By James McGrath
You usually don’t hear much about a certificate of occupancy unless it’s a problem. Hopefully you’re reading this to avoid problems and haven’t encountered one yourself!
If you are thinking about buying a property or conducting a major renovation, it’s important to understand what a certificate of occupancy is, why you need one and what to do if there is a problem.
Table of Contents:
What is a certificate of occupancy in NYC?
How to get a certificate of occupancy
What is a temporary certificate of occupancy?
Who issues a certificate of occupancy?
Who needs a certificate of occupancy?
What problems can a certificate of occupancy cause for buyers?
A certificate of occupancy (“CO” or "C of O") states a building’s legal use and what type of occupancy is allowed. For example, retail space can be occupied by a store or restaurant. The landlord can't rent it out as an apartment if they feel like it.
To receive a CO, the New York City Department of Buildings (“DOB”) will inspect the property and make sure it meets the Building Code and Zoning Resolution. The Building Code is an extensive set of standards for construction in the city. The Zoning Resolution establishes zoning districts and governs land use and development.
Most importantly for real estate buyers, with limited exceptions, nobody is allowed to live in a building that does not have a CO.
If you are looking for a copy of a building’s certificate of occupancy, it can be found on the city’s Building Information System. Once you enter the address, you will be able to find a link in the top right labeled "View Certificates of Occupancy." Keep in mind that not all buildings will have a CO and the lack thereof is not necessarily a problem.
If you’re wondering how to receive an initial certificate of occupancy from the DOB, things get much more complicated.
If you are buying in a new development which has not received one yet, there isn’t much you can do to help. That’s between the developer and the DOB.
If an existing building’s CO does not align with its current use, there are steps you can take to fix it. An expeditor is usually hired to handle all the paperwork needed to update the CO in a reasonable amount of time.
As long as the building is deemed safe and does not deviate too far from the current CO, the solution is usually just a matter of time and cost. For all CO matters, you should consult an expert. The process can be long, complicated and expensive.
A temporary certificate of occupancy ("TCO") is simply one good for a limited amount of time, usually 90 days, and may only allow access to certain parts of the building.
They are often used when most of a building is finished but some non-critical parts still need work. For example, if only the top floor of a building is under construction, a TCO may be granted so residents on lower floors can move in.
For work that requires more than 90 days, the TCO can be renewed.
The New York City Department of Buildings issues a certificate of occupancy. In order to receive one, the building must undergo a series of inspections. The DOB will also conduct a final inspection to make sure construction has ended, the building is safe and the finished product matches the approved plans. Assuming everything goes smoothly, the final certificate of occupancy will be issued.
All NYC buildings completed after 1938 need a certificate of occupancy. In addition, older buildings that undergo significant changes, will often require a CO to be issued. For example, if a warehouse from 1900 is converted into condos, it will need a residential CO.
To find out if a building does not need a certificate of occupancy, you can find out from the DOB. If a "Letter of No Objection" was issued, it means the building officially does not require one.
If you're buying an apartment in a new building, it's important to know when the CO is expected. Any delay in the CO will also push back your closing. Remember - you can't live in a building without a CO and lenders usually won't close without one either.
Construction delays are most often the problem. Before issuing a CO, the DOB will inspect the property and look at critical components like the fire alarm, sprinklers, elevators, etc. If any of those are not ready, the CO will not be granted. In certain situations, a TCO can be issued.
Buyers can also encounter CO issues in existing buildings. If the seller conducted unauthorized renovations, the CO may no longer match the property. For example, if the seller converted a single family home to a two family, the CO would no longer match the property and need to be updated. Generally this is only required after significant projects such as moving walls or adding rooms.
Note: This article is meant to be informational and should not be used as professional advice. If you have any questions about a certificate of occupancy, you should consult the Department of Buildings or someone who works closely with the DOB.