Dear PoPville – Our Bump Out Likely to be Blocked by Neighbor Renovation, Are We Screwed?

Photo by PoPville flickr user ep_jhu

“Dear PoPville,

About a year ago we bought a two-story rowhouse in a neighborhood close to downtown, and like many areas in DC, our street and the surrounding blocks are changing rapidly. Our home was renovated in the late 2000s, and at the time the house (and the end unit next to it) was completely gutted and bumped out in back to add a third bedroom and much larger kitchen. As a result, our house is much longer than the one next door on the other side, and we have a total of four windows (two upstairs, two downstairs) that look out of the side of the house onto their yard.

We recently learned that these neighbors, who have lived in their house for many decades, are being asked to move out so that the owner can sell the house. We have grown to love them and are sad to see them go. It sounds like they have heard, not surprisingly, that the house will be gutted and most likely also bumped out to a similar footprint to ours. My question is probably a naive one, but what does that mean for us? Given that the windows directly face the other property, I assume the new owner is well within their rights to build a similar extension that would completely shut in our side windows. Is that the case? And if so, do we just hire someone to re-drywall our own interior and chalk it up to four less windows in the house?”

27 Comment

  • I’m surprised you had windows on those walls in the first place — I am pretty sure that is prohibited by DC code.

    And yes, unless they are violating some other zoning rule by bumping out, there’s nothing you can do.

    • I believe this is true; if the new construction is to code, the neighbors will not have windows on the sides, so at least you won’t be staring into each others’ kitchens.

  • If that’s what’s going to happen (losing your windows), in your shoes, I might leave the windows where they are, and put paintings or photos of famous (or just pretty landscapes) behind them. Like you’re looking out to the Aegean Sea across the rooftops of a greek village.
    Sure, it’s silly and kitsch. But I might do it with just *one* window. 🙂

    • +1. Anyone else remember Cafe Splendide? It was on Connecticut Ave. in part of the space now occupied by Kramer’s. They has these silly Austrian lansdcape picture windows. And fabulous but unconventional creme brule, served out of a big pan.

  • Why would you drywall over those windows? Why not replace the sashes with privacy glass or add frosted film to them so you can still let light in? Or heck, just get some curtains. Having windows that face your neighbor is part of city living.

  • It’s most likely your windows were installed in violation of DC code. Windows are prohibited on extensions on the party-wall side, so it’s likely they shouldn’t have been there in the first place. There’s usually one side of the house that’s set back from the property line, though, so are you sure the wall with windows in on the shared property line?

  • If you can’t see the bump-out from the street, the HPRB won’t care.

    • It is not a HPRB problem, it’s a problem related to code and zoning (two different animals, code is buildings, zoning is land, basically) first thing is to know if their addition is legal or not, but anyway they wrongly installed windows in a party wall (if the wall in question is in effect shared by both buildings) The neighbors could build whatever is allowed by the regulated area coverage and FAR (floor area ratio) that they are allowed to have in that particular neighborhood as per the zoning regulations.
      This can be good information for (all the involved) to review:
      DC Zoning Maps: (here you enter your address and you will find under which zoning code your property is located)
      Zoning brochure:

    • Anonymous 2:56

      I think that they are saying that:
      a- their house have windows looking directly into a yard
      b- those windows seem to be in the wall over the property line, so they can be blocked and are not up to codes.
      they ask if their neighbors can do the same kind of addition and block their walls, and:
      c- maybe yes, if it is legal
      d-if their bump out is a violation the neighbors cannot repeat it -assuming that they are working with permits.
      Maybe if they post photos illustrating the situation it becomes clearer….

      Anonymous 2:58
      Maybe yes, maybe not, it depends on how much of that land can be used by a future builder. Again, zoning, land occupancy, and FAR at are play.

      • A is definitely true; I don’t think the original post was clear about B — we don’t know whether the OP’s bump-out covers the entire back of the house, or just part of it.
        If the windows are on the property line, they shouldn’t have been there in the first place.
        If the windows are set back from the property line, the OP is likely to lose his/her view.

  • If the wall where your windows are is on the property line, yes they have the right to block them. They are called “at risk windows” and they shouldn’t be there in the first place. The installation of windows is not allowed by code or zoning in a wall on a property line, unless you have secured a legal document ensuring their permanence in perpetuity -meaning, that you bought the rights from the previous owner and that it was properly inscribed in their legal documents describing the house.

