Legal Questions Answered By Griffin & Murphy, LLP

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Griffin & Murphy, LLP, is a boutique law firm in Washington, D.C. concentrating its practice in real estate law (including development, finance, leasing, zoning and condominium conversions), as well as estate planning and probate, civil litigation, and business law. The attorneys of Griffin & Murphy, LLP are licensed to practice law in the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia. Griffin and Murphy, LLP was founded in 1981.

Please send any legal questions relating to real estate, rentals, buildings, renovations or other legal items to princeofpetworth (at) gmail (dot) com, each week one question will be featured. Ed. Note Griffin & Murphy is a PoP advertiser. You can find previous questions featured here.


I just bought a house that has basement tenant that is month to month (no lease). We’d like to keep the tenant, and the tenant would like to stay, but he is currently paying well under market value in rent. I’d like to raise the rent to be closer to market rate, but how much am I legally allowed to raise the rent? Also, is there a timeline that I must adhere to in order to raise the rent once there has been a change in ownership (I don’t want to miss a window of opportunity). I only own the one basement apartment, so I know I’m not under rent control laws for which there is plenty of information available. However, I can’t find any information about allowable rent increases for those of us that aren’t subject to rent control. Any information you or your readers can provide is very appreciated!

Answer after the jump.


As a new landlord, you are required to register your rental unit with the Rental Accommodations Division (“RAD”) of the Department of Housing and Community Development by completing a “RAD Registration / Claim of Exemption Form.” This form must be filed within 30 days of the transfer of ownership to you. However, before you can complete the form, you need to obtain a Basic Business License and get a Certificate of Occupancy for the rental unit (if one already exists, you need to apply to have it issued in your name).

If you do not register the rental unit and jump through the regulatory hoops within 30 days of your purchase, you may face monetary penalties. However, DCRA and/or RAD will normally issue a warning first and provide you with a period of time to come into compliance.

If you qualify for and have properly claimed your exemption from DC’s rent control laws, you must notify your tenant of your exempt status. After doing so, you can raise his/her rent at the end of the lease term to whatever amount you feel is appropriate. If you fail to provide this notification, the tenant would have grounds for claiming that the rental unit is subject to the rent control laws.

This response was prepared by Mark G. Griffin and Patrick D. Blake of Griffin & Murphy, LLP. The material contained in this response has been prepared for informational purposes only and should not be relied upon as legal advice or as a substitute for a consultation with a qualified attorney. Nothing in this response should be considered as either creating an attorney-client relationship between the reader and Griffin & Murphy, LLP or as rendering of legal advice for any specific matter.

12 Comment

  • the questioner clearly stated that the tenant was month-to-month (ie, no lease term to expire). Can someone clarify when the rent increase can be taken in that situation?

  • I believe after you have done all the above mentioned paper work, you have to give a 30 day notice before the new rent goes into effect.

  • You can only get a certificate of occupancy if the rental unit meets all of the conditions for a legal apartment, e.g. ceiling height, egress windows, separation of some utilities, etc. Most basement rental units in DC do not meet those requirements. According to Linda Argo of DCRA, only 900 DC accessory rentals are registered. What happens when the new owner of the house acquires a basement rental that has a tenant it it, but where the rental unit can not meet the basic conditions for obtaining a C of O?

    • I assume you’re stuck with the tenant until the tenant decides to leave. When you buy the place, you take over all the deficiencies including being an illegal apt. However, if the tenant has established a residence, your illegality shouldn’t effect their right to be there.

      You might be able to swim out of that with your right to occupy the property as a new homeowner though.

      I’m curious what the legal answer is.

    • That is definitely the more interesting question here.

  • Since the unit is attached to the house you are living in would you be better off to consider him a roommate? You don’t need a business liscense, COO and a RAD if they are.

    If the tenant is good with paying the rent on time and low maintance you may want to consider not raising the rent as a good tenant at a low rent may be more valuable than a bad tenant at market rate.

    • The space that the person occupies defines the relationship, even if it’s attached to your house (i.e. a basement). So, if the space has a separate kitchen and oven, then you can’t claim that the person is just a roommate.

    • I think if you own the place, and you collect money from someone, DCRA considers it income and you have to get a BBL.

  • While I realize the answer is addressing the real legal issues here, you have to realize that the vast majority of basement rentals in DC are not (and probably cannot) be legal.

    That said the whole question is really kind of moot to begin with. If you raise the rent, and the tenant goes all legal-and-stuff on you, the result might very well be that DCRA decides that your rental unit doesn’t meet code and hey guess what? The tenant’s going to have to move out. They don’t want that. And neither of you really wants to get DCRA involved.

    This really is going to come down to negotiating with your tenant and the law is unlikely to matter much unless you both want to get into some real ugliness.

    If I were you, I would just approach this like a reasonable person. First, a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. Having a good, stable tenant is better than trying to find a new, unknown one for a couple hundred dollars a month. Two or three months of nobody living there will quickly kill your profit margin.

    Why not just sit down with them and explain the situation? They know as well as you do that they’re getting a good deal. Tell them that you are planning to raise the rent by 50 or 100 bucks or something reasonable. And by the same token, if there are improvements that could be made to the unit that will also increase the value of your property, offer to put some of that money back so they feel like they’re getting something too. And it will be money well spent anyway.

    Anyway people come and go. Raise their rent a little at a time, and if/when they leave then you can just offer it up at fair market value, or over a few years you can get it where you need it to be.

  • Did your realtor mention any of this before you went under contract? Wouldn’t something like this be spelled out?

    Just curious- did this tenant pay the previous owner a security deposit? Did they transfer this security deposit to you or to a trust?

    I’ve had a few friends who experienced similiar situations, although they were the tenants of the building, not the owner. They all expected (and experienced) a marginal rent increase when the new owner took control.

  • I would just have to say that I would be pretty pissed if I got a new landlord and they raised my rent a considerable amount just because they could. I second the suggestion about approaching this person reasonably, and using the extra rent money to make improvements on the basement (if the rent increase doesn’t drive them away).

    Not sure how you’re determining “market rate” for your place, but it sure seems to me like a lot of landlords are overpricing their units these days. Especially the units where repairs obviously need to be done. Just because the unit might have an awesome kitchen or sweet patio doesn’t cancel out drafty, broken windows or malfunctioning appliances. Some DC landlords need a reality check!

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