How to Look Up a Certificate of Occupancy

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A certificate of occupancy for rentals signifies that a property meets municipal building code, and with it, basic standards for safety. Governments issue certificates not only when builders complete new projects, but also when existing structures undergo changes or when the purpose of those buildings change. Landlords can face a penalty for not having a certificate of occupancy, but sometimes they try to rent units without them. Renters can protect themselves by obtaining a copy of a property’s certificate before signing a lease.

Where Can Renters Find a Certificate of Occupancy?

Properties located inside city limits must adhere to building codes regulated by the buildings department, but the name of this department varies from place to place. In New York City, it’s called the “NYC Buildings and Safety Department.” In Detroit, it’s the “Buildings, Safety Engineering and Environmental Department.”

Properties located outside city limits fall under county jurisdiction. The appropriate codes are often regulated by a department called the “Building Authority.” This information sometimes appears on city or county websites, which is where renters can find a certificate of occupancy document. However, the certificate might have a different name.

Certificates of occupancy are sometimes called:

  • Use-and-Occupancy certificates.
  • Occupancy permits.
  • Rental licenses.

They are also referred to as COs, CofOs, U&Os and similar abbreviations.

If a renter is unable to determine where to go for this information, the staff at the City Hall or the clerk’s office at the nearest courthouse should be able to help locate the proper department.

Visit in Person or Online

Once a renter locates the appropriate office, it’s a simple matter of supplying the information needed to check a property’s status. Sometimes, these details are available online and bundled with other real estate information controlled by the County Assessor’s office. Other times, renters need to visit the office in person and fill out an application that requires the completion of the parcel or property identification numbers, owner and address.

What Does an Occupancy Certificate Look Like?

Sometimes, landlords present a copy of a certificate to prospective tenants to reassure them about a property’s safety. The appearance of legitimate certificates differs from one city to the next. There might not be a required format as long as the certificate contains all the essential information.

It’s common for certificates of occupancy to list:

  • Name of the city or county.
  • Type of certificate of occupancy.
  • Date of issuance.
  • Permit number.
  • Physical description of the property.
  • Parcel or real estate identification number.
  • Signature of a building inspector.

There are also several places online where an unscrupulous landlord can generate a bogus certificate of occupancy document. Landlords can then share this document digitally or print it out to give to potential renters, giving people a false sense of security. The city or county inspector’s office can confirm whether a certificate is genuine or not.

Penalties for a Missing or Invalid Certificate of Occupancy

In many areas, the penalty for no certificate of occupancy for a rental property includes nonpayment of rent until the landlord receives a certificate. In addition, the tenant may be able to move without warning or without fulfilling other terms of the lease. However, in states like New York, courts have been lenient about decisions in favor of tenants based on technicalities. A judge might not allow a renter to break the terms of a lease unless the conditions in the rental are dangerous.

Do Rental Units Always Require a Certificate of Occupancy?

Surprisingly, no. It depends on the location. In New York City, for instance, rental properties built before 1938 don’t need a certificate until they undergo major renovations. These exceptions are becoming rarer as time goes on.

Landlords in Boulder, Colorado, on the other hand, have no exceptions. They must have a valid certificate, referred to as a “rental license,” for every property they lease.

Certificates of occupancy for rentals help prevent injury and loss. Sometimes, legal remedies are available for those who rent a property without a valid certificate. However, it’s best to avoid potential problems by checking a unit’s status before entering a rental agreement.

Tips

  • Online records might not be fully complete or up to date. For the most thorough search, it’s recommended that you work directly with your local department of building and safety.

    A waiting period and a fee are often applicable when obtaining local government records. Sometimes, the fee is minimal to cover only the cost of copies; other times, it’s higher because of the help required in obtaining the documents.