Certificate of Occupancy must be obtained from the building department for new construction, additions, or change of use. The certificate of occupancy is the final document in the permit process and is a record that the project has been completed. Lenders require a certificate of occupancy before they will fund a loan, so if you are buying a new construction or remodeled property, you have to wait until the certificate of occupancy is issued before you can close. Cash buyers do not have to wait for the certificate of occupancy to be issued to close, but I recommend waiting for it because closing before it is issued can be very risky.
Certificate of Occupancy (sometimes called CofO for short) has several functions:
-Announces the property is now safe to live in.
-Signifies that the property is in compliance with building codes at the time the certificate was issued.
-Indicates the permitted use of the building.
Over the years the Los Angeles building department has changed what a certificate of occupancy looks like, here are a couple certificates of occupancy from different years:
Los Angeles Certificate of occupancy 1948
Los Angeles Certificate of occupancy 1959
1981 Certificate of Occupancy: Permitted use for this buiding is the last sentence of the description: R-1 Occupancy
Permitted Use & Occupancy
The building description in the Certificate of Occupancy includes the permitted use of the structure. It is always the last sentence of the description. For instance in the CofO above from 1981 the permitted use for the building is “R-1 Occupancy.”
Certificate of Occupancy and Permitted Use relate to building code (Section 9 of LA Municipal Code) and have nothing to do with Zoning (Sections 1 of LA Municipal Code). It can be really confusing because the building departments “Use and Occupancy” codes use some of the same names as Zoning – R1, R2, R3, R4 etc. However for Permitted Use these codes have their own meaning and should not be confused with the zoning definitions.
Los Angeles Municipal Code adopted the definitions for Use and Occupancy from the California Building Code in 1985. Here is a link to CBC Use and Occupancy definitions. Residential occupancy codes (R1, R2, R3, R4) are Section 310.
Here is my simplification of the Use and Occupancy R definitions:
Residential occupancies containing sleeping units were the occupants are primarily transient in nature, including: Boarding Houses, Hotels, Motels.
Residential occupancies containing sleeping units with more than two dwelling units where the occupants are primarily permanent in nature, including: apartment buildings, boarding houses, convents, dormitories.
Residential occupancies where the occupants are primarily permanent in nature and not classified in R-1, R-2, or R-4, including: Duplexes and Single Family houses.
Residential occupancies for residential care/assisted living facilities.
If you have a Certificate of Occupancy before 1985, the Occupancy and Use code for Los Angeles were different. Dwellings and Duplexes use to be R-1 instead of R-3. Hotels, motels and Apartment houses were R-2, R-3, and R-4.
This is a table I got from LADBS buiding Department showing the change in Occupancy description between 1980 and 1985
To have a legal Rental your Zoning AND Permitted use must comply with each other. Even if you have a Permitted Use of a building as an apartment house, if your property is an R1 zone the property can only be rented as one dwelling.
Process to Recieve CofO
To receive a certificate of occupancy the property must pass a series of inspections by city building department. City inspectors visit the property at each major phase of construction and approve the previous phase before the next phase begins. You can order and check the status of Los Angeles building permits online on the LADBS website.
9842 portola Dr, Beverly Hills 90210 Year Built 2012
This new construction home in Beverly Hills was completed in 2012. The Certificate of Occupancy was issued 8/7/2012
Here is a list of the inspections it went through in order to get the final CofO:
Portola underwent almost 70 inspections by the building department to get its CofO!
Another example I have is of a remodel in Leimert Park. The original house was 2br/1ba. An investor added an additional 497 sqft 1br +1ba masterbedroom.
3766 S Grayburn Ave, Los Angeles 90018
Grayburn Masterbedroom addition 1
Grayburn master bedroom addition 2
Here is the inspection activity for Grayburn to get the CofO on the 500sqft addition:
Grayburn had almost 20 inspections to get its CofO for the addition
There is less inspections for remodels than new construction because they is less construction work. You can see that the city goes to great length to make sure new buildings are safe. After the project is completed the inspector will final the permit and a certificate of occupancy is issued.
Buildings didn’t always have Certificates of occupancy. It is hard to believe that the population of Los Angeles, now over 3,000,000, was once only 576,000- but it was in 1920. The original city planning commission was only five members. Today, the building department has over 260 employees. Houses built before 1930 do not receive certificates of occupancy because they didn’t exist yet.
Certificate of Occupancy History
Prior to 1930
No Certificates of Occupancy were issue (they didn’t exist yet)
The City started initially by issuing Certificates of Compliance for commercial buildings (all theatres, hospital, schools, and garages.)
The Municipal Code was changed to require that a Certificates of Occupancy be issued for all building categories except homes.
The code was again changed to include a Certificate of Occupancy requirement for all new buildings. It has stayed this way to present day
Q: How long does it take to get a certificate of occupancy once my permits have been finaled?
A: Normally it takes 2-3 weeks. When there is a building boom it can take as long as 2-3 months.
