“Simply put, the process is oppressive and miserable”

Photo by PoPville flickr user nevermindtheend

“Dear PoPville,

I want to share my recent experience with securing a certificate of occupancy to legally rent out a basement townhouse unit.

Simply put, the process is oppressive and miserable. You start by trying to navigate the DCRA website, which lumps a simple 2-unit house application in with every construction and zoning application, meaning that it’s basically as complex to get this done as to get permission to build a 12 unit apartment building. Without any clear instructions, the homeowner has to fill out as many forms with as much information as possible, hoping it’s all correct and complete. Then you go to DCRA in person. This will take an entire work day, so don’t think you can do it on your lunch hour. You then wait for several hours for you number to get called, at which time the most likely scenario is they’ll tell you that you’re missing necessary paperwork. You may be able to fill out the missing forms onsite if you’re lucky although this means getting a new ticket and going back to the end of the line. If you’re unlucky, you’ll have to redo all your paperwork and come back another day, starting the process all over.

Once you finally have the process completed (and wait on line at several different DCRA windows in the same building, with each line stretching more at least an hour), you can get a code to call an automated number to have an inspector come to your house. You can choose the day of the inspection but you’re not given a window of time, so you’ll have to take another day off from work to wait for the inspector.

The actual inspection is a crapshoot. You might get lucky, but chances are they’ll find something they don’t like. Hopefully it’s an easy fix, like not having enough fire extinguishers. You’ll fail the inspection but have the opportunity to fix the problem and reschedule it. You’ll now be taking your third day off from work for the second inspection.

If you’ve made it this far and actually get an approved inspection, you’re not done. You now need to take your original application back to DCRA and get additional approvals from two different offices. This will be your fourth full day off from work. Then and only then will you have an official CofO, making your apartment legal to rent.

At one time in the past, it seemed like DCRA was making an effort to be more consumer-friendly, including a special blog explaining and streamlining this process for homeowners. That’s all been removed and canceled, so far as I can tell.

This insane process makes it virtually impossible to follow the law, no matter how hard you try. It’s truly DC government at its worst.”

154 Comment

  • Thanks for posting this. I have illegally rented my basement, and this just process seems ridiculous. I am also willing to bet that our new mayor will leave it as is.

  • This is exactly why I’ve elected to just roll the dice with renting my apartment out on AirBnB. I have researched and found the legal process is to burdensome to make it worth it. I’d rather take the (hopefully small) chance that I get caught.

  • I have heard similar things when having the C/O process done, but mine was fairly easy and I worked with a company called Rent Jiffy to get my C/O and BBL. Now I will say (no offense to Rent Jiffy) I felt some of the things they did I really could have done myself, but like you mentioned in your post it is very time consuming to be at DCRA all day dealing with the lines, people, etc. The inspector process is poop–I agree 100% with that. I just happened to luck up on an inspector who happened to like how my basement was laid out and kept asking me who my contractor was..so I passed—AFTER me taking numerous days of work off because inspectors would show w/o me being home and getting them to reschedule was hell–but GOSH it’s done now…and my tenant moved out a few weeks after. GO FIGURE…

  • This is why we rent illegally.

    • +1. And our ceiling is like 0.5″ too short, and rehabbing would cost tens of thousands.

      • I feel for people like yourself who are very slightly out of regs enough to be a legal rental, but on the other hand, if you’re considering a home for a rental option, you could check the regs first to determine if that place will make the cut. Someone saying the paperwork is too hard to become legal is different. I was almost fined and had 5 days to get it together. It took a couple hours, and I was able to get everything right the first time. I actually filled out too much, go figure.

      • A half inch won’t keep you from passing. No inspector is going to bust out the tape measurer.

    • Honestly, in this litigious day and age and in this jurisdiction, I’d be too scared to take that risk. Tenant hurts themselves, or something happens to your property (even with insurance), you’re SOL.

  • It shouldn’t be easy. This should remind anybody who is thinking about renting out their basement to ask themselves whether they are really up to the challenge of living up to their responsibilities as landlords.
    The DCRA is consumer friendly, but the landlord isn’t the consumer. The renter is the consumer. If you can’t be bothered to take a few days off from work in order to get your house up to code and let DCRA make sure it is habitable, than maybe you shouldn’t be a landlord. Being a landlord is a 24-7 job. If your tenant ever has a problem that you need to address, are you going to complain about taking a day off from work in order to address it? Maybe you shouldn’t have assumed that your basement rent would cover your $750,000 mortgage before you bought a place.

    • +1,000,000

    • But, as many have noted here, if it is too hard (and appears arbitrary), then people don’t bother to do it all and rent it anyway. That doesn’t serve anyone.

      • They do until they get a 5k fine. Renting illegally puts you at serious risk and puts you at the mercy of the renter. Landlord obligations still apply if it’s illegal, but many of the rights do not.

        • If you don’t have a BBL then that means you’re not exempt from DC’s rent control laws. So if a tenant reports you, the rent you’re charging could very well be rolled back.

      • A warning to potential landlords who decide it’s too hard and decide to do it anyway: you’re right, it doesn’t serve anybody. Especially yourself. If your tenant understands his or her rights, you better be a perfect landlord, because otherwise, if your tenant ever decides to go to DCRA, you will get what’s coming to you.

    • Could not have said it better myself. You just got a new fan, Andrew Siddons.

    • Thank goodness someone is here to defend the DC government’s abritray inefficencies. God forbid we maybe think about ways to improve the permitting process rather than rail against someone with “a $750,000 mortgage” who’s trying to follow the law and give someone a place to live.

      • Your use of the word “give” seems a little entitled. Unless you are offering your place out to first grabs, in which case let’s talk!

      • ^this!
        Andrew, you have a great point about the responsibilities of a landlord, but how is making a homeowner navigate a comically inept bureaucracy a good proxy for fitness to be a landlord? Especially, as some have pointed out, when said aspiring landlord is put through an onerous process when they are TRYING to follow the law?
        Do you extend similar logic to business permits? Let’s make it as hard as possible to start a business so that fewer people do it! A’MURica!

