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Washington Laws About Breaking a Lease

Both tenants and landlords can legally break a lease in Washington State in certain situations. Landlords must attempt to re-rent a unit if a tenant vacates early—otherwise the tenant can't be charged for the remaining rent.

Getting out of a lease is not as simple as entering into one. There are only a few reasons that a tenant (or landlord) in Washington can legally break a lease agreement. When they do, they must provide proper notice to the other person. Washington landlords must also try to rent the unit to someone else—in legal terms, this is called the “duty to mitigate”—so the unit doesn’t sit empty. Until it’s re-rented, a tenant is responsible for paying the rent through the end of the lease term.

Tenants can legally break a lease in four circumstances

While tenants can negotiate with their landlords to get out of a lease early, there are only a few situations in which Washington state tenants can legally break their lease:

  1. Tenant is entering active military duty1
  2. Landlord doesn’t fix a major repair that affects living conditions (also known as “constructive eviction”)2
  3. Tenant is a victim of domestic violence, stalking, or sexual assault—including being harassed by the landlord3
  4. Tenant is threatened by the landlord or a neighbor with a deadly weapon and it results in an arrest4

In any of these situations, tenants don’t have to pay the remaining rent once they break their lease. In fact, if they’ve prepaid rent, they may be refunded a prorated amount.

Landlords can end the lease if their tenant violates lease terms

Landlords may also have legally valid reasons for ending a lease.5 These include a tenant:

  • Not paying rent
  • Breaking the terms of the lease
  • Using the unit for illegal activities
  • Physically assaulting someone on the rental property
  • Interfering with other tenants’ use of the property

A landlord who wants to break a lease for any of these reasons must follow specific guidelines. This includes providing at least three days’ written notice to the tenant to fix the issue or move out. If they don’t, the landlord can file an eviction lawsuit.

Written notice is required to end some leases

Tenants in Washington must give 20 days’ written notice to end a month-to-month lease.6 Tenants aren’t required to give notice for a fixed-term lease with an end date, such as an annual lease.

If any of the legal reasons for breaking a lease apply, that notice may be shorter. For instance, a tenant in the military who gets deployment orders can provide less than 20 days’ notice.7

Landlords can require a lease break fee

Since lease break fees aren’t regulated by state law, landlords are allowed to include an early termination clause in a lease. These clauses typically allow tenants to end their lease early by providing advance notice and paying a fee, such as one month’s extra rent.

There is no set amount for what the termination fee can be, but it generally must be reasonable and not penalizing.8

Landlords must try to re-rent the unit

Typically, a tenant who breaks their lease early must still pay the rent remaining on their lease term. For a tenant who breaks a year-long lease three months in, this can be a significant amount. But in Washington, landlords must make a reasonable effort to find another renter, including things like advertising and showing the unit.9

If a landlord does re-rent the unit, the tenant who broke the lease is off the hook for the remaining rent. However, they may still have to pay actual costs of such things as advertising and any difference in rent for the remaining lease term if the landlord must rent the unit at a lower price.

If the landlord isn’t able to re-rent the unit, they may initially try to cover some costs with the tenant’s security deposit and may sue the tenant for the remainder.

[1] RCW 59.18.200

[2] RCW 59.18.090

[3] RCW 59.18.575

[4] RCW 59.18.352, RCW 59.18.354

[5] RCW 59.12.030

[6] RCW 59.18.200

[7] RCW 59.18.200

[8] Smith v. Lambert Transfer Co. (1920)

[9] RCW 59.18.310

The information provided on this website does not, and is not intended to, constitute legal advice.