As a landlord in Washington, there will likely come a time when you’ll have to deal with a tenant wanting to break their lease or rental agreement.
Under Washington state law, they can want to do so for a variety of reasons, including:
- Moving closer to the new place of work
- Moving closer to family
- To move in with a partner
- To upsize or downsize their rental
- Moving out due to separation or divorce
Now, these reasons for breaking a lease are not all legally justified under the Washington landlord-tenant law. When they are legally justified, you must not hold your tenant legally and/or financially responsible for breaking their lease. Examples of legally justified reasons include moving out if they're a victim of domestic violence or due to landlord harassment. In both cases, all the tenant needs to do is provide you with written notice that they are moving out along with proof of their legal justification.
In the case of reasons that aren’t legally justified, you can hold your tenant legally and/or financially responsible for early lease termination. Examples of this kind of situation include breaking the lease to move into their new home or moving out to get closer to their new place of work.
Rights & Responsibilities of Tenants
A lease or a rental agreement is a legally binding document. Once signed, both parties are bound by its terms. This means, for example, that you must not evict your tenant from the unit before the end of the lease term unless they seriously violate the terms of the lease agreement.
You also cannot change the terms of the lease once it’s been signed, such as to raise the rent amount. The only exception is if there is a provision included in the lease that allows you to do so. Even then, you must ensure you are not overstepping the local rent rules.
Similarly, the lease holds your tenant responsible for various things, such as having to pay rent without fail every month, whether they live on the rental property or not. This means that even in the event that the tenant breaks the lease halfway through the term, they will still be responsible to pay the entire rent amount remaining in that lease period.
Reasons to Legally Break a Lease in Washington State
Under the Washington law, the following are justified reasons to break a lease early.
Reason #1: The tenant is a domestic violence victim.
In the state of Washington, there are special rental provisions for tenants who are victims of domestic violence. When a tenant makes the request to end their lease due to domestic violence you have the right to verify the claim. In such a case, your tenant may give you proof of a restraining order from the police. (RCW §§ 59.18.575(1b)).
Reason #2: You are harassing them.
Harassing your tenants, if serious enough, can be sufficient justification for your tenants to break the lease early. Examples of tenant harassment include failing to make repairs, raising the rent without proper notice, or locking them out of the rental.
Reason #3: You violated their right to privacy.
Washington tenants have the right to the quiet enjoyment of their unit, even if they rent the unit. This means that you cannot barge in on them without first notifying them of your entry.
As per the statute ((RCW §§ 59.18.150(6)), you are required to give your tenant a notice at least 2 days before your intended entry. If you fail to send this notice, your tenant may have legal grounds to break their lease.
Reason #4: The rental unit is not habitable.
Your tenant can also break the lease before the lease term has ended if you fail to maintain your unit to habitable standards. When they rent the unit, they expect it to abide by Washington's safety, health, and building codes in order to ensure it's habitable.
Failure to maintain those living standards, especially if you have received repeated requests from your tenant, and a court would probably consider your tenant to be “constructively evicted”. Consequently, your tenant would have no further obligations under the lease. For more on evictions in Washington, click here.
A habitable rental unit is one that has:
- An adequate supply of water and heat as reasonably required by a tenant.
- Appropriate garbage receptacles.
- Properly functioning locks.
- No pest infestations, unless the infestation is caused by the negligent actions of the tenant.
- Properly maintained and functioning electrical, heating, plumbing, and heating components.
For more details on what constitutes a habitable rental unit, please check RCW 59.18.060.
Reason #5: Your tenant is a servicemember and has received a change of station orders.
The servicemembers’ act protects members of the military who have been deployed or received a change of station orders from facing legal penalties for breaking their lease. This provision only applies to service members, which includes members of the armed forces, the activated National Guard, commissioned corps of the Public Health Service, and the commissioned corps of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
If this is the case, the tenant would need to give you a written notice stating their intentions to move out. The notice must also be accompanied by a copy of their deployment orders, as well as proof that they will remain on active duty for at least the next ninety days.
Reason #6: There is an early termination clause in the lease agreement.
Today, an increasing number of landlords are including an early termination clause to their lease, allowing tenants to end the lease early. In exchange, tenants are required to pay a penalty fee. Landlords must determine this penalty fee. Landlords may decide for it to be something like the equivalent of two months’ rent.
Reason #7: The tenant is threatened with a deadly weapon.
Tenants may also move out if you or a fellow tenant threatens them with a deadly weapon that results in an arrest.
A tenant may also choose to break their lease agreement with legal justification for any of the following reasons:
- Concerns about their safety or security
- Health reasons
- Irreconcilable problems with the management or neighbors
- Noise problems
Landlord’s Responsibility to Find a Replacement Tenant
For the sake of mitigating damages, a Washington landlord must take reasonable steps to re-rent the unit once a tenant moves out. This means that a tenant may not be wholly responsible to pay the entire amount remaining under the lease agreement. That is if the landlord is able to find a tenant before the expiry of the original lease term.
Conclusion: Breaking a Lease Early in Washington
Understanding the Washington landlord-tenant act can help you find more success with managing your tenants and your rental property, and more success with understanding how to legally break a lease. It can also help you avoid running into costly and stressful legal issues.
If you require help navigating these circumstances or understanding the WA state law, please consider seeking legal help or hiring an experienced property management company, like Windermere Property Management.
Disclaimer: This blog shouldn’t be used as a substitute for professional legal advice. Laws change from time to time, and this post might not be updated at the time of your reading. Please get in touch with us for any queries you may have in regards to this content. For legal advice, contact an attorney.