    • Wrong! Terrible governance is not a logical step backwards to owner irresponsibility. Where do you get this? Should owners make renting this hard on their renters?

      • I think the point is that the laws that govern what constitutes a habitable dwelling are in place precisely to protect renters. Tenement prevention, if you will, is not terrible governance.

        That’s not to say that perhaps the process could be streamlined. But if a world exists where there is no waiting in line, even in the digital age, please tell me about it so I can live there.

        • But not all of the regulations deal with tenement prevention issues. There are regulations about ceiling height, connecting stairs, and separate meters that make it difficult for many basement dwellings to even qualify for a Certificate of Occupancy.

          • But thing like ceiling height, connecting stairs, and separate meters are the type of regulations that ensure that the rental unit is safe and habitable. If a LL is not willing to make the effort to create a habitable unit, then the regs are serving a purpose.
            (And I agree with Jack at 2:07 that of course this is not to say that the process could be streamlined.)

          • Seperate metering is not required and it’s not clear why everyone seems to think that. Units just need panel access (which is required for safety).

      • Some DC LL do make it hard on renters because they know how hard it is to get rid of a bad apple. From refusing pets, credit checks, ridiculous income requirements, not allowing someone to take over your spot even if they are well-qualified, etc, there are plenty of great tenants who will be passed over. I have someone with bad credit who has never missed a payment or paid late in years. She tries to resolve issues without involving and it is polite and courteous. I hope she never leaves.

    • Well said. To be honest, I see merit in both sides of this argument, but on balance this is generally where I stand. One of the main reasons I bought a house that I could afford without the additional income from a rental unit; I didn’t want the additional responsibility of being a landlord.

    • Taking a quarter of the allotted days off from work for the year might not be a big deal to you but it is to some of us. I have to rent my basement out or I couldn’t afford to own my house and the car that gets my wife out to her job in Rockville. I”m sorry if I felt like buying a house was in my best interest though. You’re totally right maybe I shouldn’t have bought but instead rented a 2 bedroom apartment which I’m positive by now would be more than my actual mortgage. My wife is a teacher and I am staff at a law firm. Not everyone here is blessed with tons of money.
      My tenant has been with us for three years now and has nothing but good tings to say about the job we do as landlords. We take care of everything she needs much much faster than any place I’ve ever rented from.
      Jumping through hoops and doing extensive paperwork is in no way a requisite for maintaining a friendly, well attended rental. People like you are the reason things don’t get done. You LOVE red tape. You love to judge others like I’m doing to you right now. How does that feel? No one likes a know it all.

      • “I have to rent my basement out or I couldn’t afford to own my house”
        Maybe you should have purchased a cheaper house!
        Not all of us renters have been blessed with such wonderful landlords like you.
        “Jumping through hoops and doing extensive paperwork is in no way a requisite for maintaining a friendly, well attended rental.”
        This is like saying, “oh gee, I just want to open a nice little restaurant and I’m so nice to my customers, what’s the big deal if there are cockroaches everywhere?” or, “well, I didn’t pass the MCATs, but I have such a nice bedside manner, I should still be able to become a doctor!”

        • how did “i don’t want to deal with inefficient bureaucracy” become equivalent to “i’m serving roach-infested food?”

          people like you, by the way, are the reason my row house basement is currently used for my model train set and fitness equipment instead of affordable housing. it’s totally code-compliant and i’m a responsible person but too many people see any landlord as an evil slumlord who should be reported to the city government at the drop of a hat for me to take the chance on taking on a tenant.

          • Some landlords, even if they seem to be totally nice and responsible people, do turn out to be slumlords, even if they don’t think they are.
            Many people like you think that they are good at this or that or another thing and that laws get in their way of doing it. The laws are there to protect people (in this case, potential tenants) from people like you.

        • west_egg

          Andrew, you really do need to take a deep breath and look at this objectively. I think it’s fair to say that there’s a little room for trimming the bureaucratic fat at DCRA. Most people with hands-on experience there will tell you that. It absolutely does NOT mean we should let landlords cut corners or put tenants in unsafe situations; tenants’ rights should always come first. But we don’t need to waste people’s time for the sake of wasting people’s time. That doesn’t serve ANYONE’s interests.

        • You’re not even close. Please tell me where I could have purchased a cheaper house in DC? We looked for 10 months and put in 9 different offers all at or above listing and were outbid. We still were able to find a house for under $600K which is nearly impossible right now unless you want to buy something unlivable and spend just as much money fixing it up.
          Also there are 0 roaches of any kind in my house or my tenants apartment. Remember that part when I said my tenant has no complaints? Hmm don’t you think that would qualitfy? Nice assumption though dickwad. You’re grasping at straws in an attempt to make your overall generalized statement seem valid. Of course what would I know I didn’t pass my MCATs.

          • I don’t suppose you looked east of the river, did you?

            Why not?

          • The funniest thing about that comment is that the MCAT is an admissions test. It’s not pass/fail.

          • “I’m a good landlord” is not a reasonable response to the claim that DC needs building code and inspections to enforce that code.

          • There is a 3/3 in brightwood listed at 499k. I think your assertion that you just couldn’t do any better is false. Maybe you mean you couldn’t find cheaper in x neighborhood which is simply admitting to us that you didn’t really explore all your options. I’m glad you are renting a clean, not roach infested ILLEGAL apartment….
            MCATs…did you mean LSATs. Maybe that would make more sense, but I’m really not sure.

      • Bringing in income as a landlord is in effect a second job. People should expect that to take up some of their time.

