(Editor’s note: In response to reader questions and concerns regarding housing conditions in Washington state, the Northwest Service Journalism team and Bellingham Herald staff have teamed up to offer insight into housing horrors plaguing current renters. The first article in the series was on the legality of different fees and deposits for renters, you can read it here. Reader questions about renting for future stories can be submitted at the bottom of this article.)
Imagine being a renter post-pandemic, navigating your way through extremely high prices, a housing shortage and a difficult climate for many tenants. If you’re younger, lack of experience is a disadvantage. If you’re older, other limiting factors like health and retirement status can be a disadvantage. If you’re single, it’s easier to be taken advantage of, but if you have a family, you’re more likely to agree to restrictive terms.
No one is in an advantageous position while looking for a place to rent — except the landlord.
There are specific parameters that landlords are supposed to follow, but it is important for renters to know those boundaries.
What happens if you know your rights as a renter and have confirmed your landlord is breaking these rules? It’s easy to feel like the little guy when compared to your landlord or housing authority. But there are systems in place for renters whose landlords do not follow the rules.
Responding to rule-breaking landlords in WA
As discussed in the first Housing Horrors story, there are specific rules for each fee and deposit agreed upon between landlord and tenant. The law in Washington clearly states when money must be returned to the tenant and under what conditions.
What happens if you know your money should be returned, but the landlord keeps it? How can you get it back?
Follow these instructions to secure your money. All information, unless otherwise noted, is sourced through the Revised Code of Washington and the Northwest Justice Project.
When can I take action against my landlord?
Any time the law has been broken, you can file a claim to get your money back. The first Housing Horrors story has a more detailed breakdown of these scenarios.
Here is an overview of common scenarios you can take action against:
- Your landlord does not return your security deposit within 30 days and does not send a detailed, itemized statement explaining why it was kept, following the rental agreement.
- Your landlord used your damage deposit for anything besides unit damage caused by you or your guests.
- Your landlord used your holding fee toward anything other than your security deposit or first month’s rent.
- Your landlord went through foreclosure and did not transfer your money to the new owners, who must provide a refund in full immediately after the foreclosure sale or transfer.
Telling your WA landlord they broke the law
You can file with small claims court to earn your money back, legal costs and sometimes additional awards.
How long do I wait to get my money back?
Regarding any deposits, you should hear from the landlord within 30 days of moving out. If you don’t, write a detailed letter explaining your situation before moving to legal action.
What do I say after 30 days?
Ask for your deposit(s) back, listing the deposit type and dollar amount. Include mention of the day you moved out and lack of communication in the 30 days following. Request your deposit be immediately returned to your current address, and list where you’d like it sent. Mail this through certified mail, return receipt requested, keeping a copy of the letter and the mail receipt for your own records.
What if you hear from your landlord within 30 days, but they disagree with any charges?
If you hear back and the landlord refuses to pay, write a dispute letter in response, with a detailed explanation of your side. Include any proof you have, like photos, documentation, etc. You can agree to a charge but disagree with the total amount and request proof of costs.
Mail this through certified mail, return receipt requested, keeping a copy of the letter and the mail receipt for your own records.
If the landlord’s response is nonexistent, vague or uses estimate costs instead of written proof, Washington law states you may be entitled to your deposit back times two.
Filing in WA’s small claims court
If sending a letter does not resolve issues or disagreements between you and your landlord, you can seek up to $10,000 in small claims court within three years of your move-out date.
Speak with a lawyer — whether hired help or free resources, legal expertise is critical through this process. There are also possible risks and benefits involved in any legal proceeding, experts should make sure you understand potential risks. Generally, lawyers cannot take part in the legal proceedings in small claims court, but they can offer legal advice while you prepare.
Free and discounted legal assistance is offered to tenants filing against current or former landlords through:
- Washington Law Help Legal Aid Directory
- Moderate Means
- WSBA Legal Help by County
- Tenants Union of Washington State (for reference to legal experts, not for legal advice)
- Washington State Pro Bono Council
Who do I file against?
The defendant will be the owner and/or manager of the property, whomever you paid rent to.
Who do I file with?
Find the right small claims court to file with. Look for the small claims division of the district court covering the property. Check online to find the right one, but if you’re unsure, a clerk will be able to confirm specific addresses.
