Can home seller get a quick certificate of occupancy so I can move in?


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Dear Real Estate Adviser,
I am closing on a house, but upon final inspection, I was not granted a certificate of occupancy because the place had been renovated without any work permits; 2 load-bearing walls were removed! Can the seller obtain these permits so we can close? Does an architect then have to inspect the property?
— William P.

Dear William,
This isn’t a simple case where a city inspector asks a homeowner to go pull an official permit for relatively benign unpermitted work that was done at or near code guidelines, followed by a reinspection after any tweaks are completed. This ill-conceived “renovation” work, from the looks of it, poses an imminent threat to inhabitants and will be quite expensive to fix.

Someone — and that someone should be the seller — will have to hire contractors to replace the load-bearing capacity in those 2 areas where the walls were removed. That architect (or licensed civil or structural engineer) will need to be brought in on the front end, not the back as you speculated, to do a structural analysis of the house to make sure fix-it plans are in accord with building codes and safety guidelines.

Retain veto power

As the buyer, you should demand by contract to be consulted before any repair plans are implemented, provided you still want to proceed. Here’s why: The least expensive way to mitigate this is probably the installation of wood or steel beams around the living space where the walls were removed. This would surely change the aesthetics you were drawn to since the beams would likely rise visibly from the floor and then across the ceiling. Such an obtrusive fix might be a tad too rustic for the motif you imagined unless you’re really into that hunting-lodge look.

Potentially more costly alternatives would be to install support beams in the basement below the affected areas or to imbed them in the floor cavity above, or double up or triple up on floor joists. These options could easily run $12,000 or more, especially since there are 2 missing walls to remediate.

This is a good thing

Though it may not seem so now, it’s a lucky thing you needed a certificate of occupancy and that the illegal work was detected. In some localities, only the purchase of a new-construction home calls for such a certificate. Had you been allowed to go through closing and the ceiling came crashing down soon thereafter, possibly on you or a guest, your homeowners insurer may have balked at paying, maintaining that the removal of the walls was not only unpermitted, but it posed an imminent threat.

At best, the integrity of the house would have suffered and caused other structural problems.

The old owner, at least ostensibly, would be off the hook if you had been able to consummate, unless you sued for nondisclosure or misrepresentation, which can be time-consuming and expensive even with the solid case you’d have.

Should you go ahead with it?

Unless you’re wholly smitten with this home, you’re almost certainly free to back out because your contract, I presume, contained the standard inspection contingency. Of course, you’d be out a bunch of due-diligence fees and emotional investment if you flee.

If you still want the place and the seller offers a credit instead of a fix, get some competitive bids on the work first to make sure the credit is adequate. Don’t take the seller’s word on this!

Good luck.

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