You’ve picked your place and you are ready to sign your lease! That’s great. But here’s the thing: The #1 most important thing you can do to make your renting experience a good one, is to:
READ YOUR LEASEYou heard us. We know it’s long and it’s got a lot of legal jargon in it. Maybe you don’t understand the terms or you are feeling pressured because you really need a place to live. But your lease is a legal document and it’s important to understand what you are signing onto. If you are having trouble understanding the legal terms, make an appointment to sit down with one of the peer advisors at WWU’s AS Legal Information Center!
LEASES WITH ROOMMATESIn a household where all roommates are listed on the same lease, one tenant being late or not paying their rent can result in the eviction of everyone on the rental agreement unless the other roommates pay for it. Think of yourselves as being one entity for legal purposes.
Document everything in writingIf you are worried about your roommates not being able to pay rent, you might be able to ask for a separate rental agreement or lease when you move into the unit, so you will not be responsible for your roommate’s responsibilities if they can’t manage them.
Read the details of your rental agreementLookout for whether the rental agreement accurately reflects:
- the current tenants and
- the amount of deposit money, if any, each tenant has given towards any deposits or fees
Protect your depositDeposit costs may be divided among each tenant moving into a unit, or may be paid individually. If it is not set out in your rental agreement, be sure to get thorough documentation of the amount each tenant pays, and what the landlord requires when one tenant leaves and another moves in. The landlord may have the new person moving in pass their deposit money to the tenant moving out. For more information head to Washington Tenants Union!
Screen roommates well before you move inIf you are listed on a rental agreement who turn out to not be responsible renters, you may end up having to pay for their irresponsibility.
Keep communication lines openWhile renting with roommates you may also find it helpful to have monthly or quarterly meetings to check in about house rules, utility bills, chores and responsibilities and address any concerns openly rather than waiting until the situation has escalated or someone is behind on their utility portion of the bill, for example.
DEPOSITS & FEESWhen you are going through the process of renting a house or apartment, you will encounter lots of deposits and fees to be paid, each with their own set of rules associated with them. Under the law: deposits are by nature refundable & fees are non-refundable charges!
Screening FeeThis is a fee that the landlord uses to order a background check on you. The landlord charges for how much the background check costs and their own time in filing the background check. If they decide to deny you the rental based on something that they learned through the background check, they have to inform you in writing what it was. Be honest and write down anything that might come up during the background check; if they do find something that you didn’t put down, it can be grounds for automatic dismissal.
Holding FeeThis is a fee that the landlord charges to hold the unit for you until you sign the lease. If you don’t end up renting that unit, the landlord can keep the full holding fee, but if you do end up renting it, the fee has to be applied to the security deposit or first month’s rent.
Damage/Security DepositThis is a deposit charged by the landlord that is used to cover any unpaid rent or damages.Most rental companies want the rental unit to be restored to the “move in condition” or how it was when you moved in. Your landlord CANNOT use your security deposit for wear-and-tear damages (ex: dingy paint, worn carpet) IF documented by you at the move in process. They have 21 days after you move out to either put the full deposit in the mail or send you an invoice or estimate stating what the deposit will be used for. Ask your property management company if you can request a Pre-Move Out Walkthrough which can help clear up what is normal wear and tear and what you need to clean/replace to get your deposit back. Keep your walkthrough (with pictures), that was signed by both you and your landlord/property management company; this can be used if there is a dispute where damage has occurred.
Cleaning FeeA fee that the landlord collects from the tenant to pay for cleaning after the tenant has left. This fee is non-refundable.
Pet/Animal FeeA fee that the landlord collects from the tenant to pay for a pet/animal that lives on the rental property. This fee is non-refundable. *Make sure you understand what your landlord or property management company constitutes as an animal; your fish or lizard is a pet too!
Pet/Animal DepositThis is a deposit that can be collected to help with damages that your pet might cause. The landlord is required to give you an itemized list after you move out that would account for your pet deposit being used; otherwise it should be refunded to you. Be sure to note damages on your move in, with pictures in case of dispute!
Last Month’s Rent Paid in AdvanceThis is exactly what it sounds like. It can only be used for the agreed-upon last month of the lease’s rent, so if you move out early it must be refunded.
Legal termsMany people feel overwhelmed when they sit down to sign a lease. There’s a lot of legal-speak, fine-print, and fines, and some leases can have illegal provisions in them. But not to worry! While renting your own place is a serious responsibility, you are not without protection. Most tenants in Washington State are protected (and regulated) by RCW 59.018, the Washington State Residential Landlord-Tenant Act.
- Require the tenant to stay for a specific amount of time (usually one year).
- Restrict the property owner’s ability to change the terms of the rental agreement.
- Sets guidelines for the tenant to follow.
- Tenancy is terminated on final date of term.
Month-to-Month Rental Agreements
- For an indefinite period of time.
- Rent is payable on a monthly basis.
- Property owner or tenants have to give at least 20-days’ notice before next time rent is due minimum, to end the agreement and move. This must be agreed upon by all parties and submitted in writing & signed by all tenants and landlord.
- Rent can be raised at any time, but you must be notified 30 days in advance.
- Most property management companies don’t prorate rent with monthly leases.
Illegal LeasesIt’s important to remember that just because it’s in a lease, does not mean it’s legal! Most property owners are not out to take advantage of their tenants, but some may inadvertently include illegal provisions in their leases out of ignorance of the law. Make sure your lease doesn’t contain any provisions that:
- Waive your rights as set forth by the Landlord-Tenant Act.
- Waive your right to defend yourself in court against a property owner’s accusations.
- Limit your property owner’s liability in situations where s/he would normally be responsible.
- Allow your property owner to enter your rental without proper notice.
- Require you to pay for all damage to your rental, even if you didn’t cause it.
- Require you to pay your property owner’s attorney fees under any circumstances if a dispute goes to court.
- Allow your property owner to seize your personal property if you fall behind in rent.
Change of TenancyDecided you want to go away for the summer or go back home? If you are not going to stay a whole year at the unit, then you will likely have to change or break your lease. Talk to your landlord or property management company as soon as you know. If you want to break your lease early and have found a replacement for yourself, instead of subletting, get your landlord to make a new lease with them as the primary tenants.
WHY YOU SHOULDN’T SUBLET OR ADD AN ADDITIONAL ROOMMATE WITHOUT ASKING YOUR LANDLORDCheck your lease! Most property management companies in Bellingham have leases that do not allow subletting and that is probably a good thing. If you sublet your place to someone it still leaves you responsible for any damage, late bills, or not paying rent. It might seem inconvenient, but it will save you a lot of trouble in the future by talking to your landlord and getting an addendum(for example; a change of tenant) added to your lease.
Breaking your LeaseCheck your lease to see what the fee will be for breaking it, before you sign. The Landlord-Tenant Act allows only four reasons for breaking a lease without a fee during the term. They are:
- RCW18.200: A call to military service.
- RCW18.090: As a response to a repair concern that the landlord isn’t taking action to fix within a specific timeframe. Click here for details and more information on utilizing this remedy.
- RCW18.575: Protections for domestic violence survivors, stalking or sexual assault, or unlawful harassment by a landlord or landlord’s agent
- RCW18.352, RCW59.18.354: A tenant is threatened by a neighbor with a deadly weapon resulting in an arrest, and landlord fails to file an eviction action; the tenant is threatened by the landlord with a deadly weapon resulting in arrest. For more information, see Roommates & Neighbors.