In New Jersey, a buyer of a newly constructed home generally can’t move in until the municipality (or other governmental entity) has issued a certificate of occupancy, often referred to as a “C.O.” Issuance of a C.O certifies that the construction to which it relates has been completed in compliance with the construction permit and applicable provisions of the Uniform Construction Code. N.J.S.A. 52:27D-121; N.J.S.A. 52:27D-133. Commentator David Frizell has opined that “[i]t is clear that the Legislature . . . intended the C.O. to be conclusive (except in cases of obvious mistake or fraud) evidence of compliance and the right to occupy.” 36 N.J. Prac., Land Use Law §13.8 (3d ed. 2006-07).
Not surprisingly, builders and contractors frequently assert the municipality’s issuance of a C.O. as an iron-clad defense to a property owner’s allegations of negligent construction. The defense is not a sure winner. New Jersey’s courts do not view C.O.’s as the final word on compliance with the Uniform Construction Code (UCC) when code violations are identified after the C.O. has been issued and the property conveyed from the builder to the property owner.
Court holdings rejecting C.O. finality have twice emerged in cases in which governmental bodies sought to enforce UCC provisions. In DKM Residential Properties Corp. v. Montgomery Tp., 182 N.J. 296, 308-09 (2005), the Supreme Court held that the municipal code enforcement entity could issue notices of violations to the builder/developer even after C.O.’s had been issued and the properties conveyed. And, in Cyktor v. Aspen Manor Condo. Ass’n, 359 N.J. Super. 459, 464 (App. Div. 2003), the Appellate Division recognized the propriety of the Department of Community Affairs bringing a post-C.O., post-conveyance enforcement action against a builder/developer so long as the action was initiated within the ten-year period prescribed by the statute of repose.
Long before, the Appellate Division held that issuance of a certificate of compliance for a new septic system did not preclude the property owner’s action against the vendor when usage revealed that the system did not meet code. Andreychak v. Lent, 257 N.J. Super. 69 (App. Div. 1992).
New Jersey has abolished the doctrine of caveat emptor in real estate sales, imposing an implied warranty of habitability and fitness for use. McDonald v. Mianecki, 159 N.J. Super. 1, 14 (App. Div. 1978), aff’d, 79 N.J. 275 (1979). Imbuing the C.O. with finality on questions of compliance would effectively foreclose buyers’ actions against builders and contractors on any construction maters governed by UCC provisions. That result would be contrary to the recourse against negligent builders that the Court gave home buyers when it abolished the doctrine of caveat emptor in McDonald.