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Eviction Laws and Tenant Rights Washington

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In a Nutshell

Landlords in Washington can’t just change the locks, toss your belongings out on the front yard, or shut down essential utilities. A landlord must follow the eviction process in order to have a tenant evicted for any reason. Here's an overview of what this means for tenants in Washington.

Written by Upsolve Team
Updated December 27, 2021


Being evicted from your home is scary and confusing. There are so many special rules and procedures that make fighting the eviction seem like a daunting task. This article was written to provide an overview of Washington’s eviction laws, as well as explain what rights and legal protections tenants and renters have. This article is especially helpful if you’ve received an eviction notice from your landlord due to unpaid rent or you have a lease that’s about to expire. 

What Is Eviction? 

If a landlord wants to remove a tenant from a rental property, they’ll use a legal process called eviction. Washington’s Residential Landlord-Tenant Act outlines how landlords in Washington may evict a tenant. This includes giving prior notice and getting a court order to carry out the eviction. If the landlord doesn’t follow state law, they could be liable for an illegal eviction. Certain municipalities offer tenants additional rights during the eviction process.

Who Can Be Evicted in Washington?

In most cases, evictions are used when there’s a landlord-tenant relationship. This is usually outlined in a contract between a landowner and a renter. Both agree to certain conditions — including that the renter must pay rent in exchange for providing a place for the renter to live — to create a tenancy. 

Evictions are sometimes used when there’s no landlord-tenant relationship, like when a landlord wants to evict someone who’s living with the tenant, such as a roommate.

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Why Can Someone Be Evicted in Washington? 

In Washington, most evictions occur for one of three reasons:

  • The tenant is late, short, or behind on rent.

  • The tenant has breached one or more provisions in the lease (beyond the requirement to pay rent).

  • The tenant continues to live at the rental property even though the lease is no longer in effect.

The overall eviction process is similar regardless of the reason for the eviction. But there are major differences in terms of how much time the landlord must give the tenant in the eviction notice before filing an eviction lawsuit. Depending on the reason for the eviction, the tenant is entitled to written notice of up to 120 days.

Late, Short, or Behind on Rent? 

Washington considers a rental payment to be late if it’s not paid on its due date. Some leases may provide a rent payment grace period, which gives the tenant a few extra days to pay rent without facing eviction or potential late fees.

Lease Expiration or Termination

In Washington, landlords can evict a tenant who refuses to move out after the termination or expiration of the lease. But Washington is unique in that it limits when and how a landlord can evict a tenant in either of these situations.

With an expiring lease, Washington doesn’t allow a landlord to refuse to renew a lease unless they have a good reason for doing so. Some of the good reasons listed under Washington law include:

  • The tenant has sexually harassed others.

  • The rental property has been condemned.

  • The tenant is behind on rent.

  • The landlord is no longer renting the property to anyone.

  • The landlord needs the property for their family.

  • The tenant has participated in criminal activities.

  • The tenant is a registered sex offender.

  • The landlord wants to renovate the rental property.

The landlord may also terminate the lease in some cases. This usually occurs when the tenant commits a lease violation. But a landlord can’t evict a tenant for just one minor lease violation. Evictions due to lease breaches can only occur if the breach involves an important term in the lease or if there are four or more minor lease violations in a 12-month period. A landlord can still terminate the lease even if the tenant cures, or fixes, the four lease violations during the 12-month period.

The Washington Eviction Process 

Evictions can occur with commercial and residential tenants. But the following sections only cover residential evictions in Washington.

What does a landlord have to do to begin an eviction?

Before the formal eviction proceeding can begin, the landlord must serve the tenant with a written eviction notice. The amount of notice depends on the reason for the eviction. Here are some of the more common reasons for eviction and their notice requirements:

  • Nonpayment of rent: 14 days’ notice. During this time, the tenant must leave the property or pay all past-due rent.

