Chris Saenger didn’t expect to move out of his house in Columbia Heights in September. His lease wasn’t up for another four months. But at the beginning of August, his phone rang.

“The management company called me up and said, ‘Don’t freak out, but the owners are looking into selling the place,’ ” he says. 

Saenger, 29, an architect, and his two roommates didn’t freak out, but they did research what rights they had as tenants. 

D.C. is a very tenant-friendly city thanks in part to the Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act (TOPA) , which gives renters the option to buy their unit or building before the landlord can sell it to another buyer. (Learn about Maryland laws here and Virginia laws here).

“The law is really aimed at keeping tenants in place and to empower them,” says Joel Cohn, the legislative director for the D.C. Office of the Tenant Advocate

Saenger and his roommates knew about their right to purchase but weren’t interested in buying. Still, the law would help them.

Because landlords usually don’t want a sale held up by a tenant exercising their TOPA rights, they will often negotiate with the tenant.

“Tenants can negotiate anything that they want in order to waive their right to purchase,” Cohn says. 

Tenants often ask their landlords for building repairs and rent freezes, among other things. 

Laura Wilkinson, 32, a government contractor, and her boyfriend, Max Behrens, 30, learned about their rights last February, when their landlord decided to sell the unit they’d been renting in a condominium building in southwest D.C.

When their property manager asked them to move out by March 1, they declined because they didn’t have a new place to live. Instead, they negotiated a free month of rent in exchange for being out by April 1.

“The property manager knew we knew our rights,” she says. “So it was sort of a wink, wink, nudge, nudge situation.” 

Their free month allowed them to have a week of overlap between their old rental and their new place.

“We were able to take our time and have a more relaxing move because of it,” Wilkinson says. 

In Saenger’s case, his landlord wanted him to vacate the house to make way for the new owners — four months before their lease ended. So Saenger and his two roommates negotiated a “cash for keys” agreement.

Their landlord offered them $1,000 per person to terminate the lease early. Saenger and his roommates each asked for $1,800 (“I aimed a little high thinking they would counteroffer,” he says), and the two parties finally agreed on $1,500 per tenant. This would cover the inconvenience of moving early and having to find a new place on short notice. 

Saenger says he understands that his landlord needed to sell the house, but “the most important thing was it wasn’t going to cost me money.” 

He and his roommates moved into a new house in Columbia Heights earlier this month. ELLE METZ (FOR EXPRESS)

When TOPA is the way to go 

Not everyone wants to buy their place when the owner is selling. But if a tenant does want to exercise their right to purchase the property through D.C.’s Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act (TOPA), there are specific steps they must take. And quickly. 

Depending on the size of the building -— TOPA applies to all sizes, even a single unit — tenants have between 15 and 45 days to deliver a written statement to the landlord saying they’re interested in purchasing the apartment. 

“The biggest advice would be to act on a TOPA offer right away because the time frames are extremely tight,” says Joel Cohn, legislative director for the D.C. Office of the Tenant Advocate. “It’s a lot of work and it’s very worthwhile, but it does require responsible people acting in a timely fashion.” 

And don’t assume you can’t afford to buy, especially in a multi-unit building. “If the tenants organize and buy the building, they can negotiate their own internal price point,” says Mike Postal, the managing partner at Tenacity Group, a D.C.-based company that handles tenant conversions. “The tenants are generally going to purchase at a discount.” E.M.