“How does one know if he lives in an illegal rental?”


“Dear PoPville,

How does one know if he lives in an illegal rental?

We rent the main and upstairs floors of a townhouse in DC with a separately rented basement unit. Searching PIVS on DC’s website, there is no certificate of occupancy or basic business license at the house.

Am I in an illegal rental? And if so, what rights or responsibilities do I have and what rights or responsibilities does my landlord have?”

81 Comment

  • Yes, the BBL should show up in PIVS. If you want to see what it should look like just check a random address that you know is a legal apartment.
    This is not a big problem for you but potentially a huge one for your landlord. They can be subject to fines, but you are still protected by all DC tenant laws that would govern a legal unit.

  • Why is the OP even asking this? Unless you’re having problems with your unit or with your landlord, what difference does it make?

    • Perhaps he or she wants to know what the safety regs are, and whether the landlord is in compliance. I’d want to know that the place I’m living is considered safe.

      • Agreed. My place is totally illegal but I’m fine with it. If there was a fire I’d probably die. I have makeshift pipes all over. If the OP wanted to have items up to code, this is useful to know. I think there are a lot of random laws you need to follow such as having a turn lock deadbolt as opposed to a key only one.

    • Why? From the tenor of posts-past here, people are looking for an opportunity to take advantage of the landlord, to get them “over a barrel” to get concessions. Things like “well, I am just going to withhold rent until they get a cof O from the city”.

      Thats not the way it works. When the reality is, if you are in a non-c of O space, and notify the city of it and they take notice, the city isn’t going to let you live there. Perhaps the issue is a small one, and they give your landlord 30 days to remedy, you still have to pay the rent.

      Or if it is something they consider more serious (slightly lower than allowed basement ceiling”, that is an issue that can’t easily be remedied, let alone done while someone lives there. So you have to move out. Sure, you will get your deposit back, but you are entitled to anything else.

      If you aren’t having issues with your landlord, like your location and cost, then notifying the city is about the worst thing you could do to yourself.

      • +1.
        The fact that the OP doesn’t mention WHY he/she is concerned about the legality makes me think that this is a potential jerk tenant.

      • +1

        I was immediately suspicious of the OP when they didn’t provide a reason. My first thought was “oh, they’re just trying to get some sort of concession from the landlord.”

        There may be a total legit reason, but the OP doesn’t come off in the best light.

        • Because the OP lives on the top 2 floors of a row house where the utilities are split 50/50 with the basement unit and even though he should be paying 2/3 of the utilities (to heat 2/3 of the house) he is very upset that in the winter his bills went up. This has been on Rant/Rave 2 times already…

          • I should’ve realized. That person again??

          • That seems like a legit gripe. Tho if that was agreed upon in advance it’s somewhat on him also.

            As a landlord, that’s why I just charge set fees for the utilities if its the rare situation where it needs to be in my name. Not worth all the heartache and tenants legitimately use energy at different levels so any attempt to divy up the bill is inherently flawed.

          • Suprisingly no, it’s not me.

      • +1. Also why screw over someone who isn’t causing you any grief just because you can? If the landlord is a real pain who refuses to fix issues in a timely manner, etc, I could see reporting them. But if you’re happy with your living situation this should not matter to you (and I don’t buy the whole safety code thing. I don’t trust that getting approval by the city makes a place safer or a landlord better).

        • west_egg

          Depending on the regulation in question, it can indeed make a place safer. Means of egress in a fire is a big one — there have to be two. My landlord undertook expensive modifications to bring my apartment up to code before renting it.
          Access to your electrical panel is another one. Exhaust fans ducted to the outside is another. These are just a few I can think of off the top of my head. My point is, there are definitely some wack-a-doodle regulations on the books but many of the requirements for apartment rentals do legitimately keep tenants safer.

          • Yes, that’s true. I do rent out my basement “off the city books,” but I also made sure that safety issues like the ones you mentioned are adequately addressed. Now, my ceiling height is just shy of 7′ so I didn’t want to take the chance that the city would deny me because of 1″ and be forced to complete a prohibitively expensive dig out. However, my apartment is nicer than most (so I’ve been told by tenants and prospective tenants), I charge below market rate rent and include utilities. I see it as a win/win.

    • Honestly, I’ve wondered during apartment hunting how to tell whether a unit is legal or illegal, especially with all the chatter about it. This isn’t a totally unreasonable question.

  • A CofO is not needed for an upstairs unit like yours. However. the basement is probably illegal.

