From the Forum – Would duct work in my basement prevent me from legally renting out the space?

by Prince Of Petworth February 23, 2016 at 2:00 pm 22 Comments

Photo by PoPville flickr user Joe Flood

Would duct work in my basement prevent me from legally renting out the space?

“I have a basement that I am interested in renting out but the basement has a decent amount of duct work that that brings the ceiling space below the needed 7ft. Would this preclude me from renting the basement as a living space?

More details:

– I don’t have the money to install separate electrical panels so I will likely be renting the space as a room in a single family home.
– I am interested in adding a front door to the basement, which would make for a total of two exits in addition to the interior stairwell.
– In the event that I add the front door I may also add a window near the front door.”

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  • Anonomnom

    Correct me if I am wrong PoPville comments, but if you are renting the ROOM out, rather than renting it as a separate unit, I don’t think the required 7 foot height applies…

    • anon landlord

      The required 7-foot height applies even if you’re renting an individual room out.
      OP, I was in a similar position. From your description, I don’t think there’s any way for you to rent out the basement legally, unless MOST of the unit has 7-foot ceilings and only some of it has shorter ceilings because of the duct work.
      If you do rent out the room — legally or not — I would recommend having two means of egress and changing any existing security bars/doors so that they can be opened from the inside without a key.

      • Anonymous

        From what I understand, the 7 foot “minimum” is an average height for the entire space. So the duct work can be below 7 feet, but the rest of the room would need to be higher than 7 feet to average out properly. But yeah, all living spaces – regardless if a separate apartment or a just a rented bedroom – would need to meet the 7 foot minimum.

      • Anon

        I rent out a basement room to someone as a roommate and went through DCRA licensing and inspection. Most of my ceiling is around 7’2″, but the ductwork is probably only 6’6″. That was fine. For what it’s worth my particular inspector didn’t measure.

        You definitely need any egress to have bars that open from the inside without a key. If you don’t, they will make you change it. They made me demonstrate how to open mine, which was a valuable exercise. I only have normal interior stairs down to the basement and an egress window from the tenant’s bedroom into the back yard, and this was fine to pass.

        Another big one–make sure your smoke detectors are hard wired, and that you have a CO detector.

        They also made me extend handrails the full length of the stairs, made me seal the spaces around where pipes entered under my sinks, and made me replace the weather stripping around my doors. Don’t be surprised to fail inspection–they will find these kinds of things and tell you what to fix.

  • Shayne

    7 foot ceilings in the living spaces. There can be duct work but the bulk of the living areas (bedroom/den) need to have 7 food ceilings.

  • anonymous

    Soffits for duct work etc doesn’t count against the ceiling height and is allowed to be less than 7ft in those areas.

    • AnonV2

      But there is a minimum there, too. I think the finished height for duct work or an enclosed support beam cannot be lower than 6’6″ (6’3″?) at any point in living space.

  • Petworth Diva

    Just playing devil’s advocate, but why not just rent the rooms illegally with no license? All the immigrants I know who live in basements aren’t doing so in “legal” rental units & they do it all the time. Comments & font pile on.

    • Anonymous

      I don’t know why singling out immigrants matters, but whatever. I rent a basement unit that has switched renters for years from what I know and the ceilings are below six feet in two rooms, key only door, bars on all windows that cant be removed. The place is more out of code than it is up to it, but no one is ever going after the owner. Just rent it out to someone who seems to understand the deal and isn’t going to look to report you.

      • Petworth Diva

        I was mentioning immigrants because I’m more aware of their renting patterns, especially basements, than others.

    • Anon Spock

      Plenty of non-immigrants live in illegal rentals. Many ppl are ignorant on the subject. Renting illegally carries a host of problems like insurance not covering you, fines, or having a hard time getting a tenant out. Why take the risk?

      • Petworth Diva

        Thanks. Good points.

    • Tenant

      Because if your tenant moves out without notice or before their lease is due you will have a hell of a time trying to collect your past due rent on your illegal rental.

      In addition, you will not be able to raise the rent on your tenant legally either. I was renting a room in an illegal group house and when the landlord tried to increase my rent I checked in with the DC Department of Housing and Community Development and they told me that the house was not legal. They also told me that I did not have to pay any rent increase because the unit was an illegal rental.

      • anon

        Even if your rental is legal, wouldn’t you have a hard time collecting the past-due rent? I feel like we hear lots of horror stories on PoPville about landlords of legal rentals who had a hell of a time evicting tenants who stopped paying rent.

    • Anon

      Because it’s $200 and probably two 10-30 minute inspections for peace of mind that you will have any shred of ability to enforce your rights against a tenant if necessary.

      • anon

        That’s assuming that your basement unit is eligible in the first place. If it isn’t, you’re looking at perhaps $40K for a basement digout, removal of connecting stairs, separation of electrical panels, etc.

        • Anon

          Removal of connecting stairs and separation of electrical panels isn’t necessary for OP to rent the basement bedroom to a tenant as roommate. It sounds like no dig out would be necessary either if most of the room is at 7′.

          Failure to get licensed could result in having to return all rent previously paid. It’s risky, to the point where the rent may not be worth it.

    • smh

      If you don’t register, it’s hard to claim the rental income on taxes, so you’d also be committing tax fraud and opening yourself up to penalties.

      If someone gets hurt (or there’s a fire and dies like happened in an illegal basement apartment in Georgetown several years ago) your insurance may not cover you and you could be on the hook for all the damages to your property, the tenants, their guests, etc. And it won’t be easy to get insured again.

      It may also be against your mortgage and the bank could call your loan (make it due all at once)

      And a basement apartment with a C of O raises your resale value.

      • anon

        Your first point is not accurate — OTR and the IRS don’t care whether you’re licensed with DCRA.

        • HaileUnlikely

          Correct. I had a roommate for a while. I never sought any DCRA approvals as I didn’t even want a roommate but begrudgingly accepted one when a friend was looking for a place to live. I reported the rent he paid me on my taxes, which was trivially easy to do. It’s not as if the IRS asks you to attach copies of your BBL or CoA or anything.

  • mid city guy

    hire an architect.

  • anon

    My basement is similar in design and we were able to renovate it and get all the permits approved for a rental unit. Overall the ceiling height is 7 foot, except in areas where the duct work comes through. I don’t think that should be a problem for you.


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