A deposit is a deposit, right? Not necessarily. For renters, there are security deposits, pet deposits, cleaning deposits and damage deposits, to name a few.
And, of course, they can all be used to cover any amounts owed by tenants when they vacate.
Wait, what? A pet deposit can’t be used to cover unpaid rent? Cleaning deposits can’t be used to cover unpaid utility bills?
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Welcome to Deposits 101 — a brief guide to decoding the whats and whys of paying deposits when renting.
Any deposit collected by a landlord is essentially financial security to ensure a tenant performs their obligations under the rental contract and the Landlord-Tenant Act (RCW 59.18.130).
A deposit can be collected for virtually any purpose, as long as its purpose is specified in name. Examples include general “security” deposits, damage deposits, pet deposits and utility deposits.
Tenants should always expect a landlord to request some kind of deposit as a part of signing a rental agreement. There are, however, requirements of the landlord in order for any deposit to legally be collected, or to have costs charged to them and the end of the tenancy.
The most important step in collecting or paying a deposit is the completion of a “property condition checklist,” which details the condition of the unit before a tenant moves in.
Without a completed property condition checklist signed by both the landlord and tenant, the landlord has no legal basis to collect any form of deposit or make charges against a deposit when the tenant moves out.
Tenants should be as detailed as possible when completing the property condition checklist. This will ensure that they aren’t charged for anything that was already present when they moved in.
By definition, a deposit is always fully refundable at the end of a tenancy. This, of course, is conditioned upon the tenant meeting the requirements of the lease agreement, including any repairs of damages or cleaning necessary after a tenant moves out, closing of unpaid tenant utility accounts and unpaid rent or other fees not collected during the tenancy.
Tenants should expect to receive a “deposit refund statement” postmarked to the most recent address provided to the landlord within 14 days after the rental agreement ends.
A common misconception of deposits is that they are forfeited if the tenant terminates the rental agreement before its expiration. This is not the case, and tenants are advised to consult their lease for any “early termination clause,” or refer to the Landlord-Tenant Act.
Deposits can only be charged for issues related to their named purpose. That means a pet deposit can only be charged for costs related to expenses caused by an animal, a damage deposit can only be charged for costs related to damages caused during a tenant, etc.
A security deposit is the one exception to this rule — any charges may be assessed to a security deposit upon termination of the agreement, including unpaid rent, utility bills, damages and cleaning.
Charges made against a deposit cannot include anything related to normal wear and tear resulting from ordinary use of the rental unit.
If, as a renter, you find yourself in a roommate situation, it’s important to keep in mind that landlords typically accept deposits in the form of one payment.
This means that, while two tenants may split payment of a deposit equally, the deposit exists as a single amount and is refundable as such. If one tenant moves out and the other remains, the deposit stays with the property, and the former roommates would be expected to determine how compensation is made between the split costs.
More information about the payment of deposits can be found online. Search keywords “RCW 59.18” for the complete Landlord-Tenant Act.
Sean Martin is the director of external affairs of the Rental Housing Association of Puget Sound, a not-for-profit association of more than 5,000 landlord members statewide. Rental Resource is the organization’s biweekly column. For more information for landlords or tenants, visit rhawa.org.