    • This is not true. Any space you are renting needs a CofO.

      • Single family homes get a CofO following building inspection that does not expire. They do not need to have the same CofO maintenance procedures a basement rental needs to have, nor would one be listed separately, updated or maintained. By the building just existing it has a CofO.

        • Yes, but a single family home is not the situation being discussed. A single family home that has been renovated and subdivided into two units would need a new inspection/CofO even if the owner was seeking to rent out the top of the house that previously served as the main residence.

          • Yet your statement was a blanket one that said “any space you are renting.” I can rent my full SFH out and not need a CofO. Ergo you were wrong.

          • HaileUnlikely

            You are correct that you do not need a CofO to rent out your entire house as a single unit, you do still need a BBL. (If I wanted to be a jerk and make this about right vs. wrong rather than about conveying information that is useful, I would say “Ergo you weren’t exactly wrong, but you omitted material information.”)

          • HaileUnlikely

            p.s. That last reply was intended for styglan1dc, not dc owner.

    • This is correct. There often seems to be a number of internet lawyers and knowitalls whenever housing posts come up. The truth of the matter is that the DC systems has numerous perfectly reasonable explanations for why a house may or may not be listed in the PIVS database.

      • Name one such circumstance. A rented unit always needs a BBL. A subdivided home will always need a CofO. There are a variety of options but they should almost all be reflected in PIVS.

  • Unless your landlord is trying to raise your rent, not making repairs, or just giving you headaches in general don’t bother with notifying the city. I’ve been in an illegal unit for almost 4 years now and have had ZERO rent increases (and my unit isn’t exactly in the boonies), the landlord includes utilities, and have had no trouble whatsoever with repairs.

    You still maintain renter’s rights under DC law, but the landlord could be in a very perilous position if you decide to raise a ruckus.

    • If you are in an illegal rental your landlord cannot raise your rent. That’s one “right” a tenant of an illegal rental has, and it’s a very good one to know.

      • Completely wrong. If you think signing a lease I a non registered unit shields you from future rent increases, then I have some nice beachfront property in Iowa for you

        • Oh Sam, I love how wrong you are. Stop by any of the free landlord tenant advice centers and ask them this question. If you are not a registered landlord with a legal unit you cannot increase rent, and the only reason you can kick the tenant out is for nonpayment of the original rent price.

          • I am late to this discussion but I hope you can clarify. It sounds like you’re saying it is “legal” to have a non-registered unit, where the landlord does not have a BBL, but you just can’t increase the rent? Did I get that right?

  • I used to rent by very large completely modern/renovated basement out for $1500 per month, which is $700.00 less than less than comparable units in my neighborhood but I stopped because it is such a pain in the butt to deal with DC, and then the tax they charge the landlord pretty much means we ended up only making about $500.00 per month. That’s not worth the inconvenience of having a tenant downstairs so we moved that person out and are raising the rent to $2400.00 per month.

    People want affordable quality housing but the only way you can provide that is by NOT reporting it to DC. For me it would just boil down to do I have a good landlord or not and who cares if it has a COO. Unfortunately, its too scary what the district will do to the owners so you have to make it legal and make your rent high.

    • After exorbitant taxes you’re ONLY making $500/month…I don’t think dc is charging 1k/month in taxes so after expenses that sounds like a nice profit. Why did you charge below market rent for your rental if it was legal (I’m assuming it’s legal because you are being charged taxes)?

      • HaileUnlikely

        I’m obviously not the OP, but I do know landlords who pay taxes on rental income generated by their illegal rentals. I’m betting OTR and DCRA don’t compare notes too often. Aside from the question of whether getting a CofO is worth it, the question of whether you want to cheat on your taxes and hope you don’t get audited is another question altogether.

        • I guess that makes sense, but it didn’t make sense to me to rent legally at below market yet report the income and deal with a hefty tax. Might as well take the leap, get licensed, and charge market prices.

        • Yeah, I don’t entirely understand HiltsNino’s story either. I think most landlords pay taxes on their rental income and don’t perceive it as an issue. It’s much more difficult to satisfy DCRA’s requirements for a “legal rental” than it is to satisfy the OTR and IRS requirements for paying tax.

          • I don’t believe most illegal landlords are reporting their rental income, but maybe I have too little faith in people.

        • Rent your basement illegally and you can get fined. Maybe have tenant eviction issues. Don’t report your income for tax purposes and you’ll become Bubba’s girlfriend at Club Fed. Easy peasy

    • Uhhh… you “moved that person out”? What did that entail?

