Can I get my security deposit back if I haven't signed a lease?
2 attorney answers
If it was stated as a "security deposit" the terms must be in writing and it must be refundable. If the deposit was to hold a unit off the market while you decided, you could be charged a reasonable amount for the landlord's loss of rent, but even so, the terms must be in writing. Unless you were given a written receipt containing specific terms about how the deposit could be kept if you did not complete the transaction, Landlord is in error if the amount is deemed non-refundable.
This answer is intended as a courtesy only, and does not constitute an attorney-client relationship between the attorney and the questioner.
Without a written agreement, no landlord in the state of Washington can keep money that was designated as a security deposit. The written agreement must designate what amounts are "non-refundable fees," and this is usually done in the lease agreement - as they must be clearly spelled out as fees, not called deposits.
If you gave money prior to the signing of the lease agreement, the landlord may argue that this was not a security deposit, but some type of earnest money to reserve the apartment. However, if they ever called it a deposit then it is a deposit and it is illegal to keep it.
Your enforcement mechanism is small claims court or a letter demanding the return of the money with a thorough statement of the law explaining why you can sue him/her. You could do the research and write the demand letter yourself - it would be ideal in this situation to reference both Washington statute and City of Seattle Code (both of which cover this situation). Or you could immediate file an action in Small Claims Court - packets are available at the King County Courthouse and filing only costs about $30, plus fee to serve the individual.
For good measure I would report this landlord to the City of Seattle code enforcement for their negative conduct. The City will not intervene in the financial matter between you and him, but hopefully they will peg the landlord for inspection in light of his/her behavior.
Personally I think writing the letter is the best first step - it will be quicker toward the result of getting returned money. It would be worth paying for an attorney to draft it for you and have it come from them just to expedite matters, as the landlord will know you mean business. My law office would be happy to do this service for you for a flat rate fee including a consult if you have to go to small claims court.