental agreement. These obligations can include paying rent, covering the costs of repairs for damages caused to the property, and cleaning the unit when vacating.
In Washington, landlords can charge tenants any amount they want; there is no maximum security deposit. Nevertheless, the security deposit is typically equivalent to one or two months' rent.
Do I have to pay a security deposit?
The vast majority of landlords in Washington require tenants to pay a security deposit. However, Washington landlords can give tenants the option of paying a monthly fee in lieu of a security deposit. This fee is called a “monthly deposit waiver fee.”
Although the monthly deposit waiver fee is typically less than a security deposit and can be paid over time, it’s non-refundable, meaning you won’t get the money back when you move out.
If a landlord collects a security deposit, they must provide the tenant with the following:
- A receipt for the deposit
- A written rental agreement
- A checklist or statement describing the rental unit’s condition that’s signed by the tenant and the landlord
- The name and address of the bank where the landlord is keeping the security deposit
Does my landlord have to return my security deposit?
Once your lease ends and you move out, your landlord is required to return your security deposit within 21 days, minus any deductions for unpaid rent, damages, or other expenses outlined in the rental agreement. If your landlord doesn’t return your full security deposit, they must provide you with a written explanation as to why the full deposit was not refunded.
The Washington Landlord-Tenant Act does not provide a specific definition of “normal wear and tear,” but the term typically refers to deterioration that occurs from the intended use of the rental unit and without negligence, carelessness, accident, misuse, or abuse of the premises or contents.
What can I do to improve my chances of getting my security deposit back?
To improve your chances of getting your security deposit back, take the following steps:
- Conduct a thorough walk-through inspection of the rental unit with your landlord before moving in. Document the condition of the property with photographs, videos, and a written checklist signed by the landlord.
- Keep the rental property clean and well-maintained. Notify your landlord of any issues as soon as they present themselves.
- Clean the rental property thoroughly before moving out. This includes cleaning the floors, walls, carpets, surfaces, windows and mirrors, light fixtures, and the inside and outside of appliances. If you can afford it, have a professional cleaning done.
- Take all personal belongings and trash with you when you move out. Don’t leave furniture in the unit or even outside the unit on the street with a “free” sign.
- Request a move-out inspection with your landlord, during which you can both review the property’s condition together. Document the final condition with photographs, videos, and a written checklist signed by the landlord.
What if my landlord doesn’t return my security deposit?
If your landlord fails to return your security deposit within 21 days, you have three primary options:
- Contact your landlord: Landlords are human. It’s possible your landlord simply forgot to return your deposit, in which case a polite text, phone call, or letter may be all it takes to get your security deposit back.
- Contact the Washington State Bar Association: If you need low-cost legal assistance, contact the Washington State Bar Association, and ask about its lawyer referral program.
- File a lawsuit in small claims court: Small claims court is part of the district court in Washington. Visit your local district court and ask the clerk for a Notice of Small Claim form. Fill out the form, pay the clerk the filing fee, and mail a copy to your landlord.
In Washington, if your landlord wrongly withholds your security deposit, you can ask the court to award you twice the amount of your deposit.
Consider the following hypothetical:
John Smith, a tenant in Seattle, Washington, moved out of his rented apartment on October 1st, 2023, after giving proper notice to his landlord, Jane Olsen. Upon moving out, John left the apartment in a clean and orderly condition, with no damage beyond normal wear and tear. He provided Jane with his forwarding address and expected to receive his full security deposit of $1,200 within 21 days, as required by Washington State law.
However, 21 days passed, and John did not receive his security deposit or any written statement detailing any deductions made by Jane. John attempted to contact Jane several times but received no response.
John filed a lawsuit against Jane in small claims court for the return of his security deposit. He provided evidence to support his claim, including photographs of the clean and undamaged apartment, copies of his lease agreement, a copy of the canceled check for the security deposit, and proof of his attempts to contact Jane regarding the matter.
During the court hearing, Jane was unable to provide any evidence justifying her retention of John's security deposit. The judge ruled in favor of John, awarding him twice the amount of his security deposit ($2,400).
Still have questions? The following resources may help:
- Washington Guide to Landlord-Tenant Laws
- Landlord and Tenant Responsibilities in Washington
- Can I Sue My Landlord for Mold in Washington?
- Tenant Rights and Rental Repairs in Washington
- Guide to Security Deposits in Washington