      • Probably saying the rent is going up and the tenant had no idea they could stay on at the old rent because the place is illegal.

      • +1 — assuming this is one reason someone might ask about legal/illegal rentals. Glad I wasn’t your tenant!

  • I have nothing of substance to add except to note that I just spit water all over my computer after seeing the headline plus the photo. Awesome.

  • If you rent in the DMV, and are not in an apartment complex, you are most likely living in an illegal rental.

    • I’ll bite. Justification?

      • I learned this fact from a homebuyers workshop recently. I’m not sure what was more concerning – the realtor openly inferring that its ok to break the law because essentially everyone is doing it – or the DC Govs lack of desire to enforce its own rules. Bigger fish to fry? Who knows… but someone is making money… and its not the 20-something renting the basement unit in Columbia Heights (read: its their landlord passing along the mortgage).

        • Take away all the not-quite-legal basement units and the supply of available rentals would be even smaller… making rents even higher.

          • Or make them legal. It’s not an all or nothing thing. Some are only a quick fix from being legal, but owners don’t want to deal with the hassle. Others need major work. Take all the money you’re probably not reporting and get it up to code then you can charge market rent.
            The idea the illegal rentals are simply an attempt for a ll to be altruistic is laughable.

          • The ceiling height requirement alone means that most basements are at least $30K away from qualifying for a Certificate of Occupancy. Renting out such a basement isn’t altruistic, but it is mutually beneficial to the landlord and to a renter who doesn’t mind lower ceilings.

          • I agree with anon. I charge a bit below market rate for my illegal basement. If I had to spend the $$$ to do a dig out (for 1″), then I’d be jacking that rent up as high as it could possibly go and I would not include utilities. The apartment is by no means unsafe and is very nicely renovated- just a bit shy of the ceiling height requirement and not separately metered. No, I’m not doing it to be “altruistic” and would never claim that. However, if I had a legal unit the rent would be much higher than what I charge now.

  • Maybe I didn’t search correctly, but we have all of the paperwork for our basement rental unit in order. I searched the PIVS website for our address but nothing came up.

  • Does living in an illegal rental unit void insurance policies? I.e. homeowner’s or renters? BTW you can just call DCRA and ask them to check the property to see if there is a BBL on it. I don’t think this is an unreasonable thing to do when you’ve tried all other courses of action. In my case, we have an owner who lives abroad and thinks he can let some lady on our street “manage” his place, which just means a headache for the other owners because the place is not actually managed and, on multiple occasions, I have found neighbors in my hallway who were “given” a key by this lady for no reason.

    • Not sure if it would void homeowners insurance but if you haven’t reported a rental in the dwelling they certainly wouldn’t cover those damages.

  • I was in the why ask unless you are planning to be a jerk camp, but then I wondered if the downstairs neighbor is doing something the upstairs renter doesn’t appreciate (dealing drugs, cigarette smoke, barking dog, clog dancing lessons?)

  • I think that jumping to conclusions is not really helpful. Knowing whether a place is illegal could be a very good point to start if the landlord is being negligent. Rather than going directly to the city, maybe this knowledge would be useful to approach and be like, lets come to an equitable conclusion for all parties and not get to hyperbolic about the whole thing. I know that many of the laws are a bit onerous for the landlord, but those laws are in place because of a history of people ripping tenants off for years. I’d want to know before I moved in but why assume the tenant is attempting to take advantage of the landlord? Plus, the homeowner knows the law, and knowingly not following it. Why do they get a pass in taking advantage of city regulations that could potentially be placing people in danger?

  • If the contract is illegal, than the owner can’t sue you for payment. So there is that.

    But also be aware that in most instances you can’t get away with “sandbagging” on contracts. If you notice something wrong you need to inform the Owner, or else you are risking your ability to sue for damages on the basis of the contract if something bad were to happen.

  • I have similar concerns to the OP about a house I rent. We didn’t suspect it was an illegal rental until after we moved in. There are a few items that we can see are not up to code based on our very basic understanding of landlord-tenant law (security doors still use a key not a deadbolt, etc.). Now we’re wondering what else might be not up to code or even dangerous given it may not have had any kind of inspection over the past couple decades at least. I’m also wondering what our rights are if we do determine something is dangerous (to be specific, I suspect mold, and lots of paint started peeling after just a couple months here so I’m worried about lead too). I’d know our rights if it were a legal rental, but if it’s not, what if we need to break the lease and move out early? Not looking to extort the landlord or anything; we just want a safe place to live.

