Getting a new certificate of occupancy to buy a home might seem like more trouble than it's worth, but trust me: It's worth it
When buying a house in East Hampton, be sure to get a new certificate of occupancy before your closing.
The certificate of occupancy is the building department’s confirmation that your purchase does not violate major provisions of the local building and zoning code. That does not mean, however, that your property fully complies with the New York State building code — only that the local inspector checked those items that create the most problems.
After having closed thousands of real estate transactions in East Hampton, let me explain what can happen when you close without a certificate of occupancy.
Let’s say that one of your advisors tells you that getting a certificate of occupancy is a waste of time. In fact, the seller discloses that the only reason they can’t quickly get a certificate of occupancy is their backyard deck. You love the deck, but it violates zoning restrictions. Do you want the deck or a new certificate of occupancy? After all, the seller argues that you can enjoy the deck for as long as you own the property, but then cut it down if you need a new certificate of occupancy in the future.
Don’t believe it.
We can’t know if the deck is the only obstacle to getting a certificate of occupancy. Suppose that in 10 years’ time, you wish to sell your house. You cut down the deck to the right size. When you invite the building department to inspect your property, perhaps they tell you that the existing living space created in the basement, even without a bedroom, does not meet the building code. Or maybe that the builder was only allowed to build four bedrooms, but your seller converted one of the utility rooms into a fifth bedroom. That’s generally not allowed without an expensive increase in the size of the septic system. Or maybe your seller cleared too much of the property of natural vegetation, which is a code violation.
The list of possible surprises goes on and on. If you plead with the building department that the house was just like that when you purchased it, they will ask if you got a new certificate of occupancy. Tell them “No” and they will tell you that was your mistake, not theirs.
Yes, I can review a survey, the building permits, the zoning map, and other items, and offer an educated opinion as to what problems may exist before you close title. But because of the changing interpretations of the zoning and building code, and turnover in the building department, my professional opinion is not as valid as that of the building department. In fact, they have told me exactly that many times over the years.
So, don’t take chances. Get a new certificate of occupancy when you purchase improved property. That’s the only way to avoid surprises before you invest substantial time and money.