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Tenant Screening Laws in Washington

Washington State law limits fees and requires landlords to provide prospective tenants with certain information before accepting their applications.

Washington State regulates a lot of the tenant screening process. Application fees are legal, but can't exceed a landlord's actual costs. Landlords are also required to disclosure quite a bit of information to applicants—including details about their screening process and the reason for rejection, if applicable. And don't forget: federal tenant screening laws also apply to tenants and landlords across the state.

Application fees can't exceed actual costs

Prospective landlords can only charge tenants for the actual cost of screening fees. They can’t profit from application fees. Costs for a prospective landlord can include things like charges for long-distance phone calls and their time spent calling employers, former landlords, and financial institutions.

The fees can’t exceed what the law calls “customary costs” charged by a third-party screening service in the area.1 Although the law doesn’t define what amount could be considered “customary,” keep in mind that most online screening services cost between $30-40.

Landlord must provide information about the screening process

Before a tenant submits their rental application or pays a screening fee, a landlord must provide written notice that includes four key pieces of information:

  • What type of information will be used to conduct the screening (for example, public records, credit reports, eviction filings)
  • What criteria would cause the application to be rejected
  • The contact information of the consumer reporting agency (if the landlord is using a third-party screening company)
  • Whether or not the landlord will accept a “comprehensive reusable tenant screening report”

If the landlord does not provide written notice of this information, they cannot charge an application fee. They may also be liable to the tenant for a fee of up to $100.

A "comprehensive reusable tenant screening report" is a tenant screening report prepared by a consumer reporting agency that’s requested and paid for by the prospective tenant. It should be made available to landlords at no charge and contain the following information:3

  • A consumer credit report prepared by a consumer reporting agency within the past 30 days
  • The prospective tenant's criminal history
  • The prospective tenant's eviction history
  • An employment verification
  • The prospective tenant's address and rental history

Any landlord who advertises their rental unit online must note whether or not they accept comprehensive reusable tenant screening reports. If a landlord accepts this type of report, they may not charge the prospective tenant for any screening fees.4

Seattle landlords must accept the first qualified applicant

In 2019, the Washington State Supreme Court upheld new “first-in-time” tenant screening requirements for all properties in Seattle.9 This means that, in addition to providing screening criteria to all prospective tenants, landlords in the city must also offer a rental to the first qualified applicant.

Landlord must give a reason for rejection

If a landlord rejects a rental application or approves it with conditions (which is legally known as taking “adverse action”), they must provide written notice to the tenant that explains the reason for the rejection.5

The notice must look something like this:

City/State/Zip Code
This notice is to inform you that your application has been:
..... Rejected
..... Approved with conditions:
..... Residency requires an increased deposit
..... Residency requires a qualified guarantor
..... Residency requires last month's rent
..... Residency requires an increased monthly rent of $........
..... Other:
Adverse action on your application was based on the following:
..... Information contained in a consumer report
..... The consumer credit report did not contain sufficient information
..... Information received from previous rental history or reference
..... Information received in a criminal record
..... Information received in a civil record
..... Information received from an employment verification
Dated this ..... day of ........, ....(year)
Agent/Owner Signature"

If the adverse action was caused by information in a consumer report, the prospective landlord is required by law to include the name, address, and phone number of the consumer reporting agency that provided the report in the notice.

If a landlord does not provide this notice, they may be liable to the tenant for up to $100. The winning party can also recover reasonable attorneys’ fees and court costs.

Survivors of violence have special protections

A tenant screening service provider can't disclose a tenant’s status as a victim of domestic violence, sexual assault, or stalking. It also can't knowingly disclose that a tenant, applicant, or household member previously terminated a rental agreement because of domestic violence, sexual assault, unlawful harassment, or stalking.

Even if that information somehow makes its way to a landlord, they can't reject an applicant or evict a tenant based on their status as a victim of domestic violence, sexual assault, or stalking. It's also illegal for a landlord to reject an application because an applicant terminated a rental agreement due to domestic violence, sexual assault, unlawful harassment, or stalking under RCW 59.18.575.

If a landlord violates these terms, they may be liable to the tenant in a civil action for damages sustained. The prevailing party can also recover reasonable attorneys’ fees and court costs.6

It's illegal to charge a waiting list fee

Landlords cannot require a prospective tenant to pay any sort of fee or deposit to be added to a waiting list for a rental unit.7

Landlords in Washington are allowed to ask for a holding deposit, a sum of money paid by a prospective tenant to reserve a rental unit until they can sign the lease. However, a landlord must immediately provide the applicant with a receipt and a written statement of the conditions under which the deposit would not be returned.

If the prospective tenant does end up moving into the apartment, the landlord is required by law to put the holding deposit towards their first month's rent or their security deposit. If, however, they walk away from the deal, the landlord is allowed to keep up to the full amount of the deposit—depending on the conditions that were laid out in the written statement.

The landlord can't keep any of the holding deposit if the unit fails an inspection by a tenant-based rental assistance program such as Section 8. If the inspection doesn't happen within 10 days of the payment being made, the landlord may open up the rental to other prospective tenants—but they are still required to return the holding deposit.

A landlord who wrongly keeps the fee can be charged up to twice the fee if the tenant sues them and wins.8

Fair housing laws protect Washington renters from discrimination

Every renter in the country is protected by the federal Fair Housing Act, which makes it illegal for landlords to treat applicants differently based on race, gender, national origin, religion, family status, or disability. In Washington, however, these laws are even stronger—landlords also can't reject a candidate based on their sexual orientation, military service, source of income, or whether or not they're married. If an applicant suspects that they were denied an apartment for one of these reasons, they can consider filing a fair housing complaint against the landlord or property manager.

[1] RCW 59.18.257(1)(b)(ii)

[2] RCW 59.18.257(1)(a)

[3] RCW 59.18.030

[4] RCW 59.18.257(2)

[5] RCW 59.18.257(1)(c)

[6] RCW 59.18.575

[7] RCW 59.18.253(1)

[8] RCW 59.18.253(2-4)

[9] Chong Yim v. City of Seattle (2019)

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