When you’re building a home, it rarely goes according to the timeline you have in mind. This is just the reality of the situation, and you may be anxious to get into the house that you could already be paying a mortgage on.
One potential roadblock to moving in is a certificate of occupancy.
What Is a Certificate of Occupancy?
A certificate of occupancy is a document officially from the government certifying a building is safe to be occupied. A certificate of occupancy typically includes the name of the owner of the building, as well as the address and some other information specific to the property.
The information will first include the type of property. This is the type of use the property is zoned for legally. For example, if you’re building a house, your certificate of occupancy will identify it as residential. The certificate is valid only for the use listed.
There will be code verification, meaning a property must be inspected to ensure it meets all code requirements.
The certificate is also a way to ensure the property is fit to be occupied. A building can be entirely up to code but not suitable for occupancy.
When Do You Need a Certificate of Occupancy?
If you’re remodeling a property and making minor changes, you probably won’t need a new certificate of occupancy.
When you need one included for new construction, you may need it before it can be sold from a developer to a buyer but not always. If a property is changing hands in any way, you might need one, although this depends on local laws where the property is located.
If you do any major renovations, you could also need an occupancy certificate. For major renovations, like an addition to your home, you would get a permit ahead of the project and then, when the work is complete, your occupancy certificate. If you’re renovating a condemned property, you also need a certificate of occupancy.
When changing the type of property, then you might also need a certificate. For example, if you’re changing a property from single-family to multi-family, you’ll probably have to get a new certificate of occupancy.
Some areas require that every time a rental property is vacated and then occupied by a new tenant, occupancy certification has to be obtained. In other locations, it might be that rental properties have to be put on set inspection schedules, so the property might need a new occupancy certificate after a certain number of years rather than when a tenant leaves.
If you’re building a house, your contractor might get a provisional or temporary certificate of occupancy. That indicates that the contractor needs to deal with a few minor issues; otherwise, the building is almost ready for you to move in.
These are legal requirements for a lot of property-related transactions. Along with the legal ramifications, this is documentation that your property is safe enough to pass a detailed inspection.
To get the occupancy certificate, an application must be completed and a fee paid; then, once the work is done, a series of inspections must be passed. Every municipality has its requirements, but usually, there’s an electrical, plumbing, and fire safety inspection, along with an overall inspection of the building. Different people might do these.
If you don’t pass an inspection, you’re given a list of items to fix and a time frame to complete the work. Then, once you do that, you can have the property re-inspected.
What If You Don’t Get One?
If you didn’t get a certificate of occupancy when one was required, you could face serious legal consequences. The local government could fine you or sue you. It’s also relatively common to fine people a certain amount for every day they’re occupying a building without a certificate.
Some municipalities will include jail as a penalty for moving into a building without a certificate of occupancy.
A question that many people have is whether you can move furniture and belongings before you have a certificate of occupancy. Technically the answer could be yes because the certificate is about the property being occupied. If you aren’t moving in yet, you aren’t occupying it.
While you might not technically be occupying the space, you shouldn’t move anything in. First, it could give the appearance you’re living there. Second, if personal belongings are on the property, it could make it harder for an inspector to do their job and get access to what they need.
It’s always better to err on the cautious side, as impatient as you might be to move in. Otherwise, you could face delays, fines, or even safety issues.