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Renters' rights when things go wrong

For many, “home” is a place they rent, not own. Sadly, not all rental properties are kept up to snuff!

Both renters and landlords have clearly spelled out rights and responsibilities in our state. Helping both tenants and landlords understand those rights is one of the many services we offer free of charge here at NeighborWorks of Grays Harbor.

In this column we’ll focus on the rights of renters. And next week we will examine the rights of landlords.

In particular, we are discussing today what rights a tenant has when a rental house or apartment unit needs repairs.

Ensuring things are fixed up

If you are concerned that the housing unit you are renting needs to have something fixed, the first thing to know is that to pursue remedies outlined in the Landlord/Tenant Act of Washington State (RCW 59.18.070) you, the tenant, must be current in rent and utilities.

This is the biggest mistake that people make, said our housing counselor Julie Galligan.

“Of course, we understand why folks may not want to pay their rent when the landlord won’t make repairs. But unfortunately if they don’t pay rent, it not only nullifies any recourse they have but it also sets them up to face eviction,” she explained.

If something in your rental unit needs repair, you must notify the landlord (or the person who collects the rent) in writing per RCW 59.18.070 A notice of defect must be sent to landlord by first class mail and it shall include cost to make repairs. A phone call does not constitute “notification of repairs.”

If the problem is threatening to your health and safety, you can contact your local building department and request an inspection. A written report of the findings will be given to the landlord and copies made available to you.

Depending on the type of repair, the landlord has a specific time to fix the problem after receiving written notice.

For instance, if you have no hot or cold water, electricity or heat, or if there is a “condition imminently hazardous to life,” the landlord has 24 hours to fix the issue.

If the problem is a broken refrigerator, range, oven or major plumbing fixture, such as a toilet, the landlord has 72 hours.

For all other repairs, the landlord must begin the repair within 10 days.

What if the landlord doesn’t act?

If your landlord doesn’t make the requested repair by the deadlines, you have five options:

1. Give written notice that because they failed to make the repairs in the time allotted, you have chosen to move. Under this option, you are entitled to break your lease and any pro-rated rent and deposits must be refunded to you.

2. Hire an attorney and go to court. (These matters cannot be heard in small claims court.) Or, if both parties agree, participate in a mediation service.

3. Hire someone to make the repairs and deduct the cost from the rent. You must submit at least two estimates of the repair costs to the landlord ahead of time.

If the job requires a licensed trade person (electrician, plumber, etc.) you can contract with the lowest bidder to have the work done. You must wait either 10 days after giving written notice or five days after the landlord receives the estimates, whichever is later.

If you hire someone to do the repairs, the total cost cannot exceed one month’s rent per repair, and no more than two months rent in a year.

4. If you’re handy, you can make repairs yourself as long as it’s not the kind of work that requires a licensed trade person. If you do make the repair, you can deduct both labor and material costs from the rent. In this case, the cost cannot exceed one-half a month’s rent for one repair and no more than one month’s rent in a year.

5. Your last option is that if a government entity (city, county or state building code department) has deemed the unit unsafe and after notifying your landlord in writing and waiting the prescribed time for the repair, you can put your rent money in an escrow account. (Under this option you may also be entitled to relocation assistance.) This option is very technical and cannot be fully described here.

Whatever option you choose, be sure you have stated your intentions in the original notice.

How to serve notice

How you serve the notice to the landlord is very important. We strongly recommend that you mail the notice by regular mail and deliver the notice personally. This can be done by an uninterested third party taking the notice to the landlord’s home or place of business.

If the landlord is not local, use certified mail with a return receipt and regular mail. This establishes a paper trail to prove you’ve followed procedure in making your claim.

If you are dealing with a property manager or agent, send a copy to the owner also. The owner is not always aware of what their agent is doing or not doing. The owner’s address can easily be obtained through the Grays Harbor County Assessor’s website.

Be sure you keep a copy of all written communication. It’s important to make the complaint as soon as possible.

If you need assistance in preparing these documents and/or compiling the necessary paperwork, call the office at (360) 533-7828 for an appointment and our housing counselor can help you put the information together.


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