  • Breach of a major or important term in the lease: 10 days’ notice. The tenant must either cure the breach or move out by this 10-day deadline.

  • Waste and/or nuisance: This refers to situations where the tenant’s behavior is causing serious problems for the rental property or other tenants. For example, the tenant causes serious property damage to the apartment building. Here, the tenant only gets a 3-day notice, with no opportunity to cure. The tenant has three days to leave the rental unit or face eviction.

  • Illegal activity: Depending on the nature of the crime, the tenant receives a 3-day notice to vacate the property. For more serious crimes, like a drug-related activity, the landlord isn’t required to give the tenant any notice before starting an eviction action.

The landlord must follow certain steps when giving an eviction notice to the tenant. Specifically, the landlord must serve the notice on the tenant in one of the following ways:

  • Personally giving a copy of the notice to the tenant.

  • Leaving a copy of the notice with someone of suitable age and discretion who lives with the tenant. The landlord must also mail a copy to the tenant.

  • If no one is at the rental property, the landlord can post the notice in a visible location, like the front door. The landlord must also mail a copy to the tenant.

What happens once the eviction action is filed with the court? 

In Washington, eviction lawsuits are also known as unlawful detainer actions. These begin when the landlord files a complaint in the appropriate court. In most cases, this will be the district court located in the same county as the rental property. The complaint contains the reasons the landlord wants to evict the tenant and the legal relief the landlord seeks. This can include monetary damages for unpaid rent and the removal of the tenant from the property.

The court then issues a summons, which briefly explains the nature of the lawsuit against the tenant and how much time the tenant has to respond to the complaint. The complaint and summons must be properly served on the tenant. Sometimes this is done after the complaint and summons have been filed with the court, but sometimes it happens before. Either way, the landlord must ensure that the appropriate individual (typically a sheriff’s deputy, constable, or anyone over the age of 18 not involved in the eviction lawsuit) serves the tenant by one of the following methods:

  • Personally handing the tenant a copy of the summons and complaint.

  • Leaving a copy of the summons and complaint at the tenant’s residence with someone of suitable age or discretion that lives with the tenant.

If neither of the above two methods is possible after reasonable efforts, the tenant may be served by leaving a copy of the summons and complaint with anyone of suitable age and discretion at the tenant’s usual mailing address and mailing a copy via first-class mail to the tenant at their usual mailing address.

The tenant has three options for responding to the complaint and summons:

  • Do nothing and have a default judgment entered against the tenant. Here, the landlord automatically wins the eviction lawsuit, which may include a monetary judgment award in addition to evicting the tenant from the rental property.

  • File a Notice of Appearance with the court. This is an acknowledgment from the tenant that they’re responding to the eviction lawsuit against them and want to be notified of any developments in the case.

  • File an answer with the court. This is where the tenant responds to the landlord’s allegations, including listing any defenses to the eviction. Tenants will have at least seven days to file their answer, but they could have up to 30 days.

Either during service of the summons and complaint or after, the tenant will also receive an Order to Show Cause. This will list the time and date of the eviction hearing. At this hearing, each side will appear in court with the landlord explaining why the tenant should be evicted and the tenant setting out any defenses. If the tenant meets low-income eligible requirements, they have a legal right to counsel. This means they get free legal representation for the eviction hearing. The judge will often make a decision at this eviction hearing, but if they feel more information is necessary, they’ll order a trial.

If the tenant doesn’t appear for the eviction hearing or eviction trial, the court will likely enter a default judgment in the landlord’s favor. So if the tenant has legal defenses they want to raise, they must appear for their eviction hearing.

Telling Your Side of the Story: Affirmative Defenses and Counterclaims

Most defenses to eviction take one of two forms. The first form is the affirmative defense. This is a legal defense that directly counters the landlord’s reasons for eviction. If you want to use an affirmative defense, you have the burden of raising it in court. If the court accepts it, it stops the eviction.