Q: Where do I find a properties Certificate of Occupancy?
In Los Angeles, you will find that many home improvement projects are done without permits.
Why is this so? Because…
1. It speeds up construction.
2. Avoids Permit Fees.
3. The project violates building regulations, zoning code, or association CC&R rules, and is not possible to permit.
4. The owner has hired an unlicensed contractor who cannot pull permits themselves.
5. Because it is easier and, for the most part, they can get away with it.
For small budget projects (anything under $3,000) like replacing Rain Gutters, Installing a new Water Heater, Painting, Minor Plumbing Repairs (replacing faucets, shower heads, garbage disposals, clogged drains, etc), Drywall, Fences and Gates, Landscaping, Minor Electric Repairs (replacing outlets, replacing light fixtures, light bulbs)- many homeowners choose to skip getting a permit. Basically, anything a Handyman can do. These small budget projects are low injury risk, not technical or require a high level of skill, and if the job is completely botched, can be redone. I rarely, if ever, find permits for this type of work when I am researching building permits.
In general things inside the house are easier to do then outside the house, because they don’t have to be weather proof.
If a project is permitted you know that it was built to code. Projects done without a building may or may not be built to code. There are a lot of very skilled contractors in Los Angeles that do jobs without pulling permits. Unfortunately as a
There are three issues you have to consider if you are contemplating buying a property with non permitted construction work: Resale Value, Code Enforcement Risk, Insurance. As a real estate agent, I always recommend getting permits.
Nonpermitted construction work’s affect on Resale
In my experience, most buyers in Los Angeles are willing to accept work done on houses with no permits. The only exception to that, is additions, new buildings, or pools, not having a permit for these is a deal killer. Los Angeles buyers are use to not finding a permit for everything. The usual suspects that are missing permits include: plumbing (water lines and waste lines), electrical (except for new main panels), kitchen remodels, bathroom remodels, flooring, windows, moving around water heaters and laundry, exterior painting, installing ducting ac and heaters etc. When you get into the higher end home market permits become more prevalent.
Is the work good quality or not? Since there are no permits showing you that the city approved the job- it’s buyer beware. You have to be okay with not knowing if the work was done to code, and the possibility of dealing with an order to comply, or paranoia of being cited the next time you do a new project in your home in the future.
You can only rely on what you see, and the reputation of the contractor who installed it. I always try to track down the contractor who did the work if they can be found when I am dealing with a non permitted situation. If problems arise later, call them and tell them to fix it. The longer it has been since the job was completed the more comfortable I feel because I know that someone has lived in it and they were ok with it.
What happens if I have non permitted construction and the city finds out?
Non permitted work is considered illegal so be aware of the risks.
There are two ways an inspector can discover a building code violation:
1. A neighbor or tenant calls the Building Department and complains
2. An inspector finds a code violations during another inspection out in the field
The Risk for code enforcement depends on how likely you are to be cited and the cost to correct the problem if you are cited.
How likely are you to be cited?
It is very hard for building inspectors to spot non permitted work inside the home that is not visible from the street or any other public right of way. That is why so many home owners are able to get away with no permits- because it is hard to catch.
Here are some stories about the city citing non permitted construction:
Story 1: I heard of an owner in Silver Lake getting sighted with an order to comply for a non permitted deck, because the decks were visible from a neighbors backyard. Be careful in hilly area’s to check permits on buildings in the back yard like decks, pools, or patios.
Story 2: A home owner decided to get a permit for a new addition in their home, and when the building inspector came out for an inspection- they discovered that the heating and cooling system didn’t have a far enough set back in the backyard, went back to the office, and search on the property activity report, and discovered there wasn’t any permits pulled for installing the HVAC. He then writes up an order to comply for the homeowner to move the condenser farther away from the house.
Story 3: The building inspector is driving on his way to a building inspection and sees that a property along with way is having a new roof done, but there is no permit posted in the front window. He writes down the address and when he gets back to the office, checks the property activity report, and discovers no roofing permit was pulled and writes an order to comply.
Story 4: Homebuyer purchases a property with a converted garage to guest house, they bought the property partly because they liked having the income from renting the guest house out. A nosy neighbor who doesn’t like having “renters” nearby makes an anonymous call to the building department and reports the violation. The inspector finds out about the unpermitted garage conversion, and the zoning of the property does not allow multiunit dwellings. The building department orders the homeowner to revert the guest house back to its permitted use.
Story 5: You want extra income so you decide to turn your 4 bedroom house into a 10 unit boarding house without any permits. It is only a matter of time before the city comes knocking on your door…
How much will it cost if I am cited?
The cities process for bringing a property with out permits into compliance is reasonable. Once an inspector has identified a violation, like any of the stories above, they will write an order to comply. This automatically generates a code violation inspection fee of $356.60. No matter what the issue sited, there is a compliance period of only 15 days to correct the violation. If you are dealing with a major problem, this probably wont be enough time to fix it- so there are two options- 1. request an extension for $337.08, maximum length 6 months, I always recommend asking for the maximum or 2. Get fined an additional non-compliance fee of $550. If you delay in paying the tickets, they double and triple just like traffic tickets do.
