Message from Outgoing Moderator: Thank you!

After answering a slew of questions on Prince of Petworth in March, it was abundantly clear that DCRA had not done a very good job of providing information about the unique and often confusing laws and regulations about basement apartments in the District.

So on a Friday evening a week later, we created this blog to try to answer the easy, the obscure, debunk myths and admit to our own issues. We created a new document and new procedures to help make the process easier and answered over 600 questions from more than 50,000 visitors in just 9 months.

While the laws and regulations are in place to ensure these apartments are safe for tenants and property owners, they can be cumbersome. We are doing everything we can, within the current codes, to make the process easier or, at the very least, understandable. DCRA is charged with issuing licenses and doing inspections to ensure the city’s basement apartments are safe for tenants. And in many circumstances, this is an easy responsibility and for some there are some challenges.

As this blog’s creator and moderator, it has been a pleasure getting answers to your questions and meeting many of you “in real life” at our office or over the phone. We have had tons of new license applications approved this year that are a direct result of the conversations we’ve had.

I am moving on to other opportunities, but the work on improving these processes and the conversations will continue. During the transition to new moderators, please be patient as they get onto the swing of things.

Thank you all again for making this a great resource for property owners. It has been a pleasure speaking with all of you.

– Mike Rupert

Basement HVAC Systems: Can they be shared with upstairs unit?

Photo of Vent

We have received a number of questions recently about HVAC systems and whether a basement apartment needs to have a separate heating and cooling system. The answer is no.

There is no restriction regarding a “shared” HVAC system in rental housing as long as the requirements for the minimum heating and cooling are met, i.e., heating minimum of 65F at night, 68F during the day in all occupied space; cooling must be able to maintain the interior air at least 15F cooler than the outdoor temperature.

Note: The construction code does not require air-conditioning, but if installed it must be maintained.

Several people have asked whether space heaters are permitted or more specifically if the basement seems to stay cooler, can you augment the basement heat without having to set the upstairs temperature higher to compensate. While space heaters need to used properly and safely, they are perfectly ok to use. Ultimately the “shared” HVAC system needs to have the capacity to maintain the minimum temperatures to meet code.

Hope this is helpful and as always feel free to post any questions, clarifications or comments. Thanks again.

– Mike Rupert, DCRA

About Window Glazing Requirement: What Does It Mean?

 Photo of Basement window

Through the past few months we’ve been trying to take the building code and licensing regulations and put them in terms we all can understand for basement apartments. One question that continues to come up frequently is the windows glazing requirement. So let me try and do my best to clear this up.

The requirement is based on two different sections of the International Property Maintenance Code – 402 “Light” and 403 “Ventilation.”

Here is a quotation from the section:

2006 IMPC 402.1 – Every habitable space shall have at least one window of approved size facing directly to the outdoors or to a court.  The minimum total glazed area for every habitable space shall be 8 percent of the floor area of such room….”

“Exception: Where natural light for rooms or spaces without exterior glazing is provided through an adjoining room, the unobstructed opening to the adjoining room shall be at least 8 percent of the floor area of the interior room or space, but not less than 25 square feet.  The exterior glazing area shall be based on the total floor area being served.”

And the definition of habital space: HABITABLE SPACE – Space in a structure for living, sleeping, cooking and eating which does not contain, within such a unit, a toilet, lavatory and bathtub or shower.

There are accommodations made in the code to allow the substitution of artificial light for natural light in non-habitable rooms  (IPMC 402.2 and 402.3).

And according to our code officials, 8 percent of the floor area is not that much. 

For example:

In a 10’ x 15’ room = 12 sq. ft of glazing which is the equivalent of 1 window with 3’ x 4’ of glazed area or equivalent.

In a 15’ x 15’ room = 18 sq. ft of glazing which is equivalent of 1 window with 4.25’ x 4.25’ of glazed area.

 For adjoining rooms, the minimum size of the opening between the interior room and the exterior room with the glazing needs to be 8% of the floor area (but not less than 25 sq. ft.) of the interior room.  A standard door size opening (without the door) would generally suffice.  However, the actual size of the glazed area must be at least 8% of the combined floor area.

Section 403 requires that, “every habitable space shall have at least one openable window.”  There is an exception to this similar to that of section 402 in that “where rooms and spaces without openings to the outdoors are ventilated through an adjoining room, the unobstructed opening to the adjoining room shall be at least 8% of the floor area of the interior room or space, but not less than 25 square feet.  The ventilation openings to the outdoors shall be based on a total floor area being ventilated.”

 The code official also has the authority to consider alternative methods of complying with this provision.  The applicant must provide sufficient information to demonstrate that they are complying with the intent of the code, but not necessarily with the letter of the code.

Hope this helps those who have asked. Please let us know if you have any questions in the comments.

DCRA Launches New Site, New Apps (and they’ll help get basement legal faster)

DCRA launched a brand new website yesterday and, so far, it’s getting rave reviews.

