“My Basement is 3 inches short of the requirement for a certificate of occupancy”

Photo by PoPville flickr user John Cochran

“Dear PoPville,

I just purchased a home in DC with a finished basement complete with kitchen and full bathroom. Unfortunately, the ceilings in the basement are 6’9″ tall, which means they fall 3 inches short of the requirement for a certificate of occupancy. Do any of your readers have suggestions on how I could monetize this space? For example, is there any way I could come up with the 3 inches without completely ripping up my foundation? If I removed the stove, could the space count as a separate bedroom (a stairway connects the basement to the main floor) with ceilings that are 6’9″? Could I rent the space out to a professional, such as an accountant, lawyer, tutor, etc.? Any suggestions on how to monetize this space would be most welcome.”

65 Comment

  • Excellent photo choice. 🙂

  • How can I get around landlord tenant law?

    • I don’t get that sense at all. It sounds like the OP is trying to monetize the space legitimately instead of renting it as an illegal apartment and calling it a day.

    • Nothing wrong with trying to find a use for unneeded space in one’s house.

  • Use it as an Air B&B?

  • Rent it anyway to an acquaintance, using a Roommate Sharing Agreement contract instead of a residential lease. Having a stove does not make the space legally different than a single bedroom or suite of rooms which you can legally share with a paying housemate. Write the contract so that you and the occupant each have mutual access to the entirety of the home. (Realistically, you might need to go into the basement to do laundry anyway, or vice versa). Include a clause wherein they acknowledge that you don’t have a separate C of O or business license, and that the contract is to be construed as a roommate agreement.

    • This^^^. Or rent it out anyway — there are lots of not-quite-legal basement apartments in D.C.

    • dumplingdreams

      I live in a basement space as described by the OP, and I highly doubt my landlords are following any legal codes. It is a nice space, safe in every practical aspect, super comfortable and convenient, and technically is not off-limits to the landlords because of the electrical box and other things. But for all intents and purposes it’s mine. We have a contract and after 2 years I’ve never had a problem. Find a mature, responsible tenant you can trust and just rent it privately with an honest, reasonable contract between the two parties.

      God, why does the government have to have its grubby hands in EVERYTHING?

      • There was a time when governments didn’t care about this stuff. Then slum lords happened. Laws are typically made in response to a problem, not as a result of someone sitting at a table drumming their fingers figuring out ways to be more evil. If people didn’t do bad things to each other, shit, we wouldn’t need any laws.

        • Unless you were being sarcastic. In which case… so was I?

          • I think it’s pretty clear that “I Love my Apartment” was being genuine. There are probably thousands of people happily sharing not-licensed rowhouse basements in DC, despite the seemingly litigious nature of some folks here.

            “Laws are typically made in response to a problem,” but DC is not a typical sovereignty. Years of experience have given me the sense that, yes, DC Government officials do sit around drumming their fingers, at the very least figuring out ways to extract more revenue without much regard to focusing regulations (or enforcement thereof) on good public policy or reasonableness.

          • “The good do not require the laws that the bad will not obey.”
            I think Bob Dylan sang that.

  • Can’t you rent it to someone as you would rent out a room in your house? So you have a roommate sharing your house (but really living in your basement) rather than a tenant renting a separate unit?

  • If your plan in buying the house was to (legally) rent out the basement then why didn’t you make sure that was an option before you put in an offer?

  • I’m curious if your realtor mentioned this to you. They DEFINITELY should have. While most realtors cannot tell you for sure a unit is legal (unless it’s already certified) they should be able to instantly tell you it’s not legal. And if you knew it wasn’t legal, why buy it?
    DCRA really screws homebuyers by not doing a better enforcement job. Since tons of people are willing to rent illegally there is a huge incentive for flippers to build basement units that aren’t up to code, since buyers don’t care anyways. This just makes the problem worse.
    To answer your question, there is really no way to rent the space. You may be able to dig three inches without underpinning the foundation (making it all the more shameful that the developer finished the basement without digging). You also don’t need the entire basement to be 7′, just a certain percent. I’d find a contractor to get an estimate and a consultant who will help make sure it’s up to code.

  • Use it as an AirBNB? you would make more money that way than by having a lease. More work, though.

    • A LOT more money. AirBNB is the way to go here, I think.

      • Genuinely curious: can you really make more money doing AirBnB than a regular tenant situation? I figure if we charged $100 per night, we’d have to rent our unit at least 17 days out of the month to make as much as we collect now from a regular monthly tenant.
        I have toyed with the idea of doing AirBnB the next time a tenant moves out, but I highly doubt we’d make as much. It would be really nice to have the option to use the space if we wanted (say for out of town guests), but I wasn’t sure it would be worth it.

        • HaileUnlikely

          Somewhere? Certainly. Everywhere? No way.

