Dear PoPville – Renting a Basement Unit Without Window Bars?


“Dear PoPville,

My friend and I are considering renting a two-bedroom basement unit in Shaw. The unit itself is amazing: 1000+ square feet, all newly renovated in a beautiful old apartment building, with lots of windows receiving light from southern and eastern exposures, and a washer and dryer, all at a very reasonable price — about double the square footage we’re seeing in other properties around the same price. The only catch: no window bars anywhere, at all.

We’ve asked the landlord if they’re willing to install them, but received a response saying no, that it’s too difficult given historic district regulations.

My question: is there a good number of people living in basement units without window bars that have had no problems or break-ins whatsoever? Also, if you don’t have bars, is there anything you’ve done to make the place safer?

This place really is a steal, and we both love it. We’re just very concerned about the safety issue. Advice appreciated!”

58 Comment

  • Place spikes below all of the windows so any intruder dropping in falls on them.

    I’ve been living in basements without bars on the windows for the last few years and have yet to have any problems. (knock on wood)

    • While you’re at it, you could crush up some christmas ornaments below the windows, heat up your doorknobs, or put tar on your steps. 😉

      Seriously, though, just make sure the locks are good and see if they would let you install some sort of security system. If it’s such a steal, maybe you could use some of the money saved to offer to put it in at your expense. And of course, make sure you get rental insurance.

  • I lived near the far end of H st. for two years. Our landlady installed window bars after her friend on the next block had her sliding glass door broken and house burglarized, but for the majority of our stay we didn’t have them. I kept my curtains closed at all times, and had a light to turn on when it started getting dark before I got home.

    I didn’t have any issues, but I did find out later that the reason our back window was broken when we moved in is because the neighbors had jumped the fence, broken in, and stolen a TV from the previous tenant.

    The most important thing may be to just have a rental insurance policy.

  • I live in shaw (not in a basement unit) and don’t have window bars, even on my ground floor windows. my landlord told me that he had installed nearly bulletproof “anti-theft” windows that were really really hard to break into. i have no idea if this is true (well, the windows are definitely new, and seriously cut down on the noise, but i have no idea if they are break-in resistant). regardless, i haven’t had any breakins, and it doesn’t seem like anyone has attempted to break in my windows either. i do keep the blinds to my 1st floor windows drawn so that no one from the street can look in easily to see all of my stuff…

  • They make removable, internally mounted window bars that lock into place. You could probably find them on the internet and install them yourself. As they’re on the inside of the glass, I don’t imagine any historical regulations would apply.

  • They make security bars that can be installed internally.

  • You could be fine or you could get burgled your first week there. Unprotected basement windows and doors and popular entries for burglaries. If I didn’t have bars, I would certainly want a security system. You might explore that with the landlord. Frontpoint’s options are very affordable and EASY. A control panel and a couple window sensors and you’d be done.

    • Oh, and definitely get renter’s insurance. I’ve been through a burglary and it saved our butts.

    • I’ll echo Tim’s applause for Frontpoint security. I installed a Frontpoint wireless system and pay about $45/mo. for monitoring. I’ve been very happy with the system and the service.

  • I’ve lived in a basement without bars for the last four years and haven’t had a single issue, though I do worry about it from time to time. I did make the investment in rental insurance, which alleviates some concerns, and while we don’t have a security system, the home above us does, so I think the sign out front might deter some.

    I’ve also considered printing out some bootleg security system company logos (ADT or something) to stick in the windows. Probably wouldn’t hurt.

    • You can get the security signs and stickers if you look on ebay. I did that in my previous house until I had the money to install a real system.

  • Install a ‘Charlie Bar’ so that the sash lock cannot be forced broken.

    Google iT!

  • If the windows are horizontal sliding windows, then get a piece of wood cut exactly so it fits into the slot track that the window slides in. This will make it practically impossible to slide open the window from the outside, in addition to the normal latch lock.
    Another option is to pay for an alarm system to be installed in your apartment.
    Also get renters insurance and be sure to pay extra for (1.) “replacement cost” of goods and (2.) pipe back-up insurance (to insure against the water and septic lines from backing up and flooding your apartment. These are both additional options you MUST add-on to renters’ insurance policies – they are not standard features on a typical policy.

