How Can I Obtain a Certificate of Occupancy?

Important Note: The Department of Buildings (DOB) does not issue Certificates of Occupancy (COs) to single-family homes or individual condominium and cooperative units. COs are only issued for housing purposes if you have a multi-unit property such as a rowhouse with a basement unit or a building with two or more units,  including any units that are owner-occupied.

Before you rush to get a new Certificate of Occupancy…

Note: We at RentJiffy recommend doing an archives search, so that you can be sure your property never had a CO. Why? Because if we can find a previous CO for your property, you can likely get a change of ownership instead of a new CO, which can save you thousands of dollars (a new Certificate of Occupancy can be 25 times more expensive than a change of ownership, or even more). While we cannot make guarantees, we’ve been successful at finding previous COs dating back to as early as the 1930s! Contact us to find out about performing an archives search for a small fee.

Reasons for obtaining a new Certificate of Occupancy (CO)

  1. If the property does not have, and has never had a CO issued, then you will first need to go through a property conversion and then apply for a new Certificate of Occupancy.

  2. If your current CO does not match the property use (type) and/or the  number of units (load), then you will need to apply for a new Certificate of Occupancy. This occurrence, which is often the result of construction that was previously done to alter the property, has two steps:

    • property conversion

    • getting a new Certificate of Occupancy

What you should know about property conversion

The property conversion process begins with an architect. RentJiffy cannot assist with this step as we are not an architecture firm. Your architect will first determine if your property and its use is acceptable for the property’s zoning district. They would then need to draft plans and submit them with a building permit application for conversion, detailing how many units the property will be and the proposed use of the property (2 units = Two Family Flat (or)  Flat; 3 or more units = Apartment House). As part of DOB’s review of the plans, they will approve of, or require, any  construction that is needed to comply with the current building codes. Once the construction is complete, or if the plans are accepted "as-is," you would then have the final inspections to close the permits. 

How to initiate a property conversion

Step 1. Apply for a Building Permit online, via DOB's website. Please use the following link to submit for a permit through DOB https://aca20.dcra.dc.gov/citizenaccess Online Permit Application Assistance: Please be sure to include the following language in the Description of Work on the Permit Application "to Legally Establish a Two Unit Flat (if 2 unit property) or Apartment House (if 3+ units on property)for Certificate of Occupancy purposes” – (or similar language) – please be sure to include similar language in the Scope of Work on the Cover Sheet for the Permit Drawings [The Permit Type to select for the Online Application will be the 'Alteration and Repair' permit type]. 

Step 2. Employ the Services of a Registered Design Professional (RDP) licensed in DC (Architect) to prepare the Set of Drawings for Review (Existing Conditions/Proposed Floorplans, Fire & Life Safety/Egress Plans, Mechanical, Electrical, etc.) – to be Sealed and Signed by the RDP. For a list of DC licensed Design Professionals -- if one does not have an Architect available to prepare the Submittal Drawings --- see link to the DC Chapter of the AIA (American Institute of Architects) below: https://www.aiadc.com/directory 

Step 3. Submit Drawings/Documents for Review via ProjectDox: Once all Documents have been prepared, Stamped and Signed by the Registered Design Professional, submit/upload the Drawings for Building Department Review via DOB’s ProjectDox Review platform. 

Step 4. Drawing Review Approval – Permit Issuance: Once all Reviews by each Discipline are completed and Approved (Zoning, Structural, Fire Protection, etc.)- the Permit will be Issued upon payment of any remaining Fees. 

Step 5: If construction is needed, then you will now begin construction. If your plans were approved “as-is” with no construction necessary, you can skip to Step 6.

Step 6. Inspections/Inspections Approval: Get all required inspections completed and passed. We cannot say this enough: only use a DC Government inspector. If you hire a third-party inspection service, you will be required to go through an oversight inspection done by a DC Government inspector as part of the Certificate of Occupancy application process but if you use a DC Government inspector, there will likely be no additional inspections as part of the Certificate of Occupancy application process. Once all required Inspections have been completed and Approved – you can then begin a Certificate of Occupancy application. And RentJiffy can gladly assist you with this.

The finish line! It's time to get a Certificate of Occupancy.

After your inspections have passed, you can obtain a new Certificate of Occupancy and a business license to rent your property. Congrats! You are now a legal landlord in the eyes of the D.C. government. 

For more information on the business license please see our article pertaining to the license.

RentJiffy can expertly assist with obtaining your CO and business license. Please reach out to us to discuss options and costs.

Should I worry about my Certificate of Occupancy expiring?

No, because COs do not expire. They are valid as long as the ownership of the property does not change (for example, if you moved the property from your personal name to a trust, or if you sold the property). In these cases, you would have to initiate an Ownership Change application.

One last question: I was told my zoning does not allow for a Certificate of Occupancy. Do I have any other options?

Typically this will happen if your property is in a single-R zoning district. A CO for housing purposes is issued to properties in RF, RA, or any other zoning district that allows for multi-family development. In single-R districts, you are permitted to have an accessory dwelling unit (ADU). But unlike a two-family flat property, there are restrictions on ADUs. Review our support article, What Is An Accessory Dwelling Unit?, for more information.

If you find that ADUs are too restrictive, then you could attempt to obtain a Zoning Variance or Special Exception from the DC Office of Zoning, Board of Zoning Adjustment (BZA). In this scenario, you can submit your plans with an application for a variance/special exception for review by the BZA. As part of the review, you will have to appear at a BZA hearing, where your neighbors will have a chance to weigh in. 

Be aware that initiating a variance or special exception can be a costly process without a guaranteed approval. For example, as part of your application, you will have to submit architectural plans and pay fees to the BZA. In addition, it could take 30-60 days before you get a final decision; add to that the time it takes to submit the plans and building permit to DOB, wait for the plan approval and, finally, be issued your building permit so you can begin construction. Therefore, we strongly recommend that you speak with a zoning attorney who can advise you on the process and practicality of your variance/special exception application.

Two important tips:

Tip 1: If you need inspections, seriously consider using a D.C. Government inspector, not a third-party inspection service, to do them. In addition to possibly spending hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars, by using a third-party inspection service, you will also have to undergo a third-party oversight inspection in order to get the new certificate of occupancy. This means you will still have a D.C. Government inspector – two inspectors instead of just one. In contrast, if you use just a D.C. Government inspector, you will not need an oversight inspection. Also, the fees for the D.C. Government Inspector are already included in the building permitting fees, no matter if you use the inspector or not. 

Tip 2: When engaging an architect to do a conversion, ask them to walk the property before you hire them to do plans. If an architect will agree to this, they will be able to give you an idea of what, if any, construction will be necessary as part of the conversion. Knowing this upfront and before you agree to have plans drawn will help you have a good understanding of if and why you will need construction, and what an estimated cost for the conversion will look like.

Resources:

Find an architect - The local chapter of the American Institute of Architects has a directory of architects on their site.

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