The law in the District of Columbia sets out specific responsibilities for landlords, including how much security deposit you can charge, what disclosures you must make before renting to a new tenant, and what questions you can and can’t include on a rental application. And penalties can be quite strict for landlords who fail to comply with the law—for example by illegally discriminating when choosing tenants.
Here are some key ways you can avoid expensive legal hassles and disputes with tenants in D.C.
1. Comply With Anti-Discrimination Laws
Before you advertise a vacant apartment, it is crucial that you understand fair housing laws and what you can say and do when selecting tenants. This includes how you advertise a rental, the questions you ask on a rental application or when interviewing potential tenants, and how you deal with tenants who rent from you. Failure to know and follow the law may result in costly discrimination complaints and lawsuits.
While landlords in the District of Columbia are legally free to reject applicants—based on a bad credit history, negative references, from previous landlords, past behavior, such as consistently paying rent late, or other factors that make them a bad risk—this doesn’t mean that anything goes. You are not free to discriminate against prospective tenants based on their race, religion, national origin, sex, familial status (such as having children under age 18) or physical or mental disability. These are “protected categories” under the federal Fair Housing Act of 1968, as amended (42 U.S. Code §§ 3601-3619 and 3631). There are a few exemptions to federal anti-discrimination rules, including owner-occupied buildings with four or fewer units, and single-family houses, as long as the owner owns no more than three rental houses at a time.
D.C. law also prohibits discrimination on the basis of a person’s sexual orientation, gender identity, or source of income.
The HUD website provides extensive details on fair housing laws. Be sure to also check with the D.C. Office of Human Rights for additional laws prohibiting discrimination or limiting landlord exemptions.
2. Follow All Rent Rules
All landlords want their tenants to pay rent on time and without hassle. If you need to raise the rent or evict a tenant who hasn’t paid rent, you’ll want to be sure you comply with the specific rules and procedures in D.C. especially those regarding rent control in the District.
3. Meet D.C. Security Deposit Limits and Return Rules
Security deposits are among the biggest sources of dispute between landlords and tenants. To avoid problems, be sure you know state law limits on how much deposit you can charge (one month’s rent in D.C., with the exception of rent-stabilized units), when the deposit must be returned (within 45 days after tenant moves out), and other restrictions on deposits. Using a landlord-tenant checklist when a tenant moves in (and out of) a rental, and sending a written security deposit itemization when the tenant leaves will go a long way in avoiding disputes.
4. Provide Habitable Housing
You are legally required to keep rental premises livable in the District of Columbia, under a legal doctrine called the “implied warranty of habitability.” If you don’t take care of important repairs, such as a broken heater, tenants in D.C. may have the right to withhold rent or use the “repair and deduct” remedy.
Every Landlord’s Legal Guide, by Marcia Stewart, Ralph Warner, and Janet Portman (Nolo) includes extensive advice on establishing a repair and maintenance system that will help prevent problems, such as tenant rent withholding or injuries to tenants due to defective conditions in the rental.
5. Prepare a Legal Written Lease or Rental Agreement
The rental agreement or lease that you and your tenant sign sets out the contractual basis of your relationship with the tenant, and is full of crucial business details, such as how long the tenant can occupy the rental and the amount of the rent. Taken together with federal, state, and local landlord-tenant laws, your lease or rental agreement sets out all the legal rules you and your tenant must follow.
Problems arise when landlords include illegal clauses in the lease, such as a waiver of landlord responsibility to keep premises habitable, or when landlords fail to make legally required disclosures (discussed in the next section). And even if it’s not required that you cover a particular issue in your lease, such as how when and how you can enter rental property, you can avoid all kinds of disputes by using an effective and legal lease and rental agreementthat clearly informs tenants of their responsibilities and rights.
6. Make Legally Required Disclosures
Under D.C. law, landlords must make certain disclosures to tenants (usually in the lease or rental agreement), such as terms and conditions under which you collected the security deposit. Landlords must also comply with required federal disclosures regarding lead-based paint on the property, or face hefty financial penalties.
7. Don't Retaliate Against a Tenant Who Exercises a Legal Right
It is illegal to retaliate in the District of Columbia—for example, by attempting to raise the rent or evict a tenant for complaining about an unsafe living. To avoid problems, or counter false retaliation claims, establish a good paper trail to document how you handle repairs and other important facts of your relationship with your tenant.
8. Follow Exact Procedures for Terminating a Tenancy or Evicting a Tenant
D.C. laws specify when and how a landlord may terminate a tenancy. Failure to follow the legal rules may result in delays (sometimes extensive) in terminating a tenancy. See State Laws on Unconditional Quit Terminations and State Laws on Termination for Violation of Lease for more information on these types of termination notices in the District of Columbia.
9. Take Advantage of Legal Resources Available to Landlords
Be sure to check out government agencies, such as the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and state fair housing agencies which provide useful legal information and publications on their websites. You’ll also find helpful guides to tenant rights and landlord-tenant law on the website of your state attorney general’s office or consumer protection agency.
Finally, if you have legal questions about your rental property, you should consult with an experienced landlord-tenant attorney in D.C.