Dear PoPville – Advice for Renting my Rowhouse

Photo by PoPville flickr user sophiagrrl

Dear PoPville,

I am interested in renting my 2-bedroom house in Columbia Heights (I would not be living there). I am very confused about the process for doing so. On one hand I read that I need to get a business license and certificate of occupancy. On the other, I’m told there are different classes of rental properties and a single-family home like mine doesn’t have the same requirements. What is the process? I don’t even know where to find tools or guidance on advertising and applications? I was hoping to get some advice from the PoP folks out there who have been through this. Thank you.

19 Comment

  • Yes. You do need a Certificate of Occupancy (CofO) to do it legally. Many people in DC rent out their properties without CofO’s, I’m sure its useful towards simplifying taxes, but in addition to making your rental legal, a CofO lets you take advantage of the tax code with depreciation and business expense deductions, which eliminates a lot of your taxes anyway.

    This website tells you how to get a CofO:

    • Please correct me if I am wrong, but the OP is asking about renting out a single family dwelling…not renting out her basement, which is what the resource you referenced seems to deal with exclusively.

      • You still need a business license and a CofO. Which that website has links on how to get. Plus in order to get a CofO, you may have to meet regulations that you wouldn’t have to for the same house that is perfectly ok for you to live in as an owner occupied property.

  • You don’t need a CofO for a single family dwelling. These are needed when renting out separate units within a building (ie basement apartments).

  • How much? A coworker of mine is looking for a place in Columbia Heights?

  • just do it.

  • I recommend that you visit the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA) link that summarizes what you need to do regarding your single family rental (see below) and go to DCRA (1100 4th Street SW) and ask any questions you have regarding this process at their customer service desk for business licensing. Or you can call the office.

  • devoe

    Get a management company. I used to use Washington Management (super-generic name, but they were out on E-W Hwy in Bethesda, not that I ever had to go to their offices) and it worked very well. They take 8% and (if they find the tenant) the first month’s rent, but then handle all problems, like when your HVAC totally breaks and you are overseas. Well worth it.

    • I’m actually going to disagree with this, but on a “different strokes for different folks” basis only.

      The advice to go to DCRA and get it figured out is good. Once that is in place, assuming both that (a) you are only managing this one property, (b) the home is in reasonably good condition, (c) you have a modicum of commonsense and can fix small problems or at least identify when you need to call a professional, and (d) you will remain local/close to the property, hiring a management company is an unnecessary expense. I own and rent one property, and most months, there is very little work involved, and certainly not anything that would justify an 8% expense (which is a couple hundred bucks) every month.

      Again, no idea about the OP’s property condition or next destination, but if you’re just moving to MoCo or something, you can probably retain a few thousand bucks a year by doing it yourself.

  • You need to obtain a business license and have your property registered by DCRA in order to have it rented legally. As the owner of Nest DC – a property management company – I agree with one of the other posters that having someone handle management goes a long way. You can have a great experience with tenants in the city but the laws are complicated and it’s good to have an expert on your side and just understand them in general. You can go the office of Tenant Rights site: and check out the tenant survival guide download. It’s a great source of information. Good luck with your rental journey!

  • My advice: If you’re not sure how to start or what’s involved just go with a management company. It will save you and your tenants a TON of time and effort. They might take an 5-10% fee, but it’s worth it not having to worry about little things in your house, like stopped drains and leaks.

  • I would strongly suggest that you do this the right way: by obtaining a business license and dealing with the DCRA (to see what other requirements are necessary). I know (and on some level) can understand why people have the tendency to skip these steps (because it can be an arduous process) but I think in the long-run, you will have better protection by doing so. DC is very pro-tenant and it is a complicated area to navigate. If you are so new to the process, which it sounds like by your own admission, I think it would be beneficial to have “experts” to help you along in this process. I am making the assumption that you own your rowhouse and that your situation has changed (perhaps being relocated for work for a certain amount of time). If you have intentions of coming back to live in your DC rowhome, you will want to have legality on your side and experts to help you.

  • As a Nest client, I definitely recommend them for property management! Lisa and her team are fabulous!

  • This is a couple of steps ahead of your immediate question, but I would be very, very careful who you rent to. DC law is pretty friendly to renters, which can create headaches for landlords whose tenants are not responsible in caring for the residence, skip out on rent payments, etc. Be sure you do your homework here before giving the keys to anyone.

  • [Sorry if this is redundant]

    The paperwork and instructions for renting a single family occupancy you can find online, but if my memory is right from last year, DCRA’s website is not entirely clear, nor up-to-date (e.g. on fees). I found I needed about two half-mornings off from work to do this. It’s a four step process.

    1. Get the “clean hands” certification by going online to fill out the form to state that you’re not behind on any DC taxes. Then, a few days later, go the western side of the 1101 – 4th St SW offices to pick up the proof that you’ve done that. No lines here, and the helpful staff can answer a lot of questions.

    2. Cross the street, go upstairs wait in line for your DCRA paperwork to be processed. That submitted, you wait a bit. Then you go to the cashier to pay the fees (about $190). Bring a checkbook, or a credit card where the name matches exactly what’s on your paperwork (i.e. spelling, abbreviations, middle name or initials). The buildings on both sides have metal detectors, so plan as you would for the airport.

    3. Call DCRA, as directed, to schedule an inspection, a few weeks later. The inspector will be right on time, and take about five minutes if there are no problems. (Fire alarms, smoke detectors, fire extinguishers, decent windows and plumbing.)

    4. Finally, go in person to the Anacostia offices for the exemption to rent control (most places will qualify.) That takes about one minute, once you’re there, and the people are refreshingly pleasant.

    Finally, make sure to change your status on claiming homestead before you rent.

    A DC real estate lawyer will need about an hour and about $200 to explain the pitfalls you might face, and confirm you’ve done everything right. She can provide a good lease template, and point out what’s especially important in that. The attorney will be worth it for peace of mind.

    Wait a long, long time for the city to send you the proof of all you’ve done and and update your online tax property tax records.

    What’s amazing is how many rentals in the city have none of this: they’re not legal, they’re not paying the correct property tax. Renters should know that if it comes to court with the non-compliers, you win, automatically!

    The DC rental market is strong, and the clientel equally so. Make sure to run reference and credit checks, though: there are some amazing cases out there. Good luck.

    • I agree with everything here except

      a) expect to wait a bit at the tax office this time of year (but you should be done in an hour)

      b) tenants who live in units that haven’t done all these steps don’t automatically win their court cases. It’s still a good idea for landlords to follow the rules, but tenants shouldn’t think “my landlord broke the law! Let me stop paying rent, because he can’t evict me!”

  • People wonder why renting in DC is so expensive… Idiots who don’t know what they’re doing think they can make a killing on the real estate market. Then they hire a management company to run the property because they don’t know how. Instead of taking the piss, the fool passes on the costs to the tenant.

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