      • You could have bought a cheaper house. Plenty of people making more money will never be able to save enough to afford to buy, so I do not feel any sympathy for you and your 2 income household. I see no reason listed why you couldn’t have gotten the proper licensing unless your home is not up to code or you are not reporting the income. As someone working in the legal field, I would hope you could appreicate the reasoning behind the laws not simply being a way to weed out crappy landlords and unmaintained rentals. I bought a condo while in grad school. It was the best I could afford at that time, and it is now being rented out with all the necessary paperwork, and I’m actually able to take a tax loss besides the $100 or 250 you pay for DC biz tax. So my mortgage and fees are paid, and I lower my income every year. Sounds like a win-win to me. I would not be able to do this if I rented illegally nor would I be able to have a property manager in place to deal with any headaches.

      • No one made you buy that much house. You could have bought a smaller house or an apartment that’s much more in line with your income. Instead you decided to live beyond your means and thus you believe that you’re entitled to break the law.
        Seriously, you can get totally screwed if you end up with a bad tenant that knows their rights. What will you do if they don’t pay rent for a few months? Are you prepared to fall behind on your mortgage and your wife’s car payment?
        What happens if there’s a fire or your tenant is injured and decides to sue you? You home owners insurance isn’t going to cover you if you running an illegal rental.

      • HaileUnlikely

        The DC govt bureaucracy really really sucks. It would be great to get it streamlined. But until then, just ignoring it probably isn’t an optimal solution. With all of the income you are making from your rental, you should at least be able to save up enough to pay RentJiffy to get your papers taken care of for you if you can’t or won’t do it yourself. If you’re cool with your current tenant, keep playing the game at your own risk, but I would seriously, seriously get your sh!t in order before you get a new tenant after this one leaves.

    • No, it should be easy. The more supply of housing we have available to renters and the more competition we have among landlords the better off we are. Read the comments: by making this such a burden with lots of regulation you don’t ensure that everyone has a safe place to live, you only serve to drive the industry underground and make it sketchier. I say this as someone who is not a landlord, nor who has ever been one.

    • It “shouldn’t be that easy” because we really need fewer good affordable rental options for people? This is a ridiculous comment. (And sounds very jealous/pissy/petty.)

      No one here is looking to be a slumlord. Slumlords are plentiful and never touched by DCRA. DCRA does NOT pro-actively go after landlords who might have bad places. – i.e. they don’t go around looking for basement apartments with fixed window bars or crumbling walls. They don’t check Craigslist for absurdly low rental offers. They only respond to easy reports, usually from vengeful tenants or neighbors.

  • Thank you. I also may have illegally rented (in the past of course) and had a bit of a difficult time getting my wife to go along with it. Now I can turn to this and show her what we would’ve been in for. Much appreciated

  • go when it opens so u dont have to wait in line for hours.

  • They do. Check out the DCRA laws this city is very tenant friendly. It takes forever to evict someone. Imagine being dependent on renter income and not getting paid and you can’t rent to someone else, even the your current tenant has paid. Then they get to stay there for 60 days will you are still not getting paid and at the end they are probably broke you can’t find them and you out two months rent income.

  • DCRA is [jean ralphio voice] the wooooorst [/jean ralphio voice]

  • This is very helpful. It’s especially sad to hear this when, at the same time, I keep being told we have a major shortage of inexpensive housing. It seems that many of these basement apartments are nice and cost way less than a similar space in a big building. DC should be encouraging this, not standing in the way.

  • It’s at most a few days and a couple hundred bucks to be up to code….that’s too burdensome to collect monies toward your mortgage? I hope none of those illegal landlords ever have any problems with a tenant because you’re going to be screwed.

    • Prince Of Petworth

      This is a serious underestimate “at most a few days and a couple hundred bucks to be up to code” according to others I have spoken with. Of course every situation is unique.

      • That was my personal experience getting licensed. I went at opening and had an early appt with the inspector around 8am. I imagine if something major was wrong it would cost more, but otherwise, the process cost me around $300 give or take.

      • My “at most” was geared toward the OP which seemed to be a fairly lumberous process and even then 3-4 days. It could take longer or cost more sure. I would hope most people aren’t getting something inspected without knowng the regs (to avoid extra costs) and that they at least somewhat understand the paperwork as to avoid a back and forth. I’m willing to accept my easy experience was highly unique.

    • I strongly disagree. The ceiling in our basement apartment is .5″ short of 7′. It’s possible we might get an inspector who would overlook it, but if we don’t we are SOL and would have to spend tens of thousands digging out the floor. I’d rather not take that chance. That extra .5″ does not make the apartment any more habitable and in fact we were considering living downstairs ourselves while renting out the main house.

      • If the ceiling were 0.5″ higher you would have had to pay 50k more for the house because (almost all) buyers know this is required for a habitable unit. You got what you paid for don’t complain.

        The height has have some sort of limit, but a limit but it’s okay if you’re just a little under. 7′ is the international building code limit used by almost everyone and seems totally reasonable to me. Sucks if you’re just a little under it, but again, that’s what you paid for.

    • Yeah? They made my mother spend weeks doing $8,000 worth of electrical work–and then the inspector showed up and told her they’d made a mistake, that was a regulation for large multifamily dwellings. She didn’t get her $8,000 back.

  • I went through the whole process and besides being ridiculously cumbersome, I had the strong impression that this was a way of generating income for DC. Each piece of paper seemed to require another check. What was most infuriating was that we bought the house with a CoO for the the basement. But in order for us to rent it out, we had to pay for another CoO – for the exact same apartment. And this was entirely separate from the inspection process which happens right at the end. I had been told to complete one of the forms for two units (presumbably because we lived upstairs) the inspector then required that we change the locks in our part of the house to pass the inspection even though we only ever wanted to rent the basement

    • Exactly – and I think most landlords would be perfectly happy to pay much higher extortion – um – I mean fees to simply have the process not take 4-5 days off work to go down and deal with tangles of bureaucracy.

  • I feel your pain. I’m on month 5 of trying to get a simple building permit for a 180 square foot addition.

  • I second the poster who recommended Rent Jiffy. It will cost you about $300 to $400 but it’s worth it.