We’re still adding stuff and cleaning up some links, but it’s a good start.

But the reason for this post is to highlight our new PIVS application, which will allow you to search for whether or not your property have a C of O, what housing code violations have been issued and what permits and inspections have been done. The database goes back about 6-7 years, but will be a big help for folks.

So go to and look for the PIVS icon right at the top under featured services. And let us know what you think.

Don’t Have Certificate of Occupancy? We’re Making the Process Easier.

We have had many people email, call, drop in or comment here that said they purchased a home with a renovated basement that did not have a Certificate of Occupancy. Some had records of permits and inspections, some have nothing.

We can’t emphasize enough that if you plan to purchase a home and are immediately dependent on the income from a basement rental you need to ensure the basement has a certificate of occupancy or negotiate with the seller to ensure you have your costs covered. We have heard from at least 20 residents in recent months who were told by the seller’s realtor that getting a Certificate of Occupancy would be “no big deal.” In some cases these rentals were not even close to being up to code and would have put your tenant in danger. For others, getting the C of O was no big deal. But if you can’t afford to go through the process, make sure you get all the information before you buy.

Quicker Process

We do understand that many of these potential basement apartments are either up to code or very close so we are trying to make the process smoother through communicating through this blog as well as process making changes at DCRA. So we have developed a new process that hopefully will save property owners time and money and get these units into productive use. While you are not actually doing any work in most cases, it is important you and the city have a record of permits and inspections. This is especially important for liability for you and helps increase the value of your home.

Previously, we required new plans be drawn by an architect or engineer for you to get building permits. We are now providing guidance on how you can submit your own drawings.

We are pasting the language from a new “One Family to Two Family Conversion Guide” below but essentially here is what you need to do:

  1. Draw your own plans on 11 X 17 paper and make the drawings to scale (i.e. one inch equals one or two feet) and include all of the details shown in the sample drawing provided in the guidance sheet. Apply for building permits.
  2. Once you get permits, you can get your own Third Party Inspector (we have a list here) who will sign off of the basement construction and hopefully give approvals and/or recommend any changes you need to come into compliance. The language in the guidance explains more on what they need to look for.
  3. Once you have approvals, you can get your Certificate of Occupancy and then get your Two-Family rental license.

Here is the exact language from the guidance document:

Existing two family dwellings without Certificate of Occupancy (C of O) are required to obtain a C of O. This requires the satisfaction of the permit and building code requirements which includes the following:

  • A completed and signed Building Permit application form and four (4) sets of plans, showing that the existing conditions are in compliance with the building code. Note: If you plan to create your own drawings, please use the  attachments as guidance.
  • At the inspection phase, a certified/approved inspection report verifying that the building conforms to the approved plans with the general building code needs. This report shall include confirmation/verification of the fire separation of the units, the presence of the emergency means of escape to the outside from sleeping spaces, smoke detectors in each unit and separate electric service disconnect in each unit.
  • The C of O issuance desk finally verifies that the inspection is approved by an approved third party inspection agency or DCRA. This confirms that the dwelling is therefore suitable to be classified as a two (2) family dwelling.

And here is the complete document: ONETOTWO_CONVERSION_GUIDANCE_FINALBETA

Not a Solution for Everyone

This process will make the conversion much quicker and less expensive for those with basements they believe are in compliance, but it is not a solution for everyone. If your basement does not come close to meeting code, for example the ceiling is 6′ 6″, you are going to need to hire a contractor and gets plans drawn to fix this and any other issues that require major construction.

What’s Behind the Walls

Several people have asked how inspectors will verify that the work you cannot easily see – i.e. electrical, fire separation, plumbing – will be verified and whether they will have to take out the wall. The Third Party Inspection agencies will work with you and find ways to verify the work is up to code without having to do major damage to already existing walls and ceilings.

Exterior Door Locks: Balancing Security and Fire Safety

If a fire breaks out in your home or apartment, do you know where your house keys are? Can you find them if your apartment is filled with smoke? Are they in your purse? On the kitchen counter? In the couch?

We have had several emails in the past week regarding exterior door locks and how to stay within building codes and still maintain a high-level of security. First building codes require that people are able to unlock and exit emergency egress doors:

  • without the need for special tools or special knowledge;
  • operation shall be accomplished with a minimum amount of effort (no more than 15 lbf) of force;
  • to protect against inadvertent operation by a young child, the release mechanism(s) requires two distinct actions to operate;
  • the release mechanisms must have their operating mechanisms clearly identified for use in an emergency; and,
  • release devices cannot be designed in a manner which accommodates the use of locking devices which require special tools or knowledge to operate, such as combination locks or keyed locks.

These requirements are found in buildings codes across the country, not just the District of Columbia.

