I’m no stranger to moving, having done it every few years for one reason or another as life necessitates. I had begun to just expect not to get my deposits back, whether through a private landlord or company owned complex. Until recently, I thought I was stuck in my lease and had no grounds for fighting. All that changed when I recently moved, spent hours with a team of people cleaning every inch, and still somehow ended up with only 13% of my deposit returned.

The reasons were numerous and questionable at best. My main issue was that this was the third time in a handful of years when nobody in authority had actually done an inspection of my apartment with me. How, then, could they be charging me for ‘fixes’ having no idea if they were inherited fixes to begin with?

Due to my background in the legal field, I decided I wouldn’t let this stand. I spent weeks sending correspondence to the landlords arguing that I was entitled to my deposit. In my request to them, I included direct RCWs, as well as my own lease terms — none of which were acknowledged. I had one recourse available to me to make my position heard. I gathered my documents, alerted my potential witnesses, and on a Friday afternoon, went into the courthouse ready to file my papers. The clerk handed me several forms with information, and I paid their fee, gaining a hearing date.

The next day, I had the defendants served via post. On Monday, they had received the complaint and called me on Tuesday to discuss what could be done to keep it out of court. By that Friday, we had agreed on settlement terms (including interest, court fees, and a service fee of $80.00 along with the deposit) and the check was on its way to me. I had gained in seven days what I had been trying to do for weeks with letters, reasoning, and evidence to no avail. The process of taking a landlord to court may seem daunting, but it surely can be rewarding.

In Washington State, the laws of the Landlord-Tenant Act strongly favor the tenant. This aside, there are some considerations to make. It is important to read the terms of your lease, specifically if you are required to make a security or damage deposit. These two deposit types are different, and have separate legal definitions. For instance, a damage deposit can only be used if a tenant or their guest damages the property. A security deposit can be held to ensure payment is received during occupancy and at the time of vacation. Overall, neither one should be held unless both tenant and landlord do an inspection of the property and document what damages are present upon move in. After all, tenants are responsible for leaving the premises in the same condition as when they arrived.

So, if you paid a deposit and didn’t have a property condition list filled out (as happens most commonly), you have a strong argument for getting your deposit back. It’s important to be honest about what damages you are responsible for, and which you are not. Keep in mind that you are asking a judge to decide based on what you can prove. You can protect yourself by alerting the landlord if damages occur during occupancy. Although you cannot be held responsible for items past their useful life, be aware that the law does not define ‘normal wear and tear’.

Normal wear and tear is the deterioration of an item and it can be tricky to determine if the premises has degraded naturally or through fault of the tenant. Normal wear and tear may look like: nail holes, worn carpet, closet door off track, dusty blinds. Damages that would be a tenant’s responsibility in these cases are: large holes or dents in the wall, stains or ripped carpet, missing closet door, broken or bent blinds.

If the landlord determines that part, or all, of the deposit must be kept in order to correct damages, they must provide an itemization to the tenant. This itemization should list: (1) what the item is, (2) the actual cost of repair or replacement (not an estimate or final bill), (3) current age of item, (4) how long an item is useful before wearing out, (5) the remaining useful life calculation. The best way to protect yourself from unfair or untrue charges is to have a walk-through inspection from the time of move-in. Make sure to take photographic evidence at the time of move-in and move-out. If possible, have a friend or reliable person assist with moving so that you have a witness that can testify to the condition of the residence.

Now, if you feel you are being unjustly charged or if the landlord sends you a bill to cover expenses to damages more than your deposit, you have the right to file a complaint with the district court. Small claims has a cap of $5,000.00 and will require you to pay the filing fee (which is different for each county). But should you be successful in your case, you can earn up to double your damage deposit plus court fees (and legal fees, if required). The district court clerk has the forms available for anyone who drops by, and though they cannot advise anyone legally, they can assist you with how best to fill out the forms and provide documents that explain the process and what steps are necessary.

Once you’ve filed with the appropriate court (depending on where the defendant resides; in Benton/Franklin District Courts, the filing fee is $50.00) and received a hearing date, you must notify the defendant(s). This would be the owner of the property, and management company if there is one. You can have them served by either paying the Sheriff’s office/processes server ($50.00+), having a reliable friend or acquaintance deliver it personally, or through certified mail ($5.00). In any of these circumstances, you must fill out an affidavit of service to be able to present at the hearing. Without that, it can be argued that the defendant had no chance of response because they did not know. This would dismiss the case, and you would need to start over.

Should you arrive to your hearing date, you are allowed legal counsel, though most times that is not necessary. Have all documents in order, and copies available for the judge and defendant. If possible, ask your witnesses to be present. If they aren’t able to attend, you can get a statement from them in writing. Plead your case to the judge and be clear in what your expectation is. Landlords have deadlines they must meet according to statute in order to withhold your deposit (in Washington, it is 21 days after the date of vacancy to return your deposit or send an itemization for the reason of no return.) Did they violate the laws of the Landlord-Tenant act or are they unjustly charging you for normal wear and tear?

Know what outcomes might be. The judge could side with the defendant if you lack sufficient evidence or reasoning, or you could be awarded up to twice your damage deposit. It is best to attempt to communicate with the defendant, and if possible, settle outside of court. The system is busy, and judges may see a refusal to communicate as a hinderance and waste of the court’s time. There are many resources and information available online to best understand the law and your rights. A good place to start is WashingtonLawHelp.org.

SJ Massart is a Law & Justice Major, passionate UW fan, pre-COVID concert fanatic, novice poet, and staunch advocate for social transformation.

Photo by Phil on Unsplash