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Unlawful Detainer and Eviction FAQs

In Washington, eviction is called "unlawful detainer." Unlawful detainer requires a specific set of procedures that the landlord must follow and a court process that must be strictly adhered to. Landlords have rights in the State of Washington, and those rights can be protected through legal action.

Below, experienced Washington eviction/unlawful detainer attorney Quinn Posner answers frequently asked questions to help you understand your rights as a landlord and how to successfully evict a tenant.

  • Can I evict a tenant without going through the court system?
  • How long does an unlawful detainer action usually take?
  • What is a three-day notice to pay or vacate?
  • Does the tenant have to move out in the three-day period?
  • If the tenant offers the back rent before the three-day period is over, does the landlord have to accept it?
  • What if the tenant wants to stay in the rented home?
  • Is the tenant allowed to negotiate with the landlord to stay in the home?
  • Are there a certain number of days of "grace period" after the rent is due that the tenant can pay late?
  • Can I include "late fees" for failing to pay rent on time in the rental agreement?
  • Is the tenant allowed to withhold rent if the landlord does not make necessary repairs?
  • Is a landlord allowed to lock the tenant out of the rental?
  • Will there be a record of the tenant's eviction?

Can I evict a tenant without going through the court system?

No. It is illegal for a landlord to remove or attempt to remove a tenant from the property without following the legal process. This is true even if the tenant is behind in paying rent. An eviction, called "unlawful detainer" in Washington, requires that all of the specific steps set forth under the law are followed.

How long does an unlawful detainer action usually take?

Unlawful detainer actions typically take about two to three weeks from start to finish. Depending on the facts of your case, it can be longer or shorter. Many cases take less time if your attorney can work out a deal that convinces the tenant to leave without fighting the eviction.

What is a three-day notice to pay or vacate?

A three-day notice to pay or vacate is a document the landlord provides to the tenant as a consequence of the tenant's failure to pay rent. The notice informs the tenant of the late rent amount and advises the tenant has three days to pay the late rent or vacate the premises. If neither occurs, the landlord will file an eviction action. According to RCW 59.12.040, the notice must be served by

  • leaving the notice with the tenant in person, or
  • if the tenant is not home, the landlord can leave it with another person of "suitable age and discretion within the household," or
  • posting it on the door and sending a copy of the notice in the mail.

Following the notice requirements is important if you want a tenant to leave the premises.

Does the tenant have to move out in the three-day period?

No, the "three-day notice" does not require that the tenant leave the premises within that time. The tenant cannot be forced out of the home in that period, and he or she cannot be removed without going through the formal court unlawful detainer process.

Some tenants choose to move out in the three-day period. The three-day period is a warning to the tenant that if he or she does not move out in that time frame, the landlord will file an eviction action with a Washington court. Certain tenants may choose to leave voluntarily to avoid the filing of an unlawful detainer action against them. Leaving within the three-day period or paying the back rent is the only way to avoid the unlawful detainer action being filed against the tenant.

If the tenant decides to leave on his or her own, the landlord should document the agreement to protect the landlord's rights.

If the tenant offers the back rent before the three-day period is over, does the landlord have to accept it?

When a tenant offers to pay the back rent within the time frame set by the three-day notice to pay or vacate, the landlord must accept it. At that point, the tenant can no longer be the subject of an eviction for unpaid rent unless the tenant again fails to pay his or her rent.

What if the tenant wants to stay in the rented home?

If the tenant wants to stay in the home, he or she will likely not leave in the three-day period provided by the 3-day Notice to Pay or Vacate. With the help of an experienced unlawful detainer attorney, you can move forward with an eviction action if the tenant has otherwise breached the terms of the rental agreement and you have proof of the same.

Is the tenant allowed to negotiate with the landlord to stay in the home?

The landlord and tenant are allowed to negotiate outside of the court system. You are allowed to talk to and negotiate with the tenant directly if you choose to do so. As the landlord, you are not required to, but sometimes there may be advantages to keeping the tenant rather than eviction.

You can also negotiate through your attorney. An attorney can often be more successful in giving power to your negotiating skills and can protect your rights, while ensuring you comply with Washington law.

In either case, any agreement reached between you and the tenant should be put down in writing. Make sure that the agreement is signed by both parties and that the agreement is dated. Keep a copy for yourself in a safe place. If you do not get the agreement in writing, there may be a later dispute in court. You want to avoid any doubt about what the agreement was between you and your tenant.

Are there a certain number of days of "grace period" after the rent is due that the tenant can pay late?

Under Washington law, there is no "grace period" that allows a tenant to pay rent late. A late payment is a late payment, and the tenant is subject to any penalties spelled out in the lease or rental agreement.

However, a lot of lease or rental agreements allow for a certain "grace period" in the document itself. For many, this "grace period" is between three to five days to account for normal accidental late payments. Landlords are bound to the terms of the lease, and breach of the lease agreement can be a defense to an eviction action.

If you have included a "grace period" in the lease with your tenant, you must respect that period before you may evict the tenant.

Can I include "late fees" for failing to pay rent on time in the rental agreement?

Late fees are allowed under Washington law, so long as they are not deemed unreasonable. If there is a late fee, it needs to be clearly spelled out in the rental agreement. The tenant is bound by the terms of the agreement, and late fees may be imposed according to the agreement's terms. Late fees may be included in any back rent the tenant owes if you are eventually forced to evict him or her from the property.

Is the tenant allowed to withhold rent if the landlord does not make necessary repairs?

Yes, in some cases, a tenant is permitted by law to withhold rent if the landlord fails to make necessary repairs, but it is often your last resort and is known as "repair and deduct."

According to RCW 59.18.100, if a tenant provides the landlord with proper written notice regarding a necessary repair, but the landlord does not make repair or does not finish it within the proper time period, then the tenant can remedy this situation. The remedy involved completing the repair and deducting the amount from rent.

The tenant, however, can only deduct up to two months worth of rent. Thus, if rent is $1,000 and repairs cost $2,250, the tenant can only deduct $2,000, which is two months rent. The tenant is responsible for the remaining $250. There are specific procedures the tenant must follow, and if he or she does not, then he or she may be liable for the costs of repair and for the full amount of rent.

Is a landlord allowed to lock the tenant out of the rental?

No. RCW 59.18.290 makes clear that landlords cannot lock out tenants. This includes changing the locks, blocking or barring doors, or blocking a driveway or other access to the property.

If a tenant is removed or excluded from the property in violation of the law, the tenant can recover possession of the property or terminate the rental agreement, and in either case recover the actual damages sustained as a result.

Actual damages may also include the costs of the lawsuit or arbitration and reasonable attorney's fees. As a landlord, you should never violate this rule, as the financial penalties you could face will be quite high.

Will there be a record of the tenant's eviction?

Yes, when a tenant is evicted, that eviction is recorded and remains on the tenant's permanent record. The tenant's record is searchable by the public.

Many tenants would rather not have an eviction on their permanent record and are willing to leave voluntarily as a result.

Consult a Washington Eviction/Unlawful Detainer Attorney

If you have a tenant who has violated the terms of the lease, you have rights that can and should be protected. There are specific steps that must be followed to successfully and legally evict a tenant, but with the help of a knowledgeable attorney, you can feel confident that your landlord rights are cared for.

Experienced eviction attorney Quinn Posner represents clients in Camas, Washougal, Vancouver, and the rest of Clark County. Contact Quinn Posner today to schedule a free consultation.

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