From the Forum – Basement Conversion to Rental Unit

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Basement Conversion to Rental Unit:

“A few questions (1) Does zoning have an impact on the rights to legally rent a basement unit apartment? If so, what does the zoning code have to be in order to legally rent? (2) If not separately metered, what is the process to go about doing that, and what is the cost?”

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19 Comment

  • I have been renting my home basement and I never pay attention to any code or regulation. DC government will give a lot of trouble when you try to do what the law says.

    • If you do go the illegal route, thoroughly vet your tenants. If they decide to no longer pay rent, it is impossible to evict them until you bring the basement up to compliance, get your business license, separate metering, etc. You could be stuck for many months (or years) with a non-paying tenant all while outlaying lots of money to meet the standards of the law.

      • I would give them a month to find other digs or pay up..otherwise I would just wait till they are gone, then throw all their stuff on the corner and change locks.

        • That’s illegal and the cops will most likely require you to let them back in. Or they will arrest you.

          They are not joking around about this. That’s why it’s important to get yourself squared away legally when you rent out a place – get the C/O, business license, be up to code, etc. A tenant who knows the law can make things VERY difficult for you very quickly.

          Also, if the apartment is not legal, you can’t raise the rent beyond the rent control limits. So there’s another good reason.

          • arrest away. not letting them back in. I will fight it in court without the individual in my house.

          • First day of court: judge orders you to let your tennant back into his/her apartment and pay for whatever hotel bills he/she has been incurring. You will not win.

          • Ha ha. Sounds like some sleazy homeowner is going to spend time in the DC jail while his renters live rent free for as long as they like.


          • You cannot just ignore legal restrictions and court orders. If you do, it is going to cost you WAY more money. Wish the best of luck to you (and you are almost assuredly not a DC homeowner) but if you pursue that course of action, it is going to cost you 10s of thousands of dollars, and possibly wind up with you spending a couple of nights in jail for contempt of court.

            Proceed with caution…

        • to 4.:21…Love your idea of justice. Don’t think the poster was talking about being a sleazy owner-I hope he was talking about deadbeat tenants who don’t pay their rent for multiple months…perfect justice right? He goes to jail while the tenant continues to live rent free. I sort of agree with the guy/girl…but I’m a home owner and probably have a different perspective than you.

          Look everyone should get a C/O…but if you think it’s easy for some of the houses on the hill, then you’re wrong. The original poster was right, vet your tenants thoroughly because they can make your life hell. But I also have news for you, without the non-C/O english basements in this city, rent would be even higher.-not saying its right to rent these spaces, but the reality is rent would be higher without these places.

  • It sounds like you are at absolute square one. Go down to DCRA, ask everyone, for every form and application. Then ask someone else. Then check the website. You will get different information all the time, but eventually you will sort it out. Basically there are straightforward things to comply with – ceiling height, metering, egress etc. Easiest would be to work with a contractor who knows what they are doing. You need permits & inspections. DCRA’s first goal is to make the process as difficult and expensive as possible, so be prepared. But ultimately, it is a damn good investment.

    • Good advice. We’ve gone this route, and it works out. Very do-able, especially on a morning midweek.

      It actually feels good to obey the law. Your tenants will respect you for it.

  • My tenant currently pays $1400 per month, I would like to raise it by $150, is it legal?

    • If it’s an illegal apartment? No. You need to abide by the rent control allowable yearly increase. Which allows for a 2.2% increase this year.

      If it’s a legal apartment? You need to file an rent control exemption with DCRA anytime you increase the rent (no more than once per year) and state how much you want to raise it. They almost always approve it, so long as you meet the “exemption” criteria (vast majority of private, small landlords)

  • What about adding a legal basement to a building that already has a 2-flat CofO, making it a legal 3 unit building? I am zoned R4 and can do this (checked with DCRA), but a friend recently told me that when he made his building legally 3 units he was forced to add a sprinkler system because 3-uni buildings have a tougher fire code. If I make my basement legal and thus make this a three unit building do I have to add sprinklers?

    • Your friend is correct; current building codes for a 3 unit require a fire suppression system. Additionally in R4 zone you are required to have 900 square feet of lot space for every unit – that would require your lot to be 2700 square feet which is large for many lots in the core of DC.

      • Wow, that makes it seem not worth it to make the basement legal if I have to install sprinklers throughout. I have enough square footage but installing sprinklers throughout three floors would be very expensive as well as disruptive. Any idea about the costs of doing that, roughly?

        • Get some estimates for installing the sprinklers. Look at comp rentals for your space – then do the math.

          • What are the risks of renting the third unit without a CofO and sprinklers? I understand the bad tenants risk but what added risk is there to having a third unit without a sprinkler system for the building?

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