A certificate of occupancy says it's safe for people to live or work in a building. If you build a strip mall or a factory, you need an inspection before you get your certificate of occupancy. The penalty for no certificate of occupancy is that the government can force you to vacate the property.
A certificate of occupancy says a building – a home, a business office, a factory, an investment property – is safe to occupy. If your local government requires certificates of occupancy, you won't be able to use or let people into your building until you receive your certificate. That's an iron-clad rule whether you need a certificate of occupancy in NYC or in tiny Destin, Florida.
Who Needs a Certificate of Occupancy?
The certificate of occupancy – also known as a U&O, or use and occupy, certificate – is an official statement that your building's been inspected and meets the local building codes. While each local government sets its own rules for certificate of occupancy requirements, there are several common situations:
- You're paying for the construction of a house, apartment building, factory, office building, etc.
- You're buying an existing building but it's been heavily renovated.
- You bought an investment property and you're converting it from commercial to residential use.
- The property suffered damage so severe it's no longer usable. If you repair or rebuild, you'll need a new certificate of occupancy at the end of the process.
Your mortgage lender will probably insist on seeing the certificate of occupancy before you can complete the financing.
Where to Get One
There's no mystery about where to get a certificate of occupancy. The local government's building or code inspection office will send out an inspector as part of the building approval process. This process starts well before the final inspection, covering all the aspects of permitting:
- Is your proposed building compatible with the site's zoning?
- Do you have adequate parking?
- Is it set back far enough from the street? Requiring property setbacks leaves space next to the sidewalk, so pedestrians aren't pressed up against buildings.
- Is the landscaping up to requirements?
- If you have signs on the building or in front of it, do they exceed the local size limits?
- Will everything be ADA-accessible?
- Is the storm drainage adequate?
You or your contractor will submit plans and possibly have to modify them or appeal city decisions to higher authorities. By the final inspection, you should know exactly where to get a certificate of occupancy.
Certificate of Occupancy: NYC
For an example of how the certificate of occupancy process works, consider New York. To get a certificate of occupancy in NYC, you have to complete construction, then arrange for a final inspection.
- The building must match the plans you submitted to the city.
- It must pass the final inspection: construction is sound, everything works and there are no major life or safety issues.
- The building complies with all relevant laws.
- You've finished and submitted all the necessary paperwork and paid whatever fees are required.
- Any other city agencies that need to approve the building have weighed in.
If everything meets the city's requirements, you get your certificate of occupancy.
When Things Don't Go Smoothly
The penalty for no certificate of occupancy is that you can't use the building. If you try to move in anyway, the city can levy fines and force you to vacate the property.
If the inspection finds your building isn't up to code, you won't get a certificate. However, you can order the contractor to go back and fix the problems, then request another inspection. It's not unusual for a building to go through several rounds of fixes before passing inspection and getting the certificate of occupancy.
If the building needs work but it's safe for people to use it or live in it, you can request a temporary certificate of occupancy. This allows you to start using your property while getting the remaining problems fixed, but you only have about 90 days.
Allow Enough Time
It's important to build some slack time into your plans, just in case you don't get the certificate of occupancy after the first inspection. Even if the building is up to code, you could still face a delay if there's some paperwork or fees you haven't taken care of. Building inspectors are often busy, so you might want to call a couple of weeks ahead to let the department know when you want an inspection.
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