  • When I lived in charlottesville, an intruder tried to break into our basement apartment (this was 10 years ago) and we forced the landlord to install interior window bars – they are ugly as hell but serve the purpose. Your landlord will have no excuse about historical anything (which I doubt is even an issue – I live in a historic building in DC now and there are bars on my basement condo’s windows)

    • Yeah, it sounds like the landlord is being a cheapskate and doesn’t want to pay for the security bars. I don’t think historic preservation rules even cover the paint color of the house, let alone window bars. Historic preservation rules are really just about permanent changes to the structure itself.

      • You obviously have no experience with historic preservation. If in a historic area, window bars and paint colors are both most certainly controlled.

        • Paint colors are not controlled in historic districts in DC. There might be an issue, however, with painting previously unpainted brick. It also appears that it’s ok to install window security bars. This is cut and paste from the HPO publication on window repair and replacement:

          Window Security Bars
          Security bars should be simple in design and
          installed into wood window framing elements
          rather than into a masonry wall. Installation
          of security bars does not require a building

        • And neither do you.

          Paint colors are not part of the HPRB’s jurisdiction. If you live within certain districts in Georgetown and Capitol Hill then the Fine Arts Commission can and will review paint colors, but not in ordinary, run-of-the-mill historic districts like Shaw. Also, I’ve asked our neighborhood’s (Striver’s Section) Historic Preservation Officer about replacing our security door with something nicer and he told me that window bars and security doors aren’t considered permanent alterations and therefore are allowed.

        • Completely incorrect . Please provide your source or the regulation that dictates color schemes. Also, the only regulation I’m aware of with regards to bars on windows has to do with with them being able to be operable/released from the interior to provide a means of escape if needed.

        • Someone post a photo of the graffiti house in Georgetown

        • Almost every house in Georgetown has window bars on the basement windows, I don’t think it’s a restriuction in historic districts.

          • Same here in Capitol Hill.
            I’d be worried about this place. Price is suspiciously low, and the landlord is lying to you right off the bat? Burglaries are the least of your concerns!

  • perhaps you can install something yourself inside instead of outside?

  • I have friends that live in a basement apartment in shaw (right by the new/old market) and they did not have bars on their windows.

    Someone broke their window and tried to burglarize the place while one of them was on the couch 8ft away….

    After much wrangling the landlord finally installed bars. I wouldn’t do it if it has fairly large windows. I don’t think it is actually a hassle with the city to install them (judging by the fact that they are on 75%+ windows in lots of neighborhoods) unless it is a particularly historic house (not just 100 years old like most houses in the area).

  • Don’t do it! We lived in a first floor in Columbia Heights for 7 years and were broken into twice…. our landlord also refused to get security bars.

  • Last night on HGTV one of the shows mentioned security screens – screens that look just like your regular window screen but are resistant to knives, etc. Maybe look into that?

  • First of all, if the apartment is such a steal then it’s probably already been rented to someone else. I’d ask the landlord if he would be willing to front the installation fee for a security system (and you would pay the monthly fee).

  • Remember, I’m not positive of DC code, but you need additional exits from the bedrooms in case of fire. So I’m not sure the landlord could install the bars in a legal unit.

  • I use 3M security film on all my ground level windows and doors. Just as strong as bars and not visible at all. Cost about $100/window to get them installed. I used TintVA. Great guys.

  • I wouldn’t do it. I lived in a basement apartment on Corcoran and 14th in 2008 with bars on the window, and it was broken into through the back while we were at work. They actually sawed through the bars. It’s just my personal experience, but I’d feel like a sitting duck with no bars.

  • I would never live in a basement or first floor unit without bars. Never. It’s just not worth the risk, even with insurance. I’d tell the landlord it’s no deal without the bars, and then see if he blinks. If he still refuses, good riddance ot a bad landlord.

  • tonyr

    I live by the Convention Center and haven’t had any problems (touch wood) for the three plus years that I’ve been there. I do have an alarm system and the “Protected By ….” sign was stolen immediately. I assumed that it must have been a hipster burglar, based on the irony

  • Seriously, check out this portable security system called SimpliSafe. It installs in minutes, doesn’t require any phone lines or Internet, and best of all, the monitoring only costs $14.99 per month. We installed it about 1 year ago on our row house in Columbia Heights and just love it. To do an entire row house, only costs us about $250. No more ADT for us.

