Conversion from townhome into 4-plex

3 Replies

I am hoping some of the more experience BP members can help me out with what I want to do. I currently own a rowhouse in Washington, DC. It is in the Columbia Heights neighborhood which has lots of rental demand and lots of development coming in. What I would like to do is to dig out the basement an additional 2 feet. So, increase the ceiling height to 8 feet. I also have a parking pad in the back of the house. I would like to dig the parking pad out as well and extend the entire house and foundation to the property line in the back. This will add about 25 feet to the length of the house. And then I would like to turn the house into a "pop-top" and add a 3rd above-grade floor on to the existing structure. After doing this my goal would be to have four 2 bed/2 bath units of roughly 1,000 sq/ft each. 

My question is, what is the best way to go about doing this? I don't have really any construction skills so I would probably need to hire someone. Would people recommend hiring an architect? or a GC and having them lead the process. I have all the ideas for how i would like to incorporate the outside of the house to keep it looking uniform with the existing rowhouses. So I would like to get the best work done of the house but for the cheapest price (like everyone else in the world). Does anyone have any experience doing things like this in DC? Is it complicated to get the permits, etc. 

As a follow up how would people recommend going about getting financing for this. Can I get a loan from a bank? I probably only have about 25% equity in the house currently so I doubt I could get a home equity loan. 

Any guidance and advice would be greatly appreciated,


Sounds totally impractical:

Zoning probably doesn't allow it-1 unit per parcel.

"Digging out" 2' in a basement is likely impossible, along with foundation issues.

All kinds of design/permitting issues.

What you want to do is difficult, but not impossible.  

First, start with the zoning process.  Look up what DC Zone you are in (R-1, R-2, R-3, etc).  You need to determine several zoning related issues: setback requirements, height limits, maximum coverage area, and number of units allowed.  Your Zone will let you know all these things.  Should you want to exceed any of the stated limits, you will have to get a Special Exception from the Board of Zoning Adjustment.  The BZA is a long process, but they are generally helpful as long as your request has some precedent.  

Based on your description, I think the most challenging aspect of the pre-construction process will be extending the back of your house.  This will be an issue for maximum coverage area and setbacks.  You will also want to check out the "pop-up" zoning.  There is talk about limiting the ability to construct pop-ups, so you will likely stand a better chance of approval if you start soon.  

Digging down in the basement will involve an engineer and the permitting process.  This is typically just a question of cost versus return.  (Digging out the basement is very common in the DC area.)

I'd suggest doing the research yourself to determine if your goals are feasible.  Feel free to send me an email with any other questions.  [email protected]


I have to agree with @John Gregg  -- While I don't think you'll be able to do everything you mentioned, your idea is definitely possible as I am currently converting a rowhome in Columbia Heights into a condominium building. 

In my opinion the major setbacks you are going to hit will be:

- Size of your lot (DCRA typically requires at least 900sf per unit you want to build- but there are some ways around this-- this is not 900sf of living space, but land)

- Your Zoning (if it's R-4 then you're in pretty good shape with regards to being able to build a pop up and as John said if there are properties in your neighborhood with a popup, which Columbia heights has an abundance of, then Precedence really helps)

- Extending the back of the house will be difficult as would underpinning the basement to deepen it- not so much because of zoning requirements, but more from a cost and technical implication as it's always a pain when you mess with the foundation of these old houses.

If you want to talk about it more in-depth shoot me a message and I'd be more than happy to discuss further

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