If there’s one type of rental unit readily available in Washington, DC, it’s the basement apartment. If you’ve dreamed of living in one of the historic homes in Dupont Circle or Foggy Bottom, then a basement unit may be the answer.
Before you sign the lease, here’s what you need to know about living in a basement apartment in Washington, DC.
What is a basement apartment?
In Washington, DC, a basement apartment is considered to be any unit on the bottom most floor of a home that is mostly or at least partially submerged beneath the ground. A lot of older, historic homes around the district have basements and often convert them to apartments to bring in extra income.
Basement units that have tall windows and are only partially submerged underground are called English basements. There’s nothing particularly English about them, but this style, very common in Washington, DC, offers a little more light than traditional basements and aren’t always as chilly or damp. Many older homes refer to basement units as English basements.
Basement apartment: pros and cons
Many renters scoff at basement units in general, but like any other unit type, they come with their own pros and cons. If you’re apartment hunting in Washington, DC, then it’s a good idea to consider basement units.
Basement units tend to be a little larger because they’re difficult to break up into more than one unit. As a result, the unit size is usually about that of the first floor of the home. Renters who want to save money with roommates or plan to entertain often find that basement units check off more of their needs than units on the first or second floor.
Renters also find that they have more privacy in renting a basement apartment. With windows low to the ground, even large ones, it’s harder for pedestrians to see inside, even when the lights are on at night. If you value your privacy, basement units may be a good option for you.
One con that many renters cite with basement apartments is the lack of light. It’s true that basement apartments usually have smaller windows that are low to the ground, which means it’s hard to get a lot of light in. However, renters who work late or night shifts find that it’s easy to sleep in basement apartments because it stays dark throughout the day.
Because you’ll be living in the basement, there are some health concerns to think about. For one thing, the air can be damp and stale in basement units if there isn’t a lot of air flow. Open windows and fans can usually keep the air flowing, but if the unit does not have any ceiling or exhaust fans, this can be a problem.
Damp and dark spaces are also perfect conditions for mold to grow and thrive. If the landlord hasn’t been diligent about fixing leaks and installing exhaust fans, then mold can build up and cause health problems. Even if you’re not allergic or sensitive to mold, inhaling it over time can cause respiratory issues.
For all these health concerns, there is a silver lining: basement units are usually cheaper to rent. You might end up saving $50 or $100 each month just by choosing the basement apartment.
Before you do rent a basement apartment, it’s important that you ask your potential landlord if your unit is a legal rental unit. Some homeowners convert their spaces to rental units, but they don’t always file the right paperwork or receive the permits to do so. You might find that these landlords offer a cheaper rate, but it comes with the risk that you could be evicted if the authorities discover the basement unit is illegal. To protect yourself, it’s best to rent a basement unit that is represented by a property management company like Atlas Lane. You’ll sleep easier knowing that you have a valid lease and cannot be thrown out without notice or reason.
Basement apartment design ideas
Some renters dread basement apartments because they don’t know how to decorate them or create an effective layout design for the space. Like any other apartment, basement units just need a little thought and planning.
If you’re blanking on good basement apartment design ideas, keep these tips in mind:
- Invest in lighting: Basement units can get dark, even during the day. Pick out a few floor or table lamps to brighten the space when needed.
- Add warm and cozy rugs: Many basement units have concrete or hardwood floors. This is because if there is a leak, then it’s much easier to clear the water. If there’s carpet, then it’s almost certainly going to have to be replaced. This, however, still leaves the floors feeling very cold to walk on during the day, so buy a few area rugs for the space to make walking in the unit more pleasant.
- Choose multifunctional furniture: To make the unit feel roomier, choose furniture that can serve more than one purpose. For example, instead of buying an extra chair and a coffee table, try a pour instead. A pouf can be an extra seat, but it can also be a table, an ottoman and even a storage unit.
Is this basement apartment legal?
If you’re touring a basement apartment in Washington, DC, and you’re not certain that it’s a legal unit, there are some ways to determine the truth if the landlord is being somewhat evasive.
All basement apartments have to have two entrances, usually one in the front and one in the back. This is a safety concern. If there is a fire, renters at the front or back of the apartment need to have a path to get out of the house safely.
While you’re touring, see if you can touch the ceiling by reaching your arm up or even jumping up and down. If you can touch the ceiling with ease, then the ceiling height is probably less than 7 feet, which means the basement is technically illegal. All habitable living spaces need a ceiling height of at least 7 feet. There are some exceptions, but this is a good rule of thumb.
In some homes, the basement was part of the main house, and there’s a stairway with a door leading to the rest of the home. This door needs to have its own working lock, and the homeowner should not be storing any belongings in the rental unit. Renters have a right to privacy. If there’s no lock on that door, then it may be illegal.
Housing rules in Washington, DC have many other provisions and stipulations for basement apartments. Remember, reputable property management companies only represent landlords with legal units. At Atlas Lane, we inspect properties before we agree to represent them, and if a unit is missing a second entrance or other safety features, we insist that property owners complete these renovations before we represent their units.
Basement apartments offer tons of opportunities for living in Washington, DC. If you’re interested, contact the professionals at Atlas Lane to see what’s available and how our boutique property management company can make your rental unit feel like home.