In this article, we’ll discuss some of our favorite questions about the Washington eviction process. If you’re looking for an overview on the process, check out our Washington State eviction guide, or our guides for Tacoma and Seattle.
Below, we discuss the following questions:
- Can I lock the tenant out instead of evicting them?
- Can I inspect the unit?
- Can a landlord just raise rent till the tenant leaves?
- Can you get a judgment for attorneys’ fees from your tenant?
- Do I have to go through the eviction process to remove a guest from a hotel, motel, or Airbnb?
- Do I have to go through the eviction process to remove a squatter?
- Can I retake the premises after a tenant has abandoned it?
Check out the table of contents to the right to navigate to the relevant section. >>>
Can I lock the tenant out instead of evicting them?
Not legally. It’s illegal to lock out your tenant without going through the eviction process and obtaining a court order restoring you to possession of the premises. Under RCW 59.18.290, a wrongfully locked out tenant is entitled to recover possession of the unit, actual damages sustained from the lock-out, as well as attorneys’ fees. Therefore, landlords who illegally lock out a tenant are opening themselves up to liability.
That said, there may, occasionally, be rare situations where it makes sense to lock out a tenant illegally. To the best of our knowledge, there is no criminal penalty for locking out a tenant (though there may be a creative argument we’re not aware of). Once the tenant is locked out, they would need to sue you in Superior Court to recover possession (though they could sue in small claims court if all they want is money damages). We’ve written an article on whether it might make sense in some cases to consider an illegal lockout.
Again, locking out a tenant without a court order is never legal. However, in rare circumstances, violating civil law may be worth the risk.
Can I inspect the unit?
Yes, landlords have the right to inspect the unit, with some restrictions.
First of all, in the case of an emergency or abandonment, the landlord may enter without consent. However, there’s no statutory definition of “emergency,” so it’s hard to know what qualifies.
If the landlord is selling the premises, the landlord may enter on one day’s notice to show the unit to prospective buyers so long as the landlord provides notice and does not “unreasonably interfere with a tenant’s enjoyment of the rented dwelling unit by excessively exhibiting the dwelling unit.”
In all other situations, the landlord must provide at least two days of written notice to the tenant and propose to enter at a “reasonable time.”
There are other notice requirements, such as inclusion of the landlords’ phone number. Take a look at RCW 59.18.150 for all the requirements, or check out our notice library and download our notice to enter form. Once the landlord has provided The tenant may request that the landlord reschedule the entry, but the landlord is under no obligation to reschedule.
Remember: “The landlord has no other right of access except by court order, arbitrator or by consent of the tenant.” Therefore, if your tenant refuses to allow you access to the premises, you must obtain a court order to remain in compliance with the law.
Under the Residential Landlord-Tenant Act, a landlord violating these notice provisions is only liable for a $100 penalty per violation. That said, it’s possible the tenant may allege more damages under a different statute. Again, the tenant would have to pursue this relief in small claims court.
Can a landlord just raise rent till the tenant leaves?
Theoretically, probably. Practically, it’s not a great idea.
As a threshold matter, you can’t raise the rent if the tenant is still within their lease term. Leases are contracts where each party is making promises to the other. Your tenant is entitled to pay what the lease says during the lease term (usually the first year). However, once the tenancy becomes month-to-month (after the term), you can raise the rent with 60 days of notice per RCW 59.18.140.
There is no Washington law controlling the amount of a rent increase. Therefore, Washington landlords are (theoretically) allowed to raise the rent as much as they want, even if the rent increase is so significant that it effectively amounts to an eviction.
However, practically speaking, the court will not be happy if you’ve obviously used a rent increase as an end-run around Washington’s strict eviction laws. Courts often strive to do what they believe is right regardless of whether it makes perfect sense under the letter of the law. Thus, it’s unlikely you’ll succeed in an eviction lawsuit if the court feels you’re trying to take advantage of a loophole. You can read more about our thoughts on this topic in our article on court bias and the myth of the bad landlord.
Seizing on this kind of loophole is also the kind of thing that provokes additional regulations and bad headlines. If you want to ruin your personal reputation and invite statewide rent control, this is the way to do it.
Can you get a judgment for attorneys’ fees from your tenant?
Sometimes, but even if you do get a judgment, it may not be worth the paper it’s printed on.
Under RCW 59.18.290(3), landlords can only get attorneys’ fees from the tenant if neither of the following conditions apply:
- If the judgment for possession is entered after the tenant failed to appear; or
- If the total amount of rent awarded in the judgment for rent is equal to or less than two months of the tenant’s monthly contract rent or one thousand two hundred dollars, whichever is greater.
In other words, the only time a landlord can get attorney’s fees is if the landlord wins at the show cause hearing, and the tenant is more than two months delinquent on their rent. So, if a landlord wins a default judgment (usually at least $500+ in attorney’s fees, process server, and filing fees) the court isn’t allowed to award any attorney’s fees to the landlord under the first condition above.
Likewise, if a landlord prosecutes an eviction to completion less than two months after the tenant’s default, then the court cannot award any attorney’s fees for the show cause hearing ($1200+ of attorney’s fees, process server, and filing fees).