    The C/O process isn’t too difficult. I had an inspector who took a few steps into the unit, swirled around, complimented me on how nice the place was, and then checked the “pass” box. It was literally a 25 second process.

    The BBL is a lot more difficult because you’re dealing with more than one entity. This is where Rent Jiffy makes life a lot easier. Otherwise, you’ll be spending additional days at the Office of Tax and Revenue (which they say is 10X worse than DCRA) and some government office in Anacostia. The BBL inspection is more thorough than the C/O inspection. I failed that one. You need to have complete fire separation throughout the unit. So if you have a closet that contains a water heater or an A/C unit, you need to make sure it’s drywalled from top to bottom.

    One thing DCRA could do to streamline the process is to have one inspection for both the C/O and BBL. It’s a real PITA to have to make time for two separate inspections.

    • I’ll disagree and say DCRA was worse for me. All the BBL stuff is mostly in the same place in SW, and I was able to get in and out within 1hr of closing time. Maybe it was my baby face or my I messed up acceptance, but they were very willing to help me and make sure I understand everything including DCRA paperwork. I’ve also had a good time calling tax and revenue and dealing with their agents.

  • I haven’t tried to get a C of O for my basement, but my partner runs a business from our home. It is a business that has no on site employees, no one site service delivery, no on site anything save a person sitting in a home office making phone calls and working on a laptop.

    But in order to be a legal business in DC we had to go get an additional C of O for the business on top of the C of O for the house itself. This required an inspection which was utterly insane and ridiculous. I had heard rumors that the inspectors are often paid off by contractors and after experiencing the insanity of someone trying to determine whether my legal residence was suitable for someone to type emails in I nearly lost my mind.

    I can only imagine how it must be to try to be a legal landlord. There is a middle ground between ensuring safe, appropriate housing is provided by those who rent rooms or apartments and discouraging any sane person from ever attempting to do so.

  • This is also the process for legally renting out basically any unit, event an small studio in a large professionally managed apartment building.

  • Not sure why some are attacking the Landlord for trying to do the right thing, especially when DC has a critical shortage of affordable rental housing. The process is much more onerous and expensive than it should be and is geared toward making things as difficult as possible for the homeowner.

    • Yes, I’m sure that the person who originated this post was going to be renting an “affordable” unit. I would be shocked if he is putting something on the rental market for less than $2,000 a month.

    • Any attack is on the complaint levied at something both voluntary and beneficial. You want extra money every month, so you should be willing to deal with the bureauracy for a bit to make it happen. I’m not saying the process couldn’t be easier, but at the end of the day, you have someone subsidizing your mortgage…is that really too much work for that money?

  • Yeah. DCRA blows. I tried to follow the rules for some small work I was having done at my house (not related to renting)…. days off work, hours waiting in line, hundreds of dollars and the run around from the folks at DCRA. I got the permit at the end but I am not sure I would ever do it again.

  • I have rented out my basement illegally for over 10 years. No complaints, no bad tenants, nothing is unsafe. I’m a responsive landlord. But going through the DCRA/OTR process wasn’t even option. I know for sure my basement wouldn’t qualify because it is 100+ years old and even though it is safe and has modern appliances, there were going to be issues. And I don’t have days to sit in line. My tenants are all the inspectors I need. They see the place and they can decide for themselves whether to rent. If something happens, I have insurance and I am responsible. But I’m not going to rewire my whole house, drywall off a furnace that has been fine for 75 years, and make other ridiculous (and I’m not even sure if they are possible) changes for no good reason. Plus once I start, how do I know they won’t then bust me if I cannot make the changes? Better to live in the shadows and they will never know.

    • west_egg

      Now this, I have to completely disagree with: ” They see the place and they can decide for themselves whether to rent.”
      Tenants should not be expected to know the ins and outs of building codes and residential occupancy requirements. You shouldn’t be so flip about life safety issues — firewalls, access to electrical panels, and so forth are critical. Just because something bad hasn’t happened yet doesn’t mean it can’t (especially in a “100+ year old” house).

      • You make a fair point. But I know pretty well where the apartment “violates” code and I can live with it. I hire well-qualified professionals to do my maintenance and none have told me something is unsafe. But I sure don’t trust some idiot DC bureaucrat to understand what is and what isn’t safe nor do I trust that the DC government will act reasonably if I get a bad check mark on inspection. And again, I ain’t giving up a day or two to do all this. It’s absurd. There are people in the hood living in rathole unsafe apartments and I don’t need DC investigating my $2000/month, safe and nice apartment. Do some real work.

        • burritosinstereo

          So taking “a day or two” off work is totally unreasonable in order to make sure the TWO THOUSAND DOLLARS you’re getting in rental income per month is legal

          what happens if (god forbid) there is a flood/fire/your tenant injures themselves and sues you/they stop paying rent and you want to start the eviction process/ANY NUMBER OF POSSIBLE SCENARIOS and you have absolutely no legal recourse ????

    • “If something happens, I have insurance and I am responsible”
      Do you really think your insurance is going to cover your claim while running an unlicensed, non-compliant rental apartment? That’s cute.

      • +1000 Could have a rental policy (unlikely) without licensing, but I’m sure they’d want to see paperwork if they had a claim in the unit.

    • You should know insurance will definitely not cover any damages for you or your tenant to your not-up-to-code apartment.

    • If you own a home you have to have insurance. Insurance people have the most to loose if you are renting out an unsafe apt. Let the insurance companies handle inspection and approval.

      • Insurance companies have nothing to loose if you are renting out an apartment without a permit because that definitely violates the terms of your policy and they will not have to pay. This is a bizarre and spurious comment. Get your apartment certified and tell your insurance company if you are renting to someone or you are exposed in the case of a loss.