At this point, the order to comply tells you what needs to be done to permit and legalize the work. They may demand you to demolish, replace, request a variance or modification, or attain a permit. In the case of non permitted new construction or additions, they pose the highest risk, because if they were not built to code, you may be required to tear them down and have the largest losses.
Most of the times builders or investors who add on, will make sure that it is permitted, because if they don’t the additional square footage is ignored in the bank appraisal. I’d usually recommend walking from a deal if the addition or new construction was not permitted.
For the systems in the house, there is much greater leeway here, because they can usually be fixed, and if they need to be replaced, they have a much smaller price tag.
Before modern times, there was no building code or building department. As city’s population increased and technology advanced, buildings grew taller and more complicated. The Ancients learned of the need for building codes the hard way, from collapses and man made disasters. My contractor has told me, “you gain good judgement from the experiences of bad judgement”. If you are lucky enough to survive the experiences of your bad judgement, you wisen up.
The oldest surviving example of a ‘building code’ is the Code of Hammurabi (282 Laws), which dates back to 3000 BC. It was carved in cuneiform onto a basalt obelisk.
Code of Hammurabi
Excerpts from the Code about building:
#229: If a builder has built a house for a man and his work is not strong, and if the house he has built falls in and kills the householder, that builder shall be slain.
#230: If the child of the householder be killed, the child of that builder shall be slain.
#231: If the slave of the householder be killed, he shall give slave for slave to the householder.
#233: If a builder has built a house for a man, and his work is not done properly and a wall shifts, then that builder shall make that wall good with his own silver.
The Code of Hammurabi was harsh! This code is where the phrase “Eye for an Eye” originated.
What is a building Permit?
The Los Angeles Department of Building and Safety regulates construction in the city. It is their goal to make sure that all new construction projects are built to code and safe. Recode LA wrote a great article on the history of building in Los Angeles.
Building permits are two things: a process for quality control and a detailed record of construction history.
The Permit Process:
The first step in the permit process is to file a permit application. Express Permits and Over the Counter Permits are for small to medium budget projects that do not require a full set of plans. General Building Permits are for large budget projects such as changes in use, and structural alterations like moving walls, windows, and doors.
Construction History Record:
Building permits contain a lot of useful information: the property address, a site description with details of any existing structures, the proposed project, an estimated project valuation, the name of the architect or contractor who did the work, project completion date, the permit #, and in some cases a siteplan.
The city of Los Angeles has changed the design of building permits over the years, here a few examples of different permit designs.
New Building Permit, 1924
Remodel Permit 1977
Remodel Permit 2012
When are building Permits Required?
According to the Los Angeles Municipal Code a building permit is required:
For any construction work that costs $500 or more. Permits are required to build, remodel, add on, repair, demolish or change the occupancy of any building or structure. Updating or upgrading a property also requires a permit. Depending on the size of the job, several different permits might be required. (Los Angeles Municipal Code Section 91.106)
Here are some Examples of work that requires a permit: Demolition, Grading, Roofing, kitchen remodel, bathroom remodel, New pool, installing or replacing HVAC, Solar Panels, upgrading electrical, new plumbing, exterior stucco, new windows, chimney repairs, Fences above a certain height, decks, seismic retrofitting, foundation repairs.
If you follow the letter of the municipal code exactly, you are pretty much suppose to permit everything!
Los Angeles use an archaic microfiche system – not every single microfiche is going to be looked at.
I’m in Escrow, should I review the building permits?
I recommend for buyers to always review the building permit history while in escrow. I want to verify that the property has a certificate of occupancy.
When a project has permits, a buyer knows that a city building inspector monitored each phase of the construction and gave it his final approval. Permits gives you assurance that the work done is reliable and not substandard. Permitted work meets building and safety codes at the time it was completed.
What if you can’t find the permits for construction work?
If you cannot locate the permits for a construction job, then it is probably Non Permitted Work.
When does a permit expire?
You have 180 days from when the permit is issued to commence work and two years total from the permit issue date to complete the construction work. If you do not finish in that time you may have to reapply for a permit and pay the permit fee over again. You have 30 days after expiration of a permit to apply for an extension. (Los Angeles Municipal Code Section 98.0603)
New construction and Additions that add square footage absolutely must have permits. The risks are too great if you don’t. Follow the permit process for new construction and when the work is finished, you will receive a certificate of occupancy from the building department. This certificate of occupancy shows that the building is legal. Lenders require a CofO to give the additional square footage or building value on their appraisal. No CofO = no value. Aside from adding no value, a building that does not have a certificate of occupancy can be a liability to the owner, because the city could demand that it be demolished if they believe it is unsafe. Sellers might have trouble later on down the road selling their property when they disclose that the addition or building was unpermitted to buyers. Don’t have a CofO for a building or addition? You may be able to get a Retroactive Permit.