Washington State Lease Agreement Laws on Breaking a Lease Guide

As a landlord in Washington State, there will probably come a time when you have tenants wanting to terminate their lease or rental agreement. There are many reasons a renter might want to pursue this action, and they include the following:

  • Moving closer to a new location for work
  • Moving closer to family
  • To move in with a partner
  • To upsize or downsize their rental
  • Change in marital status

It is important to know that these aforementioned reasons for breaking a lease are not all legally justified under the Washington landlord-tenant law. However, when they are legally justified, the landlord cannot have the tenant legally and/or financially responsible for breaking their lease. Examples of legally legitimate reasons include moving out if they are a victim of domestic violence or because of landlord harassment. 

Even if the reason for breaking a lease in Washington State is justified, the renter must provide relevant notice to the landlord. Otherwise, the renter will have to negotiate with the landlord especially if the renter is under a long lease, such as one that lasts one year. Doing this will help the renter limit any legal and financial consequences. 

When it comes to reasons that are not legally justified, you can hold your tenant legally and/or financially responsible for getting out of the lease early. This could include scenarios like breaking the lease to move into their new home or moving out to be closer to their new location for work. 

Rights and Responsibilities of Tenants

It is important to emphasize that a rental agreement is a legally binding document. Both signatories, the renter, and landlord are bound by the terms outlined in the rental agreement. For example, a tenant cannot be evicted from the unit prior to the end of the lease term unless they significantly violate the terms of the lease agreement. 

Additionally, the terms of the lease must not be altered after it has been signed, and that includes the purpose of raising the rent amount. There is only one exception to this rule and that is if there is a provision included in the lease that permits you, the landlord, to do so. However, you must still be certain that you are not exceeding the local rent rules. 

The renter is accountable for various aspects of the rental agreement and they include having to pay rent every month, even if they do not reside on the property. For instance, even if the tenant breaks the lease halfway through the term of the lease agreement, they are still responsible for paying all of the rent amount remaining for that lease period. 

How a Lease can be Legally Broken in Washington State

The following are justifiable reasons to terminate a lease early under Washington State law. 

Reason #1:  The tenant is a stalking or domestic violence victim. 

There are special rental provisions for tenants in Washington State who are victims of stalking or domestic violence. You have the right to verify the renter’s claim when a tenant makes a request to end their lease for domestic violence reasons. In this instance, the tenant can provide you with proof of a restraining order from the police. (RCW 59.18.575 (1b). 

Reason #2:  Landlord harasses the tenant. 

If you, as the landlord, are harassing your tenant, then the tenant has adequate justification to break the lease early.  Harassment examples include failing to make repairs, raising the rent without notice, or locking the tenant out of the rental unit. 

Reason #3:  Landlord violates the tenant’s right to privacy. 

This comes down to the landlord not coming into the tenant’s unit without first notifying them of the landlord’s entry. 

Specifically, statute (RCW 59.18.150 (6)), means the landlord must give the tenant a notification at least two days before entering their unit. Absent a notice, the tenant could have legal justification to get out of their lease. 

Reason #4:  The rental unit is not habitable. 

Your tenant can legally break their lease before the term is up if the landlord does not maintain the unit to habitable standards. The tenant has the right to expect that the landlord adheres to the Washington safety, health, and building codes to make sure the rental unit is habitable. 

If the landlord does not ensure these living standards, and especially if the tenant has made repeated requests for maintenance action, a court would likely consider the tenant to be “constructively evicted.” As a result, your tenant would have no additional obligations under the rental agreement. 

A habitable rental unit is described as:

  • A sufficient 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 negligent actions by the tenant. 
  • Properly maintained and functioning electrical, heating, plumbing, and heating components. 

Reason #5:  Your tenant serves in the U.S. military and has received a change of station orders. 

The servicemembers’ act protects members of the U.S. military who have been deployed or received a change of station orders from having to be subject to penalties for terminating their lease. However, this provision just applies to service members, and that 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). 

Under these circumstances, the tenant would have to provide written notice notifying the landlord of their intentions to move out. Along with this notice, there must also be a copy of their deployment orders, as well as proof that they will remain on active duty for a minimum of the next 90 days. 

Reason #6:  An early termination clause exists in the lease agreement. 

Nowadays, more landlords are including an early termination clause to their leases, permitting tenants to break their lease early. In turn, tenants must pay a penalty fee. The landlord is charged with setting the penalty fee. What’s more, the landlord can determine for it to be something like the equivalent of two months’ rent. 

Reason #7:  The tenant is threatened with a deadly weapon. 

Tenants can legally move out of their rental unit without penalty if a landlord or another tenant threatens a tenant with a deadly weapon that results in an arrest. 

Other Reasons Tenants Can Legally Terminate Their Lease Agreement Early

  • Concerns about their safety or security
  • Health reasons
  • Irreconcilable problems with the management or neighbors
  • Noise problems

Understanding the Washington landlord-tenant laws can help you be a more successful landlord by more effectively managing your tenants and your rental property. You will also be more informed on how to legally break a lease agreement. This knowledge can prevent a landlord from undergoing expensive and frustrating legal issues.

Full-Service Property Management with Jerry D. Abrams Company, Inc.

Jerry D. Abrams Company, Inc. is uniquely focused on providing an ideal experience for the owners and tenants of commercial and residential real estate. We give owners and tenants this great experience by using over forty years of property management and leasing expertise.

We aggressively work toward reducing operating expenses and increasing cash flow for our clients. Our team of professionals has the experience of managing investment properties for more than 40 years. 

Our objectives include performance excellence, professionalism, communication, responsive/personal service, and attention to detail.