Negotiating Your Lease

Deposits and Fees

In Washington if a landlord charges you a deposit there must be a written rental agreement (lease) and a condition inspection checklist. These should be signed by both landlord and tenant and each party should have their own copy. Landlords can also charge non-refundable fees. They cannot technically charge a non-refundable deposit. Be sure to check your lease or other written agreements for the official nature of any fees and deposits. Unlike in some other states, there is no limit on security deposits in Washington. The following are some types of deposits and fees:

  • A security deposit protects the landlord from monetary damages that you might cause. For example, if you decide to move out without paying rent, your landlord could keep part of the deposit to cover the loss. This does not necessarily cover physical damage to the property.
  • A damage deposit protects the landlord from physical damages you may cause to the rental that remain at the time that you move out.
  • A holding fee is paid to keep a rental available for your option to move in. This is probably non-refundable but is likely applicable to your first month's rent.
  • Last month's rent is a form of holding fee. While non-refundable, it is your last month's rent paid up-front when you sign the lease.
  • Cleaning fees are used to clean the rental after you move out. The landlord cannot withhold part of the damage deposit to pay for cleaning costs due to normal wear-and-tear. It should technically be listed as a separate fee.
  • A presentation fee is a non-refundable fee that will be used to advertise the rental after you move out.

Signing a Lease

Written rental agreements come in two forms. The more common for Puget Sound students is a lease. Leases require the tenant to stay for a specific amount of time, typically a year. A lease must be in writing to be valid. During the term of the lease, the rent cannot be raised or the rules changed unless both the landlord and tenant agree. View a sample lease.

Month-to-month agreements are for an indefinite period of time, with rent typically paid on a monthly basis. Under this kind of agreement, the landlord can raise the rent or make other changes to the agreement with 30 days written notice. Month-to-month agreements offer flexibility but perhaps less security to landlords and tenants.

Read written rental agreements completely (and then read them again!) before signing. Lack of knowledge of the terms of the lease does not relieve you of obligations and responsibilities. Everyone who will be living in the residence should sign the lease individually! As your read over the lease, take note of the following:

  • How many months long is the lease?
  • Is it possible to add other people to the lease later? Is subletting an option, and if so, does the landlord have the final say in approving the subletter?
  • What access is expected by the landlord? Does s/he have to notify you before entering the property?
  • What are the responsibilities of tenants? Do they include lawn work or general maintenance? What utilities are not included in the lease?
  • How is rent to be paid? When is rent due? Is there a grace period or a late payment penalty?
  • What are the requirements to receive a full refund of your deposit? Is there an extra non-refundable fee for smoking, pets, or cleaning?

Some provisions which may appear in rental agreements are not legal and cannot be enforced under the law. These include requiring the tenant to waive rights given to them by state regulations. If you have any questions about a lease, don't hesitate to ask the landlord.

As you discuss a lease with a landlord, make sure to put all verbal agreements into writing. Verbal agreements are binding between two parties but they are difficult to prove in a court of law. Write down your agreement, and make sure both tenant and landlord get a signed and dated copy.

Condition Inspection

An inspection of the rental unit before it is first occupied is very important. An inspection checklist is often part of the lease, or completed at the same time the lease is signed. It should note all damages (such as damage to walls or woodwork, number of nail holes, carpet or floor stains, missing fixtures, and condition of appliances). Note that the checklist is intended as a record of the condition of the rental unit, but does not obligate the landlord to make any repairs; tenants and landlords should discuss repairs. Information about completing the condition inspection checklist before moving out in order to get all or part of your damage deposit back.