DC Rental Units: More Than Just Collecting a Monthly Check

by Michele Lerner

DC Rental Units: More Than Just Collecting a Monthly Check: Figure 1

Earlier this week, an UrbanTurf reader inquired about the steps that need to be taken in order to make a rental unit legal in Takoma Park. We have received a number of inquiries recently about similar situations in the District, specifically about obtaining Certificates of Occupancy for rental units. It seems that there are a number of industrious home buyers out there!

Joe Himali, broker/owner of Best Address Real Estate, explained that if the home in question is occupied with rent-paying tenants, and the whole house is available to these residents, then you don’t need a Certificate of Occupancy. However, if the rental unit (for example, an English basement) is fully separate from the rest of the house with a separate entrance, the owner will need not only a Certificate of Occupancy but also a Landlord Certificate from the DC government.

“If the owners don’t get these documents then the rental unit is illegal and there could be dramatic consequences,” Himali told UrbanTurf. “The D.C. government is second to none when it comes to being tenant-friendly. So, if the owner and the tenant have a dispute of any kind and it ends up in court, the judge will ask first for the Certificate of Occupancy and second for the Landlord Certificate. Getting these can be a bureaucratic nightmare, but if you don’t do it, it is illegal.”

In order to obtain a Certificate of Occupancy, the property must first be in a location which is zoned for multi-family properties. Himali noted that very few areas in the city have this zoning, mostly just downtown neighborhoods like Dupont Circle, Penn Quarter or Capitol Hill.

“If you are trying to get a Certificate of Occupancy in Chevy Chase, you just can’t do it,” says Himali. “You could go to the zoning board and try to get the zoning changed, but that’s about as likely as me becoming the queen of England.”

In order to qualify for the Certificate of Occupancy, owners must also supply two means of egress (exit) from the home so that the tenants in the basement can get out in an emergency. Also, the ceiling height needs to meet a minimum standard and there must be separate metering for the heating and cooling systems. After these guidelines are met, an inspector needs to come to the property to approve it for the certificate.

“Preparing a unit to meet these standards is not a do-it-yourself project, so I recommend hiring a contractor who has done this work before,” says Himali. “You need to make sure everything is properly permitted and inspected. Even more important, spend the $500 or whatever it costs for an hour or two with a landlord-tenant attorney. That will be the best money you ever spend, just to make sure everything is in order before you even start the work.”

This article originally published at https://dc.urbanturf.com/articles/blog/dc_rental_units_more_than_just_collecting_a_monthly_check/1509