        • You have to remember to take into account taxes, fees, and your own time. Unless you live very close to the metro or downtown it’s hard to make more with Air BnB. It’s easy to find rooms on there for under 100$, and your cut from that is only about 70$ after taxes, and you still need to pay income tax.
          To hit the amount you would get renting, depending on the neighborhood, you really need to be above 30% occupancy. And at that rate it’s typically easier to just have a tenant.

        • I was talking with someone who indicated rentals are getting harder to find in San Francisco because so many people are doing Air BNB instead and making more from their properties. Now that is SF, but it is a highly desirable location for tourists and I would say parts of DC are as well so yes I think it is possible to make more doing the short term and not the long term. Is it desirable beyond possibly making more is a different thing.

        • Totally worth it – our Airbnb room brings in anywhere from $2000-2500 per month, which is WAY more than we’d get if we just rented it to a long-term tenant. We rent our extra bedroom with a private bath out on Airbnb since we didn’t want a full-time roommate (Airbnbers tend to stick to their rooms or are out exploring DC most of the time anyway, occasionally spilling out to our living room or kitchen, which they’re absolutely welcome to do). We live in Eckington and we’re about a mile from two different metro stops, so not the perfect location for tourists, but not bad. Our nightly rate ranges from $79-$99 depending on time of year and demand (I usually keep an eye on when big conventions are in town or when hotels are booked solid) and we’re typically booked about 20-25 nights per month. I’ve set a minimum night requirement so that we get guests for longer stays, therefore minimizing the number of times we need to flip/clean the room. You are supposed to claim it as income each year, so Airbnb sends you a 1099 of your earnings, and now that Airbnb has a legal agreement with the District of Columbia, guests pay a hospitality tax on top of our rate, so it doesn’t cut into our profit but makes me feel a little less guilty about operating in the sharing economy [or black market, as some might call it…].

          Now, let’s talk about the guilt I feel as a wannabe urbanist who is hoarding available housing stock in a city that is in a housing crisis…. We plan to dig out our basement a few inches and finish it as a separate rental unit sometime in the near future – and we’ve debated if we’d just list it on Airbnb (more profit) or get a long-term tenant (less turnover). Logic tells me to list it on Airbnb, but my gut tells me I need to do my part for DC and add to the available housing supply, possibly even providing it as a voucher unit to give someone an affordable place to live in our rapidly gentrifying neighborhood. But am I being crazy? Or might this be the right thing to do so that our community doesn’t turn into the next San Francisco?

          • No offense, but someone paying $99.00 a night (actually more like $110.00 since guests on Airbnb pay a 9-12% booking fee on top of the rent) for just a bedroom in a shared house in Eckington, a mile from a Metro, just sounds crazy. Who are these people? And how do they even find you with so many listings?

        • There are over 1,500 listings on Airbnb in DC, most in the $100 and under range. And would you rather have a series of strangers with access to your whole house or a full-time room-mate?

  • Does the height requirement apply if you rent it on Airbnb? I don’t think you specifically need a certificate of occupancy for that.

    • there’s a certificate of occupancy for the house – you wouldn’t need a separate one for the “basement bedroom”

    • west_egg

      If you’re listing a rental on Airbnb you’re already flying under the regulatory radar.

      • Accountering

        Meh, these things were basically legalized. AirBNB now charges occupancy tax of 14.5%, just like hotels in DC.

  • HaileUnlikely

    Was this thread posted in response to the discussion over on today’s GDoN?

  • Behold! A slumlord is born.

    • Accountering

      Oh nice, because he rents a 6’9″ apartment to someone who is likely 5’10” male, or 5’6″ female, that makes him a slumlord. Ridiculous.

      • west_egg

        Don’t forget the part where he reaches out for advice on ways to make sure he operates within the confines of the law. Something tells me slumlords don’t put a high value on the opinions of the PoPville commentariat.

    • LOL okay sure, a nice apartment with a thoughtful, responsive landlord and 6’9″ ceilings is a “slum.” You’ve been very spoiled in your living arrangements so far, I take it.

  • You can rent it out as a “bedroom” in your house, the way you would any other bedroom. I think there are some technical differences, like technically the tenant has to have access to all common spaces, but in practice most people would just respect their separate space and stay in the basement (and obviously that respect goes both ways, and you give them their privacy.)

    • Exactly. Try to get someone in there who will respect your privacy and protect your property despite technically having access to the entire house. In turn, respect their privacy and property. Price it so they’re getting a reasonable bargain. All will live happily ever after, with no need for lawyers or the wonderfully reasonable and competent officials of the District of Columbia.

    • This is wrong.
      To rent a room in your house, technically you need a Basic Business License and inspection (check the requirements on DCRA’s web site).
      One item on the inspection checklist for rooms rented in a single-family residence is that ceilings be of the required height for habitable space, which is…. 7 feet. So OP can’t legally rent the basement as a room (even assuming s/he meets other BBL requirements like hardwired smoke detectors, ingress/egress, etc.)