        • Hi Mr/Ms Smartypants – as it happens, I have a C of O and a BBL and insurance for my rental apt.. Sorry you couldn’t understand what I wrote. Here it is in smaller words. Insurance companies insure your property. They have money at risk when they insure your property. Insurance companies – not DCRA – should be given the authority (oops, sorry, big word) to determine safe conditions and hire inspectors to insure the conditions are safe.

    • Sorry, but I am confused…. your furnace is 75 years old?!
      So, it runs on coal….in your illegal basement with safe and modern appliances?

  • My basement apartment is completely legal–two doors for egress, 7 foot ceilings, full size windows, smoke and CO2 detectors, washer dryer, etc. Except I don’t have two electric meters. And I am not sure I could pass the drywall thing.

    The meter split would cost a few thousand dollars. Not sure about drywall. And I’m not sure about all the other details. Plus I don’t want to invite the tax people in because they are sure to hassle me.

    I’m a great landlord. You can ask my tenant. She has said she’s happy and comfortable. I will never raise the rent because I never want her to leave.

    Everyone I have spoken to about this says that the process of getting a CofO is like being in a Kafka novel. I don’t know why it’s necessary.

    • I’m in a similar boat. My electric is not separately metered but guess what… I DON’T CHARGE MY TENANT FOR ELECTRICITY! (All utilities included). So who would care, except some mindless idiot DC bureaucrat?

      • I don’t charge my tenant for any utilities.

      • If utilities are included, aren’t you by definition charging them for utilities? You’ve simply decided not to separate your portion from theirs.

      • They don’t care about metering, that’s something you seem to have invented. They do care about panel access. This is important for obvious safety reasons.

        And you don’t want to invite the tax people in? So not only are you illegally renting an apartment, but you’re not reporting that income for tax purposes?

        How do you people justify these things to yourself?

        • “How do you people justify these things to yourself?” Quite easily. See above and below for the horror stories of the alternative.

          • Really? Hyperbole much? We all hear of “horror stories” of the DMV, but if you don’t want to get caught driving without a license/insurance, then I suspect you “really” wouldn’t want to get Fq’d with a bad tenant/disaster.
            Your justification is really a veiled way of saying you don’t give a F… or you’re too ignorant to understand the possible consequences.

  • We used Rent Jiffy. $400, which I can consider a business expense. Super easy. I’m sure not everyone has $400, but that’s a different issue (should they be landlords if they can’t deal with proper inspections?) But I agree, even though it’s to protect tenants, if people find it so cumbersome that they just rent illegally, then that hurts everyone (including the city because I assume they aren’t declaring the income on their taxes)

  • The DCRA’s onerous regulatory framework isn’t just a problem for potential landlords. There are other groups whose livelihoods depend on ease of renting without busybody DC government interference: cockroaches and mice. They’ve been forced out of their preferred living arrangements time and again, what with DCRA’s efforts to ensure that basement apartments are “clean” and “habitable.”

    On behalf of pests everywhere, we must end these unreasonable bundles of red tape! Join us for a march outside the DCRA office. Representatives of mold, carbon monoxide, and other butthurt homeowners will be there, too.

  • Thanks for posting this. I went thru the process of getting a C.O. for my Hill rental last April – June. It was pretty much every bit as miserable as I had imagined it would be, but miserable in some different ways than I imagined. The poster is spot on with first grievance about how the process overview and form instructions on the DCRA website treats a C.O. to convert a residence to a two-unit/rental unit the same as for a massive project that also needs a C.O. …it’d be huge if DCRA would update and tailor the online explanation and forms to reflect the process specifically required for homeowners seeking a two-unit C.O.. Some parts are the same, but some parts of the process are quite different. Also, this would be very helpful because several times I even got conflicting information from different DCRA employees as I went from line to line about what was (or was not) required at their stop or what step was actually required next. Having a clear checklist of what needs happen and in what order would help everyone involved. It’s not necessarily that it’s a hard process, it’s just a miserably hard process because you are in the dark about what the process actually is and there is currently no real way to be prepared / educated about how to maneuver through it. For example, there is a a very specific one-page list that the home inspector uses when visiting your home…why not post that on the DCRA website to help educate homeowners and so can make sure it’s done and not make us rely on rumors and “I heard xyz” from neighbors, etc what the inspector needs to inspect for pass / fail. When you go to DCRA they give it to you as part of the process. Also, in addition to the significant time you need to set aside to spend at DCRA over the course of a few visits, you also have to make a trip to a completely different DC gov’t building in another part of town to complete the Rental Accommodations Divisions (rental control) form…that was another 1/2 day off work for me. And, the biggest surprise to me during the process was that in order to get a C.O. that converted my rental unit to a legal one DCRA told me it required that my main residence above the rental unit had to be inspected by the government too because once I had the two-unit C.O. I would be able to rent the main residence too and they required that it be inspected as a result. That was news to me and nothing I had uncovered in any of my previous research on the C.O. process or while talking with others who’d gone through the process. I am a smart, capable person and the stress of this frustrating process nearly reduced me to tears at a few junctures. During the course of my DCRA (mis)adventures, I fortunately crossed paths with a DCRA employee who saw with her own eyes the bureaucratic misinformation I was being given by other DCRA employees and took mercy on me and helped guide me through the remaining portions of it. Without her, I imagine I would have just thrown my hands up and stopped trying to do the right thing. I am going to forward this link to her as well as my new Councilman Charles Allen and ask them to help make DCRA’s C.O. process more transparent for homeowners who are looking to do the right thing. It’s to everyone’s advantage – tenant, homeowner, city – to have properly licensed and inspected rental units but the current process is a unnecessary impediment.

  • So… you dont need a separate CofO unless the unit is completely separate. Just leave the basement door in tact and rent to someone halfway decent. If you must, install one of those hotel room double doors, so in order for either party to enter through the basement door, the other must have unlocked their side.

    Totally legal. Extremely easy.

    • This is our set-up currently (without c of o). There are stairs and a double door to the basement, which can lock from both sides. Our lease is written in “group house style” – primary access downstairs, secondary access upstairs, full access to common areas. But, I was told at some point by one of those rental expediting companies that bc there is a full kitchen, then it’s not legal. That made no sense to me?