  1. annon said at 6:27 pm on Thursday November 12, 2009:
    How accurate is this. What if someone just wants to rent out a couple of rooms? I own a 3 bedroom and am renting out 2 of the rooms. I dont have a certificate or occupancy nor do I have separate meters for heating and cooling. Separate meters for heating and cooling...what does that even mean?
  1. Will Smith said at 6:31 pm on Thursday November 12, 2009:
    Annon - It sounds like you are the type that "is occupied with rent-paying tenants, and the whole house is available to these residents, then you don’t need a Certificate of Occupancy." Top of second paragraph. If that's the case, then it sounds like you don't need anything more.
  1. Stacey said at 7:09 pm on Thursday November 12, 2009:
    Thanks, good information. As a follow-up to my original question on last post - is this distinction that the space/room(s) "“is occupied with rent-paying tenants, and the whole house is available to these residents” what makes the difference between those real estate listings that say house has an "in law suite" versus legal rental unit that needs a C/O?
  1. whoa_now said at 9:42 pm on Thursday November 12, 2009:
    Please explain "dramatic consequences"? As far as I know, there seem to be plenty of "illegal" units for rent in Capitol Hill, Dupont, Columbia Heights, U street,etc...how does DC enforce this? and how do they find out?
  1. Kermit said at 10:06 pm on Thursday November 12, 2009:
    Dramatic consequences = massive fines. If for some reason you and your tenant get in a big disagreement, stay out of court at all costs. If you don't have a cert of occupancy, the judge can levy stiff fines.
  1. whoa_now said at 10:34 pm on Thursday November 12, 2009:
    Thanks Kermit...but does DC have a patrolling force looking for illegal use? or does this just arrive during tenent/owner disputes?
  1. Mony said at 7:27 am on Friday November 13, 2009:
    I've never heard of DCRA or the DC gov't getting involved independently with "illegal" apartments, but as Kermit said, if you ever get in a problem with your tenant watchout. (Conversely, if you need to break your lease and you live in an English basement or some other living situation, you might be in luck if your landlord doesnt have a c/o
  1. Matt said at 3:32 pm on Friday November 13, 2009:
    So what's the situation if you have an English basement but choose to rent it out as a part of the entire house? I'm fairly certain that my basement would be about an inch too low to meet DC regulations and I haven't set up separate meters. So would I be ok to not have a C/O if I took this approach?
  1. dclandlord said at 7:17 pm on Friday November 13, 2009:
    What is the minimum ceiling height required in DC? If the bsmt has a front and rear entrance and a stairway that connects to upstairs, do you need a CofO? It's a bit of a gray area...
  1. Mark Logan said at 7:32 pm on Friday November 13, 2009:
    So tell us what a Landlord Certificate is and how to get one
  1. cellar_dweller said at 8:02 pm on Friday November 13, 2009:
    How about this: I own a basement unit in a small (4-unit) condo building. The condo is on the up-and-up: legal docs, Cert of Occupancy, separate meters. Are there any obstacles keeping me from renting it out? Does the building's cert. apply to my unit?
  1. Matt said at 8:34 pm on Friday November 13, 2009:
    dclandlord, I'd have to look back over the regulations, but it's either 7' or 7'5".
  1. Matt said at 8:57 pm on Friday November 13, 2009:
    dclandlord, this would be a good place to begin reading: www.community-partnership.org/.../DCMR Title 14 Housing Code Chapter 4.pdf
  1. Matt said at 8:59 pm on Friday November 13, 2009:
    www.community-partnership.org/.../DCMR Title 14 Housing Code Chapter 4.pdf sorry, the link isn't working for some reason. Anyway, it's just a link to general requirements for the DC Housing Code. You'd need to insert anywhere you see a space in that link (i.e. between DCMR and Title, between Title and 14, ...)
  1. Ryan said at 9:21 pm on Friday November 13, 2009:
    What's meant by dramatic consequences is that if you get into a dispute with your tenant and wind up in court, you are going to automatically lose unless you have the correct paperwork.
  1. 'Ron' LaPrade said at 3:16 am on Saturday November 14, 2009:
    Be careful who you select to live in your house, being careful about selection criteria because there are about 23 protected classes in DC. Put as much in writing as possible, have it approved by a lawyer. A rental is a business transaction. Be as careful of vengeful former employees as of vengeful tenants. Do not "settle" - it encourages con-artists.
  1. mona demarkov said at 8:16 pm on Wednesday November 18, 2009:
    Legal ht is 7'2" in DC. The fines can be as high as $1000/day that the unit is still in use and they can prorate that. Two forms of egris mean front and back door but there has to be at least one window in each bedroom that can be used to escape and a lot of basement windows won't qualify. If your grandma can't reach it and get out of that window then it doesn't qualify. Landlord certificate is basically the basic business license. They want this so they can make sure your reporting and paying the taxes on the rent. An in-law suite is missing one of the required things to define it as apt. No back door but has front door or heat/ac not seperate from main house. No DC doesn't have a "roving" illegal apt detail but if they get short enough on cash it would be something to consider for a revenue generator
  1. Debbie said at 6:42 am on Saturday November 21, 2009:
    According to the Consumer & Regulatory Affairs Office, the basement ceiling height has to be at least 6'8". In addition, on their website, they provide a list of what the inspector looks for when you apply for a business license. For more information, check out the following DC inspector's list: http://dcra.dc.gov/dcra/cwp/view,a,1343,q,644171.asp
  1. Loretta said at 2:02 pm on Monday January 21, 2013:
    I live in the brookland area and plan on moving out my house and renting it to college students... the house is in good condition but the basement needs work I don't plan to rent the basement... would I have to remodel the basement to rent the property upstairs