Don’t Have Certificate of Occupancy? We’re Making the Process Easier.

We have had many people email, call, drop in or comment here that said they purchased a home with a renovated basement that did not have a Certificate of Occupancy. Some had records of permits and inspections, some have nothing.

We can’t emphasize enough that if you plan to purchase a home and are immediately dependent on the income from a basement rental you need to ensure the basement has a certificate of occupancy or negotiate with the seller to ensure you have your costs covered. We have heard from at least 20 residents in recent months who were told by the seller’s realtor that getting a Certificate of Occupancy would be “no big deal.” In some cases these rentals were not even close to being up to code and would have put your tenant in danger. For others, getting the C of O was no big deal. But if you can’t afford to go through the process, make sure you get all the information before you buy.

Quicker Process

We do understand that many of these potential basement apartments are either up to code or very close so we are trying to make the process smoother through communicating through this blog as well as process making changes at DCRA. So we have developed a new process that hopefully will save property owners time and money and get these units into productive use. While you are not actually doing any work in most cases, it is important you and the city have a record of permits and inspections. This is especially important for liability for you and helps increase the value of your home.

Previously, we required new plans be drawn by an architect or engineer for you to get building permits. We are now providing guidance on how you can submit your own drawings.

We are pasting the language from a new “One Family to Two Family Conversion Guide” below but essentially here is what you need to do:

  1. Draw your own plans on 11 X 17 paper and make the drawings to scale (i.e. one inch equals one or two feet) and include all of the details shown in the sample drawing provided in the guidance sheet. Apply for building permits.
  2. Once you get permits, you can get your own Third Party Inspector (we have a list here) who will sign off of the basement construction and hopefully give approvals and/or recommend any changes you need to come into compliance. The language in the guidance explains more on what they need to look for.
  3. Once you have approvals, you can get your Certificate of Occupancy and then get your Two-Family rental license.

Here is the exact language from the guidance document:

Existing two family dwellings without Certificate of Occupancy (C of O) are required to obtain a C of O. This requires the satisfaction of the permit and building code requirements which includes the following:

  • A completed and signed Building Permit application form and four (4) sets of plans, showing that the existing conditions are in compliance with the building code. Note: If you plan to create your own drawings, please use the  attachments as guidance.
  • At the inspection phase, a certified/approved inspection report verifying that the building conforms to the approved plans with the general building code needs. This report shall include confirmation/verification of the fire separation of the units, the presence of the emergency means of escape to the outside from sleeping spaces, smoke detectors in each unit and separate electric service disconnect in each unit.
  • The C of O issuance desk finally verifies that the inspection is approved by an approved third party inspection agency or DCRA. This confirms that the dwelling is therefore suitable to be classified as a two (2) family dwelling.

And here is the complete document: ONETOTWO_CONVERSION_GUIDANCE_FINALBETA

Not a Solution for Everyone

This process will make the conversion much quicker and less expensive for those with basements they believe are in compliance, but it is not a solution for everyone. If your basement does not come close to meeting code, for example the ceiling is 6′ 6″, you are going to need to hire a contractor and gets plans drawn to fix this and any other issues that require major construction.

What’s Behind the Walls

Several people have asked how inspectors will verify that the work you cannot easily see – i.e. electrical, fire separation, plumbing – will be verified and whether they will have to take out the wall. The Third Party Inspection agencies will work with you and find ways to verify the work is up to code without having to do major damage to already existing walls and ceilings.

31 responses to “Don’t Have Certificate of Occupancy? We’re Making the Process Easier.

  1. You reference the issue of ceiling height, which is a significant obstacle for many of to become fully compliant. In my case, I am just a few inches below the 7ft requirement. So I have a couple of questions. First, is there any process by which you could be granted a waiver if you are very close to meeting this requirement? Having to dig up the basement for a couple of inches is not only excessively costly but can also lead to possible problems to your and your neighbors’ foundations. Second, if there is not currently a process in place, can you come up with one? I know your Office is working hard at becoming more accomodating (e.g. this website, improving processes) and this would go a long way in making the licensure process more feasible. Third, if no waiver is possible now or in the future, are there any other measures that one could do besides digging the floor or raising the ceiling, to successfully adress this height requirement. If you could specifically respond to each of the three questions, that would be greatly appreciated. (Actually, I referenced earlier on that I had just a couple of questions, but really have three Thanks

    • dcracommunications

      Like all jurisdictions across the country, we’re being pretty strict on the 7-foot rule. Aside from creating more space – going up or down – not sure what other solution there would be. Sorry, we are reviewing this and may address in the future, but right now 7-foot is the rule. In many jurisdictions it’s 7′ 6″ or higher.