      • Two otherwise separate apts with a double hotel door in between is a 2 family dwelling not a group house and needs C of O. If the downstairs has a full set-up: kitchen, bathroom and living space which is accessible without coming through the hotel door (which you can lock them out of at any time), then it is in fact 2 units. For it to be 1 unit, the downstairs would need to be connected to the upstairs in a meaningful way such as sharing a kitchen or bathroom…think of the basement as just another bedroom. If you are able to lock them out via hotel door, I don’t see it being likely you share anything like a kitchen or bathroom, so I believe your setup is illegal.

      • That doesnt sound correct. In-law suites are legal modifications to a house. Renting a room in your house is legal. I dont see how its illegal to rent your in-law suite.

        • Think about it for a minute. Do you seriously think that the housing code is that easy to get around? If you make the “in-law suite” as self-sufficient as I suspect you have (bathroom, kitchen appliances, etc.), DC will consider it an apartment and will make you take that stuff out and/or fine you. I’ve seen it happen to more than one person. Realtors use the term “in-law suite” as code when they can’t legally use the word apartment. But if you ask them on the record they’ll tell you that you can have family live there for nothing (hence the term) but you can’t legally rent it out. And renting a room is different. A boarder isn’t exactly the same as a tenant.

          • What is the difference between a boarder living in an in-law suite and a tenant living in a separately metered apartment with its own CofO?

            And yes, I think the housing code is that easy to get around. Because, a separate apartment is totally different, has more value, and has more risk. If you are willing to make relatively small sacrifices, you stay within the confines of the law and you dont have to deal with the absurdities of the CofO process. It doesnt mean your basement can be out of compliance with the building code, though.

          • Does the border have access to shared space within the house? Do you have shared kitchen facilities? Those would be the main differences.
            Just because you call it an in-law suite doesn’t mean that DCRA won’t call it an illegal apartment. If it has all the amenities of an apartment they’ll treat it as such and shut you down if someone complains. Your supposed work-around is not, in fact, legal no matter what you say, without a C of O. If it has a bathroom and a kitchen and either the tenant or a nosy neighbor complains — in the three enforcement cases involving in-law suites that I know about, one was a tenant complaint and two were called in by neighbors — you’re screwed. Besides, as dc owner points out, you still need a BBL, which will require an inspection (which you will fail if you keep that basement door intact). Unless you’re advocating not getting one, at which point you can stop claiming that your method is totally legal.
            And value and risk have absolutely nothing to do with anything here.

        • Renting a room in your house is legal, but it doesn’t mean you don’t need a C of O. Cof Os are needed unless an entire dwelling is being rented. Calling something an in law suite doesn’t make it so. In this case, they have a unit in their basement which they can at any point block from entering the upper house with a separate kitchen and I assume separate bath…how is this not an apartment?

          • Every house has a CofO already. You dont need a second if you’re just renting a room.

            Every door can be locked.

            Renters, even if they share space with others, but have their own kitchen, have the right to lock their doors, if they want.

            I dont see what the issue is.

          • As long as Anon X doesn’t get a d1ck tenant who complains about him, he should be fine. I have a similar situation in my house (although we have some shared space), and I consider it to be a partial houseshare.

          • Either way you still need a BBL for the house, even if you are just renting a room. To be considered renting a room your tenant definitely needs access to most of the house (i.e. a double locking door is *non* renting a room).

          • dc owner, probably the room Anon X is renting doesn’t qualify either as far as ceiling height. Is he supposed to get a BBL to rent out a room that doesn’t actually qualify as a rental?

          • Well in that case there is no way to make it legal. A rental of any kind requires a BBL. Renting a room still has some requirements.

    • I don’t think this is correct. I’m pretty sure that a door that allows the LL access from the inside of his or her unit disqualifies the basement from being considered a legal apartment. And if that’s true then they won’t let you register the unit with the Rental Accommodations Division, which is the whole point of getting legal (which I think you need a C of O for anyway, unless you’re renting out an entire single family house — at least that used to be the case).

      • But it’s a hotel door which the tenant can leave locked if desired thereby closing off access. You may ultimately be right, but I would imagine they’d treat it differently.

        • Possibly, but I was referring to Anon X’s first scenario about keeping the door intact. And I don’t think I’d want to rely on my ability to successfully explain to a DCRA inspector how a hotel door works. Way too much room for him or her to say “It’s a door. You can’t have a door,” and refuse to discuss the issue further.

          • I saw a checklist online, and it said the unit must provide privacy nothing against a door on your side.

          • But Anon X isn’t trying to get a C of O. He knows his basement unit won’t qualify anyway.

          • Our reponses are for the anon (avatar with glasses) below anon x who seemed confused as to why Anon X’s scenario wasn’t legal for them.

          • My basement definitely wont qualify, no one would want to live with my boxes.

            My point is, there is nothing different between a basement and a 2nd floor apartment. If there is access between the units, locked or unlocked, it doesnt really matter. Whether you share space or not, you’re allowed to lock things up. Your choice of appliances and plumbing dont change anything.

            If two separate locking doors makes you uneasy about “access”, just find someone you can trust with complete access to your stuff (you know, 98% of the population) and put a door in-between that you both can open.

            As for the canard that you cant rent a room in your house unless you rent the entire house, thats absurd. No one gives a shit what your living situation is. Report the income on your taxes and you’re square.

          • As stated above you definitely can rent a room in your house. That room still has requirements (7 ft ceiling, etc) and you still need to get a BBL.

      • If you have a door between the LL and tenant’s apartment, you need two locks. It’s redundant since the LL will have keys to everything anyway. But technically, the tenant should not be able to get into the LL’s property without the LL’s permission. Likewise for the LL. Think about it as the lock situation for the dividing door between two hotel rooms.