Even if you do obtain a judgment (either for attorneys’ fees or delinquent rent), it’s unusual that the tenant ever pays the judgment. The landlord can, of course, pursue collections by executing on a valuable possession owned by the tenant, or by garnishing the tenant’s wages. However, pursuing recovery usually isn’t worth the cost or effort.
Do I have to go through the eviction process to remove a guest from a hotel, motel, or Airbnb?
Usually, you aren’t legally required to evict a guest. However, practically speaking, an eviction or ejectment may be necessary.
Guests in hotels, motels, and other “transient lodging” are expressly exempt from the Washington Residential Landlord-Tenant Act per RCW 59.18.040. It says:
The following living arrangements are not intended to be governed by the provisions of this chapter, unless established primarily to avoid its application, in which event the provisions of this chapter shall control:
(3) Residence in a hotel, motel, or other transient lodging whose operation is defined in RCW 19.48.010;
Additionally, the Washington Residential Landlord-Tenant Act defines the word “tenant” to exclude short-term guests, stating:
A “tenant” is any person who is entitled to occupy a dwelling unit primarily for living or dwelling purposes under a rental agreement.
A short-term guest at a hotel, motel, or Airbnb isn’t entitled to “occupy a dwelling unit primarily for living or dwelling purposes,” and there often isn’t a “rental agreement.” As a result, the Residential Landlord-Tenant Act doesn’t apply and you don’t legally need to go through the eviction process to remove a short-term guest.
However, many motels, hotels, and Airbnbs are occupied primarily by long-term guests who have stayed for months on end. In these cases, the guest may actually qualify as a tenant and arguably the hotel or motel has been “established primarily to avoid” the application of the Residential Landlord-Tenant Act. Therefore, for long-term guests, and eviction may be legally required.
So, when does a transient guest become a tenant? Legally, it’s a bit of a gray area. Colloquially, some people consider 30 days or one month to be the threshold between guest and tenant. However, no Washington law or case explicitly says this. A court would likely take a more holistic view and look at how the unit was advertised, its rental history, and other factors to determine whether the guest was technically a tenant.
Assuming you’ve legitimately got a short-term guest and not a tenant, you may be wondering how to remove them without an eviction. Legally, a guest is a business invitee. When you, as the business owner, ask a business invitee to leave and they refuse to do so, the guest becomes a trespasser. You, or the police, can lock the trespasser out or forcibly remove them using proportional “reasonable force” (it probably goes without saying, but if you’re considering using force, contact an attorney to make sure you don’t commit a crime).
If you can’t lock the guest out, and if you’re concerned about using reasonable force, then you may be thinking of calling the police. Unfortunately, the police probably won’t help without a court order. Due to recent bad press, the police are extremely careful, often to the point that they’re afraid to do their jobs. If the police come at all, they’ll talk to your guest/trespasser. The guest will tell the police a story that indicating that they’re entitled to reside in the premises as a tenant. Legally, the police are entitled to ignore the guest and remove them based on your word by having you sign a declaration in compliance with RCW 9A.52.105. However, they never do.
We’ve repeatedly seen the police (and sheriffs) in Pierce County, Lakewood, Fife, and Tacoma refuse to enforce RCW 9A.52.105 in very clear situations.
In sum, if you need for forcibly remove a guest or squatter, you probably won’t be able to get the police to help you. Therefore, you may need to go through an eviction lawsuit, even if your guest technically isn’t a tenant under the letter of the law.
Do I have to go through the eviction process to remove a squatter?
You aren’t legally required to evict a squatter. However, practically speaking, an eviction may be necessary.
The answer to this one is essentially the same as the answer to the above question: Do I have to go through the eviction process to remove a guest from a hotel, motel, or Airbnb?. We recommend you read that answer.
To summarize, a squatter is not a tenant; they’re a trespasser. Washington law allows property owners, and the police, to remove trespassers using “reasonable force” without the need for an eviction court order. Unfortunately, our local police departments often refuse to uphold the law by helping owners removing squatter. Thus, the owner must decide between an eviction lawsuit and taking the law into their own hands (which we don’t recommend).
Can I retake the premises after a tenant has abandoned it?
Yes, but determining whether your tenant has actually abandoned the premises can be tricky.
Legal abandonment is a high bar. Under Washington law, a landlord must have “clear, unequivocal, and decisive evidence” of an act or omission evincing an intent to abandon. A tenant’s absence from the premises doesn’t constitute legal abandonment either. Even intent not to occupy doesn’t constitute legal abandonment. The landlord must have thorough evidence of a tenant’s intent to abandon. For example, if the tenant tells you they’re abandoning the premises, that’s probably sufficient.
Assuming your tenant has legitimately abandoned the premises, RCW 59.18.310 provides details on the landlords’ duties, which include storing any remaining belongings for 45 days.
If you retake the premises and your tenant hasn’t actually abandoned it, you’ve essentially locked them out illegally. We address illegal lock-outs elsewhere in this article.