      • Thanks. If you were to allow for variances in the future, do you think that is something that could possibly occur in 2010, or are we talking years away, if at all? The reason I ask is that I would like to become legal but certainly would not want to go through a digging if it might change in the near future.

      • dcracommunications

        I would love to say maybe, but we just don’t know. The ceiling height is literally in the International Construction Code and code across the country. We are well aware of the issue and there are many external issues here: affordable housing, economic development, neighborhood revitalization, etc. But the height limit has a ton of science behind it. It’s a tough call. We are listening. Best we can do now.

  2. This is fantastic. Thank you so much for streamlining and simplifying the process. The ability to use third-party inspectors alone saves several thousand dollars in contractor costs (because of costs associated with start and stop work). Just great! Keep up the good work!

  3. How long does it take from permit application to obtaning the CofO? This is assuming that the basement unit does not need any work.

    • dcracommunications

      It really depends situation by situation. Please look at the latest post and see the requirements. If you have permits for the work that was done previously and it was inspected, it could go pretty quickly 7-10 days or sooner. But if you have no permits, you’ll need to get those first, get a Third Party inspector, and then get approvals and bring to DCRA for the C of O.

  4. Anthony Demangone

    I own a condo that I wish to rent. From the C of O form itself, it seems that I am not required to get one. It indicates that single family homes and appartment units are exempt. Is this correct? And when completing BBL EZ forms and DCRA forms, will that fact be commonly know – that no C of O is needed?

  5. Anthony Demangone

    Many, many thanks. Your response has been more helpful than you could ever know! – Anthony

  6. This is useful information but still needs some clarification:
    1) How many building permits are required and what specific ones are they?
    2) Will the drawings done by the owner rather than the architect be sufficient to get all of the necessary permits from question 1 above?
    3) Will apartment owners need to hire more than one inspector or are multiple required for the separate permits (ie, one inspector for electrical; one inspector for fire; etc)?

    Thanks in advance.

    • P.S. This question is about apartments for which the work was done many years ago and thus no building permits or inspections are available.

    • dcracommunications

      You really only need one permit in most cases. If you hire an inspector to take a look first, hire one that is certified in all the disciplines. The companies will know the right person to send if you explain your situation. Once the inspector checks the building, they will let you know what you need to do. In some cases you may only need a supplemental plumbing or electrical permits to make adjustments – a contractor can get those quickly and easily online – if more work is needed you’ll need to get a normal building permit. If your apartment is up to code, the drawings by the owner will be plenty to get the permit. Again, it really depends on the condition of the apartment.

      And just to clarify because you said apartments – plural – are you talking about multiple basement apartments? Just want to be sure.

  7. Thanks for the additional information, but I’m confused by your answer. The instructions in this post say to first make a drawing, then apply for a building permit, then get an inspector to approve/or recommend changes. However, your answer above says to I should first hire an inspector, then make a drawing, then apply for the building permit. Which way is it? If it’s the latter, then will I have to hire an inspector again once I have the building permit? If it’s the former, how will DCRA know that I’ve already had my apartment inspected and it is up to code (assuming it is up to code) and hence the drawing is sufficient (or, worst case, that it’s not up to code and that additional permits are needed)? I’d like to save some money and not hire inspectors unnecessarily and also save some unnecessary trips to DCRA, so if you could spell out the exact process, I’d greatly appreciate it.

    Also, this is just for one apartment.

    • dcracommunications

      If you feel confident your apartment is already up to code, then you could wait to hire an inspector after you do your drawing and get building permits.

      If you are not confident, it is usually better to hire an inspector or a licensed contractor to do a review. Otherwise, you’ll come in and get building permits, get inspected and then have to come back and get additional building permits to bring the unit up to code i the inspector fails the building.

      It’s tough for us to say which is better for you without seeing the apartment. Hope this helps.