    Are those windows part of a project with permits obtained at DCRA? (by the way you describe the problem, it seems that you bought the house like that, in that case one also buys their violations) Your bump out could be a violation itself, and maybe the next door new owner would not build a violating bump out himself so in that case you have nothing to fear -unless DCRA order your violation demolished, which is rare because you didn’t build it (if you didn’t) and you bought it without knowing it was…

    When the time to close the windows come, hire a contractor to block them up in the outside, install proper insulation, and then finish the interior with drywall or other material. Block the openings, or you are going to be able to lose heating trough those openings, humidity will come in, and the noise from the neighboring house will be part of your domestic sonic landscape.

    If your wall is not over the property line, well, they can build a similar addition and then your windows will be facing a blank wall or your neighbors new set of windows. Curtains are the solution then….

  • I have a window in the side wall of my house looking out at a vacant lot. Window was installed that way when the house was built in 1906, and the vacant lot has been vacant for over 100 years as well (it was used to tie up horses back in the day). Would I have any recourse to someone trying to build up to that wall?

    • If you lived in Great Britain, you might have recourse as they have a concept known as “ancient light”. As I understand, if you put in a window and it is allowed to remain with no complaints for a number of years (I believe it’s 20) then they lose the right to block light to the window. But as best as I have heard, we don’t have that here in the US so no, you wouldn’t have recourse.

      • we are in a historic district – i could probably argue with HPO that the window is a contributing factor to the historicity of our area…

  • I’ve seen extensions in DC that face each other with windows on both additions facing each other. If the other extension includes windows, then you’ll see into your neighbors’ house and vice versa. If they don’t add windows then your windows will look at their exterior wall. In either case, I’d think twice before I blocked them off, they will still let in some light.

  • The neighbors have been paying rent in the same house for “many decades”? I would invest in a time machine to take them back and convince them to buy the house, which would be paid off by now.

    • My next door neighbors just moved out last August after renting the house – which I had presumed they’d owned – for almost 25 years. Further turns out they were publicly-assisted (Section 8). Still, my former neighbor said that she could no longer afford the rent due to rent increases. Even though the neighborhood has undergone massive, text book gentrification I thought that subsidized housing had caps on ‘substantive’ rent increases; hard to pinpoint the tipping point for my former neighbor. They were pretty good neighbors; I wouldn’t have minded had my first assumption been correct and they had actually bought the house back when someone of modest means might have had a fighting chance. Don’t think the new neighbors (also – and surprisingly – Section 8 voucher recipients) will have an option to own a house in my neighborhood….

      • I wonder how the cap on “substantive” rent increases would affect the owner of the house. I can imagine a situation where someone inherits or moves from their family house and happily rents it out for 25 years until the value of the house — and, therefore, the taxes on the house increase, without the homestead protection. If there’s a cap on the rent that can be charged, are there also caps on expenses that the city can control like taxes? If expenses increase a lot faster than the rent that the landlord can charge, it seems likely that at some point the owner would not be able to afford to maintain it as a rental property.

  • Yup, you lose the windows. Sadly. I’m renting in a home where the owner had 2 side-facing windows that were covered up by an addition last month. Now we have a window staring into nothing until the owner decides to cover over them.

  • I feel for you, the windows might be your problem now, but if you need siding repair later on, good luck finding an extremely thin person to fit between the bump outs. I desperately need siding repair to an old extension, and no one can get into the space between my extension and my neighbor’s. I may have to get the whole thing torn out and am considering my own bump-out. Its either that, or try and fix the problem from inside, which would be almost as much work and trouble. What do people do in these cases?

  • This happened to us almost ten years ago. The developer came over and told us that there would be a bump out, but assured us that there’d still be space and light between the two.
    Well, we came home from work one day to a wall of cement brick flush against the window. They’d even bricked in a vine that had been hangin above. At that pont, there was nothing we could do but insist that his workers come over and drywall the window on the inside.
    Make sure they have ALL their permits. In our case this guy was in a mode of offend first and apologize later. It got dicey when we came home and found the back half of our house being held up on wooden stilts. And I still think all the crazy jack hammering they did resulted in cracks and shifts all along the shared wall.

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