    • You have more rights (they may be the same ultimately) if the rental is illegal. I’d call dcra and get an inspector out there. If you had to leave early because fixing the issues would be too hazardous, you get your deposit back. No difference if not your fault issues arose while staying in a legal rental.

    • HaileUnlikely

      If you rent the whole house, then as noted above, the landlord does not need a special CofO that you would be able to look up, but the landlord is still required by law to have a Basic Business License. To see if they have a Basic Business License, go here: http://pivs.dcra.dc.gov/PIVS/Search.aspx. Enter the address. On the new page that comes up with information about the property, click the thing all the way at the bottom that says “BBL” and see what comes up.

      • While it’s possible the inspector overlooked the locks or whatever other issues may be present, it’s much more likely they never got the inspection that comes with a bbl. I think it’s pretty clear they couldn’t get licensed as is.

        • HaileUnlikely

          Agreed. Just saying, finding out takes 10 seconds.

          • True, but the question was what to do and what rights they have. Saying check the database didn’t really answer that question esp. Since the situation wouldn’t change on the tenants side if there is in fact mold, etc no matter of the unit is legal or not

          • HaileUnlikely

            Fair enough. Their question had multiple parts. I just answered the easy part. I don’t know the answer to the hard part, so thanks for sharing your additional wisdom in your first reply (we were posting at the same time – I hadn’t yet seen your reply when I was writing mine). In any event, I think knowing whether the landlord has a BBL is useful information. I always think that documenting problems and asking the landlord to make repairs is a good starting point, before calling the inspector. A landlord without a BBL would have to be out of his or her mind to both refuse to make repairs and give a tenant a hard time about the security deposit. If the rental is ostensibly legal, the tenant’s rights are basically the same, but the dynamics of the landlord-tenant negotiation change somewhat.

        • I’m not sure if they do it now, but when I got my BBL (~8 years ago) there was no inspection.

          • They do, but they could have gotten one before.
            Haile: , You’re correct. I’m all for putting the squeeze on Crappy Lls. Finding out their illegal only makes that easier.

          • HaileUnlikely

            The current procedure for a single-family or two-family rental BBL is that you first get the BBL, and then DCRA performs the inspection shortly after issuance of the BBL, and can revoke the BBL if you fail the inspection and do not make repairs within a specified amount of time.

  • Here is a thought: what happens if LL tries to raise the rent and is illegal; you say no dice. What happens if they subsequently become legal then try to raise rent again.

    • I’m not exactly sure what you are trying to ask and the scenario seems very unlikely for a number of reasons. Even in the event this did happen, landlords with illegal units would (were the units legal) almost certainly fall under the natural person exemption from rent control.

      • I’m asking if the unit is made legal can the LL then do what they want (within the law) in regards to raising rent, etc.

      • Asked differently: is the LL stuck with the tenant at the old rent forever because the unit was originally illegal?

        • Then I think the above answers your question (in most cases), no? The natural person exemption to rent control applies to all units owned by a person (rather than a corporation) owning 4 or fewer units. This is probably almost everyone with an illegal unit. If the owner has an existing lease from before the unit was made legal I’m sure they still have to honor that lease, but when the lease expires they are free to renew using any rent they wish.

          • My query came with the notion that lls could just go legal, but I now realize that the most problematic lls are likely the ones who couldn’t go legal so easily which is the opposite of what good logic dictates. If you’re renting a moldy dump, wouldn’t you try to keep ppl happy to be able to continue renting said dump?

          • Also thinking dcra may punish lls who were once illegal by binding them to the former rent in some way even if they later did it right. Dc is very tenant friendly; you never know.

  • Aglets

    I’ve wondered about this- a few summers ago, my landord make a huge apartment out of a 1br and a studio that were next to each other, and then turned something that use to be storage into an apartment and then another apartment out of a space that i have no idea what it once was- you could see a stove through the windows because that one was at street level but there was so much decay and mold (i have photos) that it looked unused for at least 30 years (i live in a huge, old apt bldg on the hill).
    I know the person in the formerly storage apartment has mentioned they don’t even have radiators- just the pipes that run through their apartment.

  • I actually found this really helpful. I was about to claim a renters’ tax credit, and was fairly certain I’m not responsible/liable if I live in an illegal rental (fairly sure I do), but this was helpful to me. I had to list his name and contact information. Not out to get my landlord in any way, but if I’m eligible for additional $$ from DC OTR I’m certainly going to take it.

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