  8. I purchased residential 3 units. Although, it’s somewhat complicated as in NYC and my Homeowner Insurance. Insurance says it’s 5 units (3 leagal unit with kitchens and bathrooms and 2 finished basements with kitchen and bathrooms). But city say it 1-4 units. So total kitckens in the building is 5. Bathrooms is also 5. This residential building was bought just like. It has no c/o but when I purchased the building, I was given only Occupancy Agreement.
    My first question is what’s the difference between Occupancy Agreement and c/o?.
    My broker told me not to worry since it has no c/o because my tenant reported me to city for occupaying my basement. What should I do?.
    Also, since Occupany Agreement doesnt indicate anything illegal in the building, it is a good defense for me?.

    Thank you

  9. Yes, i live in NYC. City Housing info center refused to answer this same question. My biggest concern is my supposed trusted tenant is or has reported me to city and i dont know what the outcome may be. I do not know the diffence btw C/O and Occupanct Agreement(O/A ) either. However O/A form states that i must reside in the building.

  10. Actually, it was built in 1905 which means they have no record for it.

  11. Today, I was told that I had to separate my electric, gas and water from my basement unit in order to get a C of O. Yet Mike Rupert, DCRA, stated that you don’t have to have separate heating and cooling systems. Please explain.

  12. Today, I was told that I had to separate my electric, gas and water from my basement unit in order to get a C of O. Yet Mike Rupert, DCRA, stated that you don’t have to have separate heating and cooling systems. Please explain.

    • dcracommunications

      I am Mike Rupert. I would like to know who told you this. You only need to have separate panels for the electric service in each unit, not separately metered. We recommend separately metered, but not a requirement. The HVAC systems do not have to be separate, only requirement is that they can meet the minimum temp requirements of 68 during day and 65 during night. Please let me know where you were told different. Thanks, Mike, DCRA

  13. The link for inspectors above at “we have a list here” is dead, please rectify– Thanks for your great site!

  14. It has come to my attention that I am living in an unlicensed english basement with no C/O. I can’t imagine why as it is new construction and should meet requirements. My thoughts are a) the landlord is being cheap and trying to avoid the several hundred dollars for the permits and whatever the other costs to get the license b) the landlord is trying to avoid paying income tax on the business income and also having a higher property tax since with a rented basement the tax should be higher or c) they had someone look at the basement at the end of the renovation and were told things were wrong and they didn’t want to fix them and just wanted the income from the basement.

    Either way I am not happy about the situation because I feel like if I complain or call to have the place inspected it is going to cause all kinds of problems. I was only on a lease the first year I was here and am on a month to month since the least ended half a dozen years ago. The landlord I think is a shady character anyway all the way around but his tax issues and such aren’t my problem but I am worried there could be issues with this property.

    And honestly I am mad he is getting over on the system!

    What is your advice?

    • dcracommunications

      You should find a new place to live and report him to us as soon as you step out the door. A lot of the renovations are done without permits or inspections and do not meet code and in some cases could be very dangerous. You can report him at 202-442-9557 and hit “6.” We have seen landlords who are doing exactly this for all of the reasons you describe. And if you leave without reporting, the next tenant will be at risk as well.

  15. i have a question. my tenant who is longer getting food and other benefits from me reported my basement. Now 7x. i’d step up to complie by hiring licensed arthitec n contractor. i didnt commit the violation. i bought the house like that. basement was partitioned illegally. after submitted plan (to convert basement to apt), we opened up the was and found strange stuff like a real old concret indicating the basement was legal or used as apt back in civil war era. i’d tot i could found some $$$$ hehehe. to cut it short, we are still waiting for approval. i paid for permit, liability insurance, filing fees so far. however, contract is try to work in there right now, doesnt he have to wait until approval? thanks. NB:so far inspector is being unable to gain access 2x

  16. I was told that DCRA is no longer (and apparently never was) accepting plans drawn by the owner – but instead is still requiring achitectural drawings. If this is true, then why does DCRA still have this wrong information on this website? Could have saved me a trip to DCRA…

  17. I have a basement unit and just found out the C of O wasn’t completed. The unit was totally renovated but our contractor ended up walking off of the job. We have been including this income in our tax returns. I want to get the C of O but also need to keep the income from the unit coming it. If I begin this process what are the chances that I will be forced to discontinue renting?

  18. Here is another issue: what about Georgetown which is zone R-3, where you do not have the matter of right to get a two family dwelling/apply for it. I was told that your only opportunity is to go through a court process (taking at least 6months) for a zone adjustment (i.e. exception for you), which will -if approved- allow you to apply for a CO. So I wonder, as this zone adjustment is a lengthy costly process with an unknown outcome – how are people in Georgetown legally renting out their basements? What’s the trick?

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