As a landlord, when a tenant vacates the premises before the conclusion of a fixed-term lease in Washington without fulfilling the remaining rent obligations, it is referred to as breaking the lease. There are, however, justifiable and unjustified reasons for breaking a lease early.

In the event that a tenant has a justifiable reason for early lease termination in Washington, they still have to  provide a proper written notice to the landlord. Should tenants meet the criteria for legally breaking a lease, you, as the landlord, need to know how to proceed. If the tenant seeks to break their lease without valid cause, you need to know how to protect yourself and legally enforce penalties.

Based on the complexities of lease terminations, knowing your rights and obligations as a landlord under state law is vital. Be that as it may, the terms of the lease ultimately dictate the consequences of breaking a lease early before the lease term ends. Our team here at T-Square Property Management would like to inform you of what you need to know about early lease termination in Washington.

Renters Rights and Responsibilities When Signing a Lease

A lease agreement obligates both the tenant and landlord to adhere to its terms for a specific time. In the state of Washington, for instance, unless a lease runs out, a landlord cannot raise the rent or change other terms unless allowed in the lease.

landlord tenant act and early lease termination being signed with a silver pen

Landlords also cannot force their tenant to move out, unless they violate the Washington lease agreement. And even then, they have to follow the due legal process. For example, under the Washington Rev. Code Ann. § 59.12.030(3) statute, landlords are required to serve their tenants a 3-day notice to pay the rent or leave. If the tenant causes any serious damage to the rental unit, the landlord is mandated to serve them with an unconditional quit notice.

Under the lease, tenants are legally bound to pay rent for the full lease term (usually one year), regardless of whether they continue living in the rental unit or not. There are instances in which a tenant can legally break the rental agreement and end the tenancy before the remaining lease term ends, they are as follows:

Unlawful Harassment by the Landlord

If landlords repeatedly violate a tenant’s rights to privacy, the tenant may have grounds to break/ terminate it. The tenant may also break the lease if their landlord changes the locks or turns off their utilities. A judge might rule that the tenant has been “constructively evicted,” and therefore rule in their favor.

To avoid conflict and potential lease termination and abide by Washington Law, landlords must ensure that they give a one or two-day written notice before entering a rental property. They must also provide all services promised in the lease.

landlord knocking on a door with a clipboard in their other hand

They’re a Victim of Stalking or Domestic Violence

Under Washington Rental laws, a tenant can break a lease if they’re a victim of domestic violence or stalking. There’s a caveat though: they need to show proof of the domestic violence crimes, like a police report to their landlord.

The Landlord isn’t Taking Action to Fix Property Issues within a Specified Timeframe

It’s a tenant’s right to live in habitable housing under local and state housing codes. A court might rule that a tenant has been “constructively evicted” if a landlord fails to provide habitable housing.

As a landlord, make sure to take all maintenance requests seriously and perform regular inspections to catch issues before they become serious problems. Make sure to give tenants adequate notice before entering the property and provide them with updates as you work to rectify issues.

The Tenant is Called to Active Military Service

A tenant has a right to break a lease if they enter active military service after signing a lease agreement. They are required to give landlords a written notice stipulating their intent. Once the landlord has the notice, the tenant will have 30 days before the lease term ends.

There’s an Early Termination Clause in the Lease

A growing trend among landlords is the incorporation of an early termination provision in lease agreements. This provision permits tenants to conclude their lease before its scheduled end, albeit with the condition of paying a penalty fee and providing a certain amount of notice. The determination of this fee is at the discretion of landlords, with some opting for an amount akin to two months’ rent.

landlord tenant laws and lease expiration

When Breaking a Lease in Washington is Not Legally Justified

Legally unjustified reasons for breaking a lease include:

  • Moving to be closer to family
  • Relocating for school or work
  • Looking to downsize their living arrangements

That said, even with the absence of a legal justification to break a lease, under Washington landlord-tenant law, the tenant may not have to pay the total remaining rent due under the lease. They’ll only pay the rent that the landlord loses as a result of terminating the lease. If the owner has to re-rent the unit at a lower amount than the one originally stated in the lease, the tenant will have to compensate for the difference. Other charges that the tenant may have to pay the landlord include:

  • The cost of advertising the property, and;
  • Tenant screening costs. The rental owner doesn’t need to relax standards for acceptable Washington State tenants.

Tenants will only be liable for the amount of time the unit was vacant if landlords can fill the vacancy early. However, if it takes a longer time to get a new renter, the costs could be substantial. What’s more, when a tenant breaks the lease, they aren’t typically entitled to their security deposit.

Bottom Line

By understanding the justified and unjustified reasons for lease termination, landlords can protect their investments and keep their rental business legally compliant. If you have further questions, consider working with the experts at T-Square Properties today!

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