  • Thanks for posting this! Maybe with complaints, someday, we can reform DCRA …

    Here are some of my favorite complaints about required permits. Replacing existing drywall! Replacing a sink faucet pr dishwasher! Attaching a $12 pressure gauge to your hose! Fix your fence! And, oh yes, you can’t hook up a pressure gauge or replace a faucet unless you’re also a licensed plumber. Grrrr.

    On the bright side, DCRA took down their embarrassing Permit FAQ (“Get Answers on Building Permits”). It used to say that you needed a permit for erecting a Christmas tree stand on private property or repairing existing buildings (??). It also used to say that you did not need a permit to repair an existing fence (contradicting the post card permit page).

    • HaileUnlikely

      Fortunately for most, no normal person who wants to replace their sink seeks out, successfully finds, reads, and understands the building code. Thus, the mechanism by which a normal person learns of the requirement to get a permit to replace a sink does not exist. Sort of like that time when DDOT tried to change the location of the Chinatown buses by posting the change on the DDOT website but not communicating the change to owners of bus companies or to riders in any other way. Fortunately, neither owners of bus companies nor riders make a habit of checking the DDOT website daily just in case DDOT decided to enact a new requirement and not tell anybody, so everybody just kept getting their buses at the same place as before.

  • Another plug for Rent Jiffy. They make a cumbersome process far less so, for a very reasonable fee. We have gone through the process twice, for two different homes, and used Rent Jiffy with the second house.

  • I used Rent Jiffy too and highly recommend it – so worth the fee to not have to deal with DCRA!

  • I have a C of O but never got the small business license for my basement apartment. How legal am I?

    • Semi, but if it was ever an issue having the C of O would help since it shows you’re not trying to avoid the system.

  • Use Rent Jiffy to streamline the process and make it easy. I’ve gone through the process twice now – once by myself and once with Rent Jiffy. Rent Jiffy is definitely worth it. They will electronically streamline all the paperwork and allow you to focus solely on bringing the property up to code.

    It’s true, the process to get a business license and Certificate of Occupancy should be easier for those who want to bring their rental unit to code and commit to the application process. The city’s instructions and requirements should be clearer and assistance more readily available. You can spend 40 minutes on the phone waiting for the DCRA, only to speak to an employee who doesn’t give you the right information. The former DCRA blog was helpful, but it did have many gaps in information and is now defunct.

    The nice thing about the process is that you only have to do it once. It’s a pain, but once it’s done, it’s done. You only have to pay a small renewal fee every two years afterwards. In addition, once you are legal, you get tax benefits (depreciation and business deductions for many home improvements). If you think about it in those terms it may be easier to motivate yourself to have a legal rental. And just like insurance, you may never need it, but it is best to have it for both the tenant and the landlord.

    • +1 Being able to rent legally, pay taxes and knock some money off my income every year is so worth it for me.

  • The variation on the basement apartment 2-unit theme – the “in-law” apartment, still accessible from the inside, not separately metered, but with its own kitchenette and washer/dryer – does that get treated the same way as a fully separated 2-unit apartment? Is a business license and C of O required? Or is this just a roommate/group house situation?

    • Does it have its own bathroom? IF so, I’d lean toward it being 2 units for reasons I mentioned above. IF you all can freely use each other’s space, I may say no it’s not 2 units because you’re not treating it as 2 units. I think the hotel door (I can lock you out of my space) really gives the appearance of separation even without separate metering.

      • I does have its own bathroom, but we can move freely between our space and their space. Aside for tax reasons – I guess the question is, what is required to be able to rent this space out without going to the expense of separate meter, sealing off the interior access, etc. Can it be treated just as a roommate situation? What is required to rent a room out in your house? Anything?

    • Metering does not matter but the tenant does need panel access. If the bedroom is legal you can rent as a room in your house, but you still need to get a BBL/

  • I concur with the irrelevance of having to visit two different DCRA offices to finish the process, but in my case it was simple and straightforward. In my opinion they have made it as easy as possible while including the necessary bureaucracy. I cannot endorse the company RentJiffy as their fee was extraordinarily high for only providing a minimal benefit. If you absolutely cannot take a couple of hours to do the leg work yourself, then maybe they make sense, but it did not in my case.
    Keep in mind one of the main reasons for this process is based on tenant protections. It is my understanding that too many basement tenants have been injured or killed during fires in improperly designed apartments (in DC). They either did not have an escape method in the bedroom and were injured by smoke inhalation or some other easily avoidable circumstance.

  • I agree. We converted our basement into a fully separate rental unit and tried to comply with all the regulations and permit. Each person at DCRA will tell you something different, each inspector will tell you something different. One inspector demanded we change something in our mechanical room, even though it was built according to the plans that were approved by DCRA. One inspector ‘overruled’ another who had previously passed some electrical work. The different DCRA departments do not seem to know what they are each doing or saying. The system is definitely not helpful to regular home owners – unless you can afford to pay an architect, designer, permit runner, etc. The home owners center is a joke. In the end we passed all construction inspections, but stopped short of securing the actual C of O.

  • My favorite was the DCRA inspector who spent 20 minutes telling me all about how hard it was to support a family on his $80K/year salary (unprompted) before starting his inspection at my house!

  • Woah, kind of surprised at the number of people here who illegally rent out their basement. I’ve thought about turning our basement into an income suite in a few years, BUT I’d just be too anxious to do it illegally. Insurance isn’t going to cover jack if something happens, and then potential lawsuits! Yikes, could bankrupt you. On the other hand, heard nothing but bad things about DCRA so unless it changes in three years I guess we’ll forever just enjoy our basement ourselves!

    • This is all hyperbole. Yes, it’s a somewhat complex job and you should probably hire someone to do it. But it’s not outrageously expensive if the unit already meets most of the requirements.

      • Doesn’t a basement digout cost around $40K? Most DC basements won’t meet the ceiling height requirement otherwise.