How do I file in small claims court?
Once you’ve found the right court, ask the clerk for a “Notice of Small Claim” form. Depending on their specific procedures, the clerk will either mail it to you or have you fill it out in person. If it’s mailed, you’ll have to fill it out, get it notarized for a small fee, and mail it back to the court. If you fill it out in person, the clerk must witness you signing the form.
The court clerk will get the original form. This will cost a small fee, generally under $50. Request at least two copies of the form. You’ll likely get your trial date after filing.
Tell WA landlord about claims filed
The defendant must be informed of a small claim being filed. You can have this hand-delivered or mailed. The defendant must be informed within 10 days of the court date.
How can I hand-deliver the notice of a small claim?
Hand-deliveries must go directly to the defendant, or in the case of an absentee landlord, a rental manager. You cannot be the one to hand-deliver the notice. However, you can have a friend who is at least 18 deliver the form, so long as they are not personally involved or a witness in the case. You can also ask the local sheriff’s office or a professional process server. Whoever delivers the notice has to sign a Certificate of Service, which you’ll then file with the court clerk.
How can I mail the notice of a small claim?
You can mail the form at the post office counter as registered or certified mail. Ask for “Return Receipt Requested,” meaning the defendant will sign a receipt when they get the form, which gets back to you. Make a copy of this and take it to the court clerk. Bring the original receipt to your trial. It is advised that mailed notices go out at least 13 days before the court date.
Preparing for small claims trial in WA
Before your trial, get as much evidence as you can. This includes receipts, written statements or agreements, photos, bills and the like. Bring anything that may help you prove your case, as well as anything to defend yourself against counterclaims, if any were filed. You’ll be able to submit this proof as evidence during trial.
Ask witnesses to support your case. Witnesses can’t be subpoenaed for small claims court in Washington state, but anyone with personal knowledge of the case can testify as a witness.
Your court may have information available providing an overview of small claims court proceedings. Ask the clerk what is available. Also ask when small claims trials are held, and consider watching a trial or two yourself to prepare for yours.
Practice presenting your case in a short, organized manner, featuring all key points. Have questions for the defendant and your witnesses ready beforehand.
Trial proceedings in WA small claims court
On the day of your trial, check in with the court clerk to find out which courtroom is yours. It is likely there will be other small claims cases in the same courtroom with the same judge. When proceedings start, the judge will go over court procedure and often include case order. Then, all the plaintiffs, defendants and witnesses for the day’s cases will swear to tell the truth. The judge will then call one case at a time. When it’s your turn, go up with your witnesses and proof.
What are the defendant’s and plaintiff’s responsibilities?
You have the burden of proof during the trial, meaning you have to prove that the defendant owes you money. The defendant is not required to prove anything, just argue their case.
How do I present my case in small claims court?
When you explain your case, you’re telling your side of the story. Describe what happened from your perspective, why you think the landlord owes you and that you followed all proper protocols. Go over your evidence and question your witnesses about what they saw or heard.
What happens after I present my case?
The judge might ask you or your witnesses questions during the trial. After you present your side and question your witnesses, the defendant will also be able to ask you and your witnesses questions. Try to stay calm during this process, carefully and calmly answering any questions. They’ll also get to share their side uninterrupted. You’ll get a chance to defend yourself against any claims made by the landlord, once the judge refers back to you.
After hearing both sides during the trial, the judge will either announce their ruling immediately or take more time to study the case. If the latter occurs, a written decision will be released in the following few weeks.
What happens if I win?
If you win, the court will not collect for you. You will have to work out payment with the defendant. You can approve a payment plan or accept cash or check. If the landlord pays in cash, provide a signed written receipt. Once you have been paid in full, inform the court clerk in writing.
I won in small claims court. The landlord still won’t pay.
If the defendant can pay, but won’t, and no appeal has been filed, you can update the court after 30 days. Ask the court to certify the judgment for a small fee. Once the judgment has been certified, the court can have the defendant’s resources “garnished.” Since the landlord wouldn’t pay on their own, garnishment allows the court to take money from the defendant’s bank account or wages in order to pay you. In some cases, you may be able to have their property seized and sold to pay the debt or institute a lien.
If you need a lawyer during this process, you can add the cost, along with the certification fee, to the total amount owed to you by the defendant.