  • Everyone who has renter’s insurance – would love the name of your agent! I’ve called two here in town and neither called back. Sup with that?

    • Just use the website of any insurance company to sign up, or directly call the 800 number of the insurance company (not the local office) you want to be insured with. You’ll be set up with renter’s insurance in minutes. I have Liberty Mutual, live in Chevy Chase & pay about $15/mos.

      • Emmaleigh504

        And make sure you have enough to cover replace costs of everything in case of something like fire that could destroy everything you own. I went to school with a woman that lost everything to fire and was under-insured. After she told me how much it cost to rebuy her clothes, I got more insurance. I have a policy from State Farm that would allow me to replace everything and I have a lot of stuff, it’s only $25 a month.

        Renters insurance is a bargain!

  • If your landlord is reluctant to install bars on your windows which I wouldn’t recommend in the event you need to escape. Consider having security window film installed. Your landlord will never even know its been installed. Most residential window tinting company’s can assist you.

    • This. Aside from your own concerns about escaping, and aside from the historic district bs that may or may not be accurate, DC building code requires basement rental units to have 2 exits. If you can walk out through two different doors, then (if not prohibited by the historic bs) your landlord could legally install window bars. However, if there are not two different doors that you can use to exit the house from the basement, then nevermind the historic stuff, the DC code wouldn’t allow window bars on a rental unit in the first place.

  • Before anyone yell-types at me, I know it is not the same. However… when I was mugged the police told me that criminals look for crimes of opportunity. Basically, vulnerabilities that are easier to target than someone with fewer vulnerabiilities. This would likely be the case with bars/no bars. You could very likely live there with no incident but it increases your risk. Only you can decide what you are comfortable with. [I would probably rent it and install the internal bars ASAP, provided they have egress/release switch in an emergency]. And my mom has taken over my mind to have me type that you should get renter’s insurance wherever you move: bars/nobars/DC/Tahiti/whatever.

    • how dare you blame the victim by talking sense!? i should be able to leave my basement windows wide open all night, and to suggest otherwise is victim-blaming, one of the worst crimes on the interwebs.

  • If your windows are of the sliding kind, you could try these simple magnetic alarms that sell for about $6 a piece. They are not connected to any security system, but do let out a really loud alarm when someone tries to open the window.

  • Kind of surprised this hasn’t been brought up, but with or without bars, living in DC, I have two shotguns at my place and highly recommend it. Better to have it and never use it than the one time you wish you did have it. (Probably be the last thought going through your mind also) I work from home and would rather not meet face to face with intruders who thought I was away at work during working hours in my kitchen. Also I highly recommend upgrading your strike plates on your doors, please check out HD or only (HD doesn’t carry the larger ones) most doors have a very small and useless strike plate that can be kicked in first or 2nd try, there are plenty of videos on YouTube demonstrating this. Good luck and welcome to DC.

    • Aside from all of the other issues, the obvious one here is: Shotguns aren’t going to help if someone breaks in while you’re not home.
      If you work from home, there are obviously fewer hours in the week when you’re not there. But presumably you go on vacation every once in a while.

  • I lived in a basement apartment in the same neighborhood for 4 years. It was never an issue without bars. In fact, one night I lost my house keys, so I had to find a way in. I ended up pulling super hard on the sliding windows until the lock broke free and climbed in. This was right on the main street. Lived there without locks for two years after without issues.

    • I’d consider you very very lucky. When I was living in Shaw my house had bars on all the doors and first floor windows. My neighbor’s house, however, did not. They were broken into three times in the 5 years I lived there, each time from the unsecured back door (house also did not have a locking gate).

    • ….so basically a criminal could do the same exact thing?

  • Does anyone know who did the DC flag bars in the picture? I really want those on a window of mine, actually.

  • You can get individual window alarms from most hardware stores. They are battery operated and emit an extremely loud sound when set off. You can get them for sliding windows, it trips when the window is open and the two parts are disconnected. You can also get them to trip if there is a strong vibration of the window (ie it being broken). Here is the latter for about $8 at Home Depot;

  • I rent out a basement unit and my insurance company made me remove the pre-existing bars as it was viewed as a fire hazard.

    • There are bars with a safety release that can only be opened from the inside that are intended for basement apartments where that’s the only (secondary) egress. But I could see where the bars without that feature would be a liability.

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