A common affirmative defense is that the landlord didn’t give proper notice about the reasons for the eviction. Here, the court will usually throw out the landlord’s eviction case, although the landlord can restart the eviction process after they serve you with proper notice.

The second type of eviction defense is the counterclaim. A counterclaim is a legal claim that’s separate from the eviction, although it may rely on facts that relate to the eviction. As a result, even if you successfully make a counterclaim, it’s still possible to get evicted. A possible counterclaim could be that the landlord used self-help eviction methods, which are illegal. Depending on what the landlord did, you could get monetary damages from the landlord, even if they successfully evict you. 

What Happens After an Eviction Trial?

If the landlord wins, the court will issue a judgment setting out any money you owe the landlord (if applicable). The landlord can then ask the court to issue a writ of restitution. This is a court order and your final notice to move out or have a sheriff’s deputy physically remove you. You’ll often have about three days after getting served with the writ of restitution to leave the rental property. 

If your eviction is due to you not paying rent, you’ll get at least five days to move out after judgment is entered against you. During this time, you’ll have the chance to avoid eviction by paying the full rent that you’re behind on (plus any applicable late fees and court costs) to either the landlord or the court. If you decide to do this, make careful note of applicable deadlines and who you’re supposed to pay. 

You can delay the execution of the writ of restitution by filing a Motion to Stay Enforcement of the Writ of Restitution and for Payment Plan. If the court grants the motion, it allows you to continue living at the rental property by agreeing to a reasonable repayment plan. This allows you to make regular payments for the money you owe the landlord. You also have the option of filing an appeal if you feel the court incorrectly decided your eviction case.

If you win your eviction proceeding, consider asking the court to grant you an Order for Limited Dissemination. This limits the ability of the general public (and potential landlords) to see an eviction in your rental history. If a prospective landlord sees the eviction lawsuit, it could make it harder to find an apartment or other rental property in the future, even if you won your eviction lawsuit.

Practical Tips for Tenants Facing Eviction in Washington

Facing an eviction is a challenge, so if you decide to take on your landlord in court, you want all the advantages you can get. One of the best ways to improve your chances of success is to be as prepared as possible. This means gathering potential evidence as soon as you learn about the eviction. Potential evidence includes documents, videos, photographs, and witness testimony. If your defense relies on the condition of the property, consider having a municipal building inspector visit the property and prepare a report about the rental unit’s condition.

Do everything you reasonably can to respond to the complaint and appear at your eviction hearing. If you need extra time or need the court to reschedule your hearing or trial, contact the court and ask. If you have a good reason for having your court date rescheduled, the court will usually oblige. And if they can’t, at least you’ve given the court notice that you won’t appear (but want to), so it’s less likely they’ll enter a default judgment against you.

Don’t ignore your landlord when they reach out to you. This can cause conflict and make it harder to discuss a potential agreement with the landlord. With open communication, you may be able to come to an agreement with your landlord outside of court. For instance, they may give you more time to cure a lease breach or make up missed rent payments. Or the landlord may give you more time to move out or agree to drop the eviction lawsuit. While moving out may seem like losing the eviction lawsuit, it’s still a better result as it avoids having an eviction show up in your rental history. 

If you reach some sort of agreement with the landlord, document everything. This starts with putting the agreement in writing and signing it. Your landlord (or the landlord’s representative, such as a property manager) should sign it too. Also document how you meet their conditions. For example, if you had to make repairs to the rental unit by a certain date, get an invoice from the contractor showing not only that the repairs are complete but when they were completed. If you need to make up rental payments, use a personal check to help create a paper trail.

Lastly, don’t give up. There are many resources, like rent assistance, available to tenants in need. A tenant’s rights lawyer or nonprofit legal aid organization can offer legal advice to help you with your eviction proceeding. There are also rental relief programs to consider, such as rental assistance programs or Washington State’s Eviction Resolution Pilot Program that’s available in several counties, including King County.

Tenant Resources in Washington



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