POSTED ON Jun 9, 2022 9:15:00 AM / by Real Property Associates

What to Know About Emotional Support Animals and Leasing in Seattle

Sometimes tenants don't come into a rental property alone: they are accompanied by a dog, cat, or an emotional support animal that comes to live with them in their rented property.

While some landlords have no problem with this, it is common for others to object to pet-friendly properties. Other property owners put a pet screening process in place to avoid destructive animals that can cause damage to the property. 

However, how should property owners handle it when a renter requests an emotional support animal (ESA)? Can you choose not to allow an ESA if you don't allow pets in your rental properties? Today we'll talk about ESAs and the lease agreement to help property owners abide by federal and local laws.

What Is an Emotional Support Animal?

An emotional support animal (ESA) is an animal that provides its owner therapeutic or mental health benefits. ESAs are typically prescribed by a licensed mental health professional as part of an individual's treatment plan. The ESA letter is the official document that allows emotional support animals to be brought into a rental property or public places, such as airports and restaurants.

It is important to note that property owners can review a letter signed by a mental health professional to verify that a renter truly needs the animal for support. However, it's also critical to understand that real estate investors must be careful when asking for proof that a doctor has prescribed the animal for a tenant. Property managers can help you navigate the law in this area.

The Difference Between an Emotional Support Animal and a Service Animal

Before renting out a property to a tenant with an emotional support animal or a service animal, it's important to understand the primary distinctions between these animals.

According to the Americans with Disabilities Act, a service animal is any dog trained to perform work or perform tasks for the benefit of a person with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability. 

Cute service dog lying on floor near man in wheelchair

Service animals can be dogs of any size and breed (note that only dogs qualify as service animals). These animals are trained to complete an activity directly related to the person's disability. However, service dogs are not required to provide emotional support since emotional support is not associated with a person's disability.

In most cases, service animals are considered "medical equipment." Therefore, property owners must allow residents to have service animals in a property if it's medically necessary for them to have one of these highly trained dogs to navigate daily life. 

However, as with pets, service animals and emotional support animals must not be disruptive or dangerous. For example, owning a non-domesticated animal as an "emotional support animal" would not be allowed in most residential properties as it could be considered disruptive and dangerous. However, unlike service animals, any other type of animal would generally be allowed as an ESA as long as it does not threaten others.

Laws Surrounding Emotional Support Animals

So what if you don't allow tenants to have pets? Even if a property has a no-pet policy, landlords must reasonably accommodate tenants who possess emotional support animals under the federal Fair Housing Act.

In addition to federal laws, many states, including Washington, have their own housing regulations that protect ESA holders. These standards frequently have identical safeguards and obligations to the federal guidelines. If you're not sure how to interpret landlord-tenant laws before responding to an ESA request from a tenant, your attorney or a property manager can help!

How to Address Emotional Support Animals in the Rental Lease Agreement

In the lease agreement, property owners should add a policy or guidelines on how to request an ESA to their leases. It's also appropriate to outline how you'll verify a renter's request. 

The lease document should also identify separate pet policies, noting that emotional support animals and service dogs do not fall under "pet" requirements. This means property owners can't collect pet fees or deposits for ESAs.

Even though landlords have to allow legitimate emotional support or service animals at the tenant's request, they are not required to accept "any" animal that a renter says is an "emotional support animal." Property owners don't have to allow destructive animals or pets that can't be verified as a prescribed ESA. 

ROI Benefits of Pet-Friendly Rental Properties

Besides the emotional support that an ESA gives to your tenants, allowing properly screened animals can boost the ROI of your rental property.

When investors offer pet-friendly rentals, they often experience better tenant retention, better quality applicants, and the opportunity to charge a little more rent.

Curious English cocker spaniel puppy dog hugs kitten

In addition, by not prohibiting animals, you open yourself up to a larger pool of potential renters. Many people view their pet as an essential part of their family and will only rent from a property that allows all types of animals, not just cats and dogs. This means that you could be losing out on qualified applicants simply due to a no-pets policy.

Navigate Emotional Support Animals and Leasing With Help From Seattle Property Management Experts

If you're considering whether or not to lease to a tenant with an ESA, knowing the rules around these animals can save you time and a potential lawsuit. Our Seattle property management team can help you understand the laws surrounding emotional support animals in your area to serve renters well while protecting your rental property investment. Learn more about how we can help when contacting Real Property Associates!

Ready to learn more about rental agreements? Download a free copy of "How To Create a Custom Lease Agreement Checklist."