      • Emphasis on “technically.”

        • If the OP cares enough not to rent the basement illegally, s/he would presumably feel the same way about renting it as a room…

      • HaileUnlikely

        As has been pointed out numerous times on the other threads referenced in one of the posts above, DCRA has been very unclear on this over the years. I have received conflicting responses from individual DCRA employees when I have asked, and DCRA used to maintain their own blog where they asserted without pointing to anything in the law that an owner can rent out up to four bedrooms in an owner-occupied dwelling without a BBL. (My hunch is that the blog in question was the work of a very junior staff member or intern who was not monitored very much and might have posted some incorrect information. Does anybody know more about this? This is what I’m talking about: https://rentmydcbasement.wordpress.com/about/)

        • Interesting. Perhaps there’s an exception that’s not listed on their web site?

          • HaileUnlikely

            I’ve tried pretty hard to get to the bottom of this and have not been able to. Neither the DCRA rep who told me yes I need a BBL nor the one who told me I don’t need one could ever point me to anything more authoritative than a single ambiguous sentence on their website and explain to me how they personally interpret the sentence in question. I have a suspicion that the answer to this question is not codified anywhere and is subject to the interpretation of whoever you happen to ask at DCRA. If this is addressed explicitly anywhere, DCRA has been weirdly evasive in pointing me to the applicable law.

  • Do you have kids who are in day care or Nanny share? If you do consider not renting the apartment and instead let someone stay in it for watching your kids during the day. I have had one friend have her mother-in-law move in to their basement apartment after the renters moved out so she could watch the kids full time. And another friend let their nanny move in for free and take a big cut in pay. It would only work if a. you have kids in daycare and b. if you would save more on childcare then you’d make in rent.

  • Take out the ceiling. See “My ceilings are too low” in the following. You’ll at least save the space of the ceiling material, and it will also feel a lot bigger:


    • This will save you some space, but if you are trying to rent it out, remember that taking the ceilings out will also make it very noisy down there because you’ll loose the sound insulation. Just something to keep in mind.

    • This will leave any plumbing, gas, and electrical that runs between the joists exposed, which is also likely not up to code.

  • Laminate wood flooring will save you up to an inch and a half if you have carpet installed. Cut open an area of the ceiling to see if the ceiling is framed down. If so, remove the framing and hang 1/4″ drywall directly into the floor joists above. That’ll get you well into the 3 inches you need

    • Technically, to get a CofO for a separate unit, you need a certain level/type of insulation in the ceiling, as fire separation, so the ceiling removal might give it the height needed to be a legal bedroom but not a legal unit.

  • I wonder if you could rent it out as art studio space? I know there are a lot of artists who want a space separate from (but close to) their home with lots of space for prep/storage, and for many mediums having running water to clean up is kind of a necessity. You’d also be surrendering any kind of decor/walls/carpet that’s in there to mess, but then again you wouldn’t have to do as much clean-up/maintenance.

  • Is there no variance procedure? 7′ is the minimum, and it is never allowed to be violated? (with the end result being a legit CoO?)

    honest question…

    • I wonder if people are afraid of asking for a variance and then being targeted for inspections if they fail.

  • I used to run the rental licensing program in Minneapolis and let me be clear about this. DC rental laws are WAY more lax than they are in Minneapolis.

    However, as to your question, you may be able to petition the height requirement for legal occupancy, especially if you have some sort of proof that it has been used as a rental space for a number of years. It also could help if you have a hardwired sprinkler system. Unfortunately, a lot of people do things to their properties/homes without looking into if they need permits, and it is different for owner occupied versus solely rental units, but looks like your realtor messed this one up. Building code requirements are their for a reason, and while I sympathize with landlords for having to keep up with so many things, but it is to everybody’s benefit if properties are up to code and safe.

    • How is a 6’9 ceiling unsafe? Claustrophobic, sure, but I’m not really seeing where safety comes in. If someone is willing to live with low ceilings (presumably for somewhat lower rent), what’s the benefit of stopping them?

      • HaileUnlikely

        While I basically agree with the spirit of this, I do not agree with the proposition that landlords may at their discretion ignore parts of the building code that they don’t happen to agree with.

    • More strict, certainly, but Mpls is also much clearer in expectations and communication of requirements. It’s so much easier to navigate than DC, it makes me wonder if I’m really unlucky now or just used to be quite fortunate…

  • Just got a BBL and C of O less than a year ago. They did not measure the height. Or do much of anything — inspector was there for about 5 minutes.

  • Try looking into the way your ceilings are constructed. You might be able to see if there’s a bit of extra space in there. structural beams are some of the largest components of a basement ceiling, but see if you can raise the ceiling if there aren’t other obstructions.

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