        • Yeah, I am fairly positive we are just short of the ceiling height requirement so either way it would be a big investment. Not a pressing need either way. Not sure what a future homeowner would find more desirable? Anyone know? A basement they could rent out, or just a finished basement for their own needs?

          • From this thread, it sounds like there are lots of hurdles to getting a C of O even if your basement actually qualifies for one. I’d hate to spend $40K extra and then find out that my basement was technically as illegal as if it had a lower ceiling.

        • Yeah well if your basement doesn’t meet the height requirements you’re pretty much out of luck. Unless you live in a neighborhood where you can really charge a fortune in rent it won’t make sense.

        • 40K is a bit high. I have an almost 1000 sq. foot basement and was quoted 25 – 35K depending on how much height I wanted to get. I’ve heard of it being done for as cheaply as 10K for houses with a smaller footprint.

  • New buyers should also keep in mind that having a C of O eligible unit will be taken into account in the price of the house. Buyers are willing to pay more for a house with a legal basement than for a house where (for example) the ceilings are too low. You’ll come out ahead in the long run, but I would say it adds 50-100k to the value of the house. And then you have to deal with the hassle of being a landlord. Yes, you’re getting a better deal but it’s not for nothing.

    And for those whose basement is not legal, that’s what you paid for.

  • Question for all of you: I live in a 2 unit house. We occupy the top floor, and the neighbor the bottom floor. Separate doors and separate everything (including electric panels). One meter and one electric bill for both units, that we split. Is this legal or illegal? Is our landlord violating code?

    • That’s legal. Although a little baffling. If the systems are on separate panels installing separate meters should not be too hard. Code just says you need panel access (which can only be achieved through separate panels). It would be annoying if your co-tenant is an energy hog though.

    • Lots of factors determine this but based on what you provided, it is legal. You can have one meter there just needs to be access to the panels in case of a fire or other emergency

      • The splitting may not be. It’s been a long time since I looked at the issue, but I seem to recall that in residential settings, utilities had to either be covered as part of rent or paid based on actual usage unless fees for certain tenant-installed appliances like window A/C were specified in the lease. I don’t recall simply splitting down the middle between otherwise separate apartments being OK. Someone else will have to chime in on this one, though.

  • We are in the process of finishing our basement. We underpinned and plumbed for a kitchen and washer and dryer when we did our original remodel. We want to get a C/O but despite asking realtors and asking potential contractors we have received conflicting information about what is required. I would love someone with experience to help me understand what we do and don’t need. 1. We are not separately metered but we have two panels should we are should we not pay to separate – both are in the basement. 2. Right now the bedroom would be open to the living space. We are considering adding a door to make a 1 bedroom. Dondonthis we would have to add a window we can go along with that. The problem is there is only 1 bathroom. This one bedroom would be in the bedroom if we close it off. We have been told that would be a problem because the bathroom wouldn’t be accessible accept through the bedroom. To me that sounds like a design issue not a legal apartment issue 3. Another contractor said that the HVAC has to be moved so that it is accessible to the renter and us. Right now the thermostat is upstairs with us and the handler is in the basement. The handler is in a dry wall with a luber door. 4. The hot water heater is tankless and out side. We would both have access. 5. We will close off the upstairs from the basement. The basement has a front door and a rear door. We are using precious resources to be able to rent the basement out of family nececessity. Please dont judge we would appreciate comments and suggestions from experienced LL or ortherwise knowledgeable persons. Your DC neighbor.

    • That was suppose to be the one bathroom would be in the bedroom.

    • Respectfully, a few of the questions were a bit confusing. If you want good advice you might edit and repost. That said I think this is what you want to know:
      1 – Don’t need separate metering but the panels need to be located in their respective units.
      2 – I’m not positive but I’m about 80% sure that, as you suggest, the bathroom thing is a design issue rather than a code issue. I’ve been in many apartments like this. As you mentioned also be sure the bedroom meets glazing requirements.
      3 – The unit does not need separate control panel access but there are temperature requirements (68 during the day 65 at night for heating, not sure for A/C and it only applies if A/C is present).
      4 – Should not be a problem.
      5 – Not sure what the question is here, but that sounds right.
      Especially if you’re spending a bunch of money to convert I would hire someone with specific knowledge of the CoO process to ensure your plans will satisfy the code requirements.

  • SkeptiDC

    DCRA has a pretty clear checklist for how to obtain a 2 family rental license, which includes getting the C of O. I don’t think it’s particularly cumbersome or confusing. What’s tricky is how far off your basement is from code. If you have to dig down or add a panel then it gets complicated and expensive, but the process at DCRA is not the issue, it’s simply the complications of renovation and construction. So I think it’s just a matter of frame. If you think it’s going to be really quick and easy then you may be setting yourself up for disappointment.

  • Now imagine that process a million times more frustrating and ridiculous, taking a year or two, and you have just experienced what every small business owner is experiencing trying to get a business open in DC while paying crazy rent on a space that is not able to be used in any legal capacity. Ahh the good ol DCRA.

  • When I purchased my home 11 years ago (that already had a basement apartment that had been lived in), I and my realtor called DCRA at least 10-20 times trying to see if it was legal and if not, what we needed to do. We were passed from person to person. I was then told that I had to hire an architect to submit drawings. The whole thing seemed absurd. I had the unit inspected privately to ensure there were no safety hazards, and I pay taxes on my rental income. There are two entrances and the ceilings are 8 feet. I did (almost) everything I could at that time to comply with whatever obligations I was required to abide by, but nobody could tell me what they were (short of hiring an architect or someone who could draw a plan of my basement). If DCRA wanted me to comply, then they should have told me exactly what to do (short of hiring an architect). I take my job as a landlord exceptionally seriously, and it bothered me that DCRA couldn’t tell me what the status was for my unit. Although they have my dwelling listed as a two unit property. I figured if they wanted me to do the right thing they would have at least related to me what the status of my unit was. Making the process complicated, time consuming and opaque doesn’t serve anyone.

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