The debate over renting your basement

Jun 13, 2012

A controversial proposal would ease rules on adding rental units to homes in D.C. and Montgomery County. Proponents cite the need for affordable housing. Opponents are concerned about how these dwellings would affect parking, public services and property values.

The Washington Post's Lori Aratani was online Wednesday at 2 p.m. to chat with readers.

Thanks for joining us today. I'll do my best to respond to your questions about proposed changes to the rules regarding accessory dwelling units and accessory apartment in Montgomery County and the District.

The homeowner and the tenant need to protect themselves legally. Nothing should be "understood" and everything should be spelled out, with as much specificity as possible, in the lease agreement. This will avoid a lot of future headaches and misunderstandings. Have a lawyer look the lease over, just to be sure there aren't any loopholes or possible violations -- law is a funny thing.

Great advice.  It's always important to make sure both the landlord and the renter are clear on expectations at the very beginning.  Definitely saves a lot of potential headaches.

Where will this meeting be? Where can i get the rules on this topic?

The Montgomery County Planning Board will take up the issue on June 21. Here's a link to more information (you'll need to scroll down) --

In the District, the zoning commission will take up the issue later this year. For more information about how you can submit a comment about accessory dwellings (or to see how the current rules compare to the proposed rules), check out this website:

Don't affordable dwelling units provide an extra usage and income for 1 or 2 people living in a house built for 4 to 5 while still preserving the historic integrity of the house?

Planners in both D.C. and Montgomery County believe this is indeed the case. They think changing the rules to allow homeowners to do this without having to go through the public hearing process will encourage more people to consider such arrangements -- as long as they meet certain conditions.

Wow! This is such a Washington issue (having grown up in DC). I've lived in Chicago for over 20 years and many people here rent their 2 flats (including basement) to qualified tenants. This city is able to house all types of people with varying degrees of income and successfully deal with the traffic, parking, and noise. I personally think this is an issue of not wanting the "undesirables," i.e. poor, minority, young, into affluent Montgomery county.

There are indeed concerns among some residents that changes to the current rules will lead to a flood of these kinds of living arrangements in neighborhoods where they are not very common -- but it's not clear this would happen. This was a major concern in Arlington County where officials voted in 2008 to allow accessory dwellings. But since then only a few -- about eight -- have been approved.  Some officials wonder whether the rules were too strict and are considering whether they should amend the law. 

Lori, I lived in a Woodley Park basement for almost ten years (!!!). It was small but fully built out - great kitchen, washer and dryer, private entrance. The only downside was zero dishwasher. Somehow, my rent never was raised in that time - $650 when I started, $650 when I left. I always wondered how or why that was possible. My year-lease lapsed into a month-to-month after the first year. Was I just the beneficiary of an extremely kind landlord, or did I have the law on my side at some point? (P.S. I eventually moved because the basement lifestyle did really take a mental toll after a while. You need to be in a place that has *some* sunshine if you're going to live there that long.)


I'm not familiar with the rent control laws in D.C. but it sounds like you were fortunate to find a nice place to live in a great neighborhood for a great price.  If you're interested in finding out more about D.C.'s rent control laws, here's a link:,a,3,q,573345,otanav,|33325|,.asp#read

I hope your new place came with more sunshine AND a dishwasher .. !


There are already too many illegal apartments with too many occupants. We're in an area requiring parking permits but the renters ignore that. One has been here a year or more but hasn't bought Maryland plates--not military. Children are living in a basement apartment but the apartment does not have two exits. It will take a fire and some lives before the jurisdictions finally start enforcing housing laws.

Enforcement is a major issue. At the meeting I attended about the proposal in Montgomery County, this was the number one concern among residents. Officials in the District say they are working with other city departments to prevent issues like this from coming up -- especially if the law is changed. In Montgomery, planning officials said this will be addressed when/if the measure goes to the County Council for a vote.

I am planning on finishing my basement and was considering adding a bathroom and msall kitchen so that it could possibly be rented out in the future. What is the minimum requirements for code?

Hi there --

I'm not able to include a link -- but I just did a quick Google search using "Howard County and accessory apartments," which called up a PDF that outlines some of the basic requirements. Good luck.

This is a continual thread on Prince of Petworth--what are the rules and regulations to renting out your basement in order to get the certificate of occupancy? There is no good, credible source of information.

Here's a link from the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs that might help you. I know the process can be confusing, but officials tell me they are trying to make it easier for folks to get answers to the questions they have.


As empty nesters find themselves in big houses, can't rental basements or carriage houses help those couples stay and have someone to pitch in with caring for the house?

Yes,  this is one of the reasons Montgomey County, the District -- and many other jurisdictions across the country say they are considering changes to rules regarding these types of units.

Thank you for joining us today and for all the great questions.

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Lori Aratani
Lori Aratani is a Washington Post staff writer covering development.
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