There are several types of locks available on the market that meet this requirement that have a thumb release from the interior. Several folks have asked us for local companies who can help identify the best locking system for your apartment or specific brands of locks that work best. However, we cannot legally suggest specific companies or brands of locks. So if you’re a current landlord or contractors who has found a system that works well for you and stays within codes, please share your solution.

Note: Any companies or brands mentioned in the comments are not to be considered as an endorsement by DCRA.

‘Stumbling Blocks’ Filling Up

We’ve received a ton of great comments, questions and suggestions and responded to nearly all. Please take a few seconds to check out the nearly 40 comments with responses. We’re working on a few new posts and getting some guest bloggers to comment on tax issues and some of the security issues. Thanks again for all of your support these first few weeks and we’ll keep this site moving and, as we said at the beginning, eventually create a warehouse of examples and information to make this process easier for everyone so there are fewer ‘Stumbling Blocks’.

– Mike Rupert

Anonymous Poll

DCRA’s Step-by-Step Process for Applying for Basement Rental License

A quick post to let you know we’ve just post a clearer version of the basic six-step process to apply for a business license for your basement rental. As with any project, there could be some variables including applying for building permits if necessary to come into code compliance, but this is essentially the process. You can get everything done – except for the rent control registration – on the second floor of our new offices at 1100 4th Street SW. A lot of the minor repairs that may need to be made might be able to be done with our Postcard Permit which you can get online from home or work for about $30 and without ever stepping foot in our offices. See the more than 60 projects this covers and apply here. Thanks all for your recent comments and support.

– Mike Rupert, DCRA

New Checklist Posted, Ceiling Height, Zoning and Ideas Going Forward

Thank you to everyone for an amazing first week – more than 6,500 views and over 60 comments. And we’re already seeing people share recommendations for contractors, tips for code compliant window bars, constructive criticism and kudos. One issue we wanted to fix as quickly as possible was to pull out more detail from the codes and provide property owners with more information on what we’re looking for. So tonight we just updated the CHECKLIST and now you have specifics on ceiling height, outlets required in bedrooms and bathrooms, minimum square footage for living rooms and bedrooms, and other details on requirements. We hope this new list is useful.

To answer the question many of you have asked, the minimum ceiling height for basement apartments – and all habitable rooms actually – is 7 feet. Many people have emailed, tweeted and commented about this requirement and if it is higher than what was required in the past. It’s not. The 1930 DC Building Code actually required 8 feet on every story. As did the 1933 Building Code and all building codes through 1991 when it was changed to 7 feet as it stands today. We will post a more details soon and cover some of the exceptions and variables, but none of the exceptions currently included approval of units with rooms where people are “living, eating, sleeping, or cooking” with a ceiling height lower than 7 feet. The DC codes are identical, in nearly every case, to the codes adopted by most U.S. states, counties and cities.

Another question people have asked is in what zones are basement apartments allowed. As a basic rule, Residential-4 and Residential-5 allow basement rentals.  And, they can also be allowed in most of the Commercial Zones. You can check what zone your property or a property your planning to buy is with the Office of Zoning’s interactive map.

Our idea for the site, again, was to create an easy to find resource to share information, answer questions, and allow for a open discussion among property owners, contractors, inspectors, plan reviewers and tenants to discuss these important issues. It is our first week and we’ve tried to answer as many questions as possible and hope it’s been helpful. Our plan is to post as regularly as possible – most likely once every week or two – and will feature information on sections of the code that seem to cause the most frustration. We also hope to bring in our own experts and outside inspectors to discuss ways to come into compliance for properties with unique spaces and challenges. If you have ideas you would like to see covered – some are very clear including ceiling height, fire alarms, window bars, door locks  and are already planning on making those among the first topics to cover –  please let us know. Thank you again as we build the site and hopefully, eventually create an excellent resource for all.

– Mike Rupert, DCRA

DCRA Launches New Site to Help DC Residents Renting Basement Apartments

Yesterday, the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA) ending up in a huge conversation about the fears, misconceptions, challenges, issues and obstacles facing DC residents who are either considering renting their basement as a rental property, buying a home with a basement apartment they plan to rent, currently renting their basement apartment (legally and illegally) and other various scenarios. The District of Columbia is filled with basement apartments and entire generations of folks have at one point or another lived underneath other people.

Many of the comments posted we hear every day and others were surprising. The conversation was good enough, we thought, to create a easy-to-find, easy-to-use site that allowed these conversations to continue. While some suggested we create a flier or a some sort of booklet, the number of various scenarios based on location within DC, age of your home, history of the unit among many others makes outreach extremely difficult. We’ll always be missing something. So tonight we’re launching this site to create a central location not only for information and tips from DCRA but also to allow residents to share stories with DCRA and others like them.

We hope this will be useful and like our other sites, we are sure this will expand beyond basement apartments eventually, but it’s a good start and a nod to you DC residents so you know we’re listening. We’ll be filling out the pages over the next few days and if you have ideas, please let us know via the comments or via email.

Thanks again.

Mike Rupert, DCRA