In the modern municipality, any formal change is often fraught with paperwork, and the existence of Certificates of Occupancy are no exception. This important document is necessary to indicate that the building in question has been inspected, both physically and at a design level, and found to be suitable for the uses and occupancy that are intended for its future. While the below guidelines refer to common practices around these certificates, it is important to note that the legal guidelines for specific areas vary widely regionally, since they are typically issued on a small local scale. The below is for reference only.
There are three events that can necessitate the procurement of this documentation. A certificate of occupancy is required when a building is first constructed, and this seems straightforward. In order to proceed from being built to being used at full capacity, a building must be inspected and approved for that capacity. This is even more key if the building or spaces within the building are to be rented to a third party for use, which, given the transfer of money, involves a whole new sector of liability if the building were found to be unsuitable for that use. However, a building can also find itself in need of a new certificate of occupancy even once constructed, if its zoning or intended use changes, such as a warehouse being converted from industrial activity to a commercial storefront open to the public. This is because those new use patterns may interact differently with the design of the building, and result in mandatory changes to the building or its interior, or result in the issuance of a different maximum personnel capacity. Finally, if a building other than a single-family home changes ownership, this can also trigger the need for a new certificate. This case is less straightforward. Many ordinances which are tied to the sale of property such as this, are in actuality designed to implement regular compliance checks. For example, requiring new certificates of occupancy each time a commercial building changes hands sets a theoretical maximum time that the building can go without inspection, and when it finally is passed to a new owner, this will be a convenient time to ensure that it is in compliance with more modern use standards.
Contrary to its title, a “certificate of occupancy” does not necessarily refer to “occupancy” in the colloquial sense, meaning residence. Any form of use of a building by one or more humans can potentially fall under the definition and necessitate this certificate, but again, this varies widely by region.
A certificate of occupancy is often granted by the regional government, but, as is the case with obtaining a building permit, it’s often less hassle to let a trained contractor submit the required paperwork. This can be done either by a contractor on the design or construction team who also offers certificate of occupancy services, or by a separate contractor who will review the design and construction.