Certificate of Occupancy

Certificate of Occupancy

What is a Certificate of Occupancy?


EDIT 11/21/19: The City of Philadelphia is now requiring all multifamily properties, even two-families, to obtain a Certificate of Occupancy.


The Certificate of Occupancy may be the most elusive of all permits. So we wanted to give everyone the low down on what this document is, how to obtain it, and how to know if you even need it.


A Certificate of Occupancy (CO) is, unsurprisingly, a certificate that allows you to occupy a space. More specifically, this certification denotes a change in the use and/or occupancy of an existing or new building on an existing lot. This certification is required by law in order to enforce an International Building Code (IBC). A Certificate of Occupancy is a Building Permit, it is not a Zoning Permit or a Housing Rental License.


It is important to note that a CO is tied to the building itself, not the entity that owns it or the entity that occupies it.  In other words: the building can be bought, sold, and traded any number of times and the CO will still be valid so long as no significant alterations are made to the physical structure or to the occupancy classification.


When You Need It


The most important thing to know when navigating the world of permits, even more important than knowing what things are; is knowing when you need them. As we have mentioned before, not knowing what something is isn’t a valid excuse for not having it. So let’s not get caught up in nailing down exactly what this is yet. Let’s find out if you even need it first.


Try answering these three questions. If you answer yes to any of these, then keep reading- you might need a CO.


Are you:

  1. Erecting a new building?
  2. Erecting an addition to a building?
  3. Changing from one Occupancy Group to another?



There are a few exceptions to the rules that are important to note…


You are not required to get a Certificate of Occupancy for existing buildings that have only one- or two-family dwellings. If you are changing from one Occupancy Group to another, you do not need a CO if the area of each floor is 2,000 ft or less. If the increase in occupancy load is not substantial where the building was changed, or if the occupant load is not more than 100 people where the building was changed then you also do not need a CO.


For most other projects that meet the aforementioned criteria, you will need a CO.


How to Know If You Have a CO


The million dollar question: How do I know if I have a CO? You can search your property in the Atlas. You can check the existing permits to see if they match up with the current use and occupancy.  If you do not see a CO, you may need to visit the department of Licenses & Inspections to check with them as not all Certificate’s of Occupancy are in their system due to some being very old.


How to Get a CO


A Certificate of Occupancy is a form of Building Permit. This is important to know in case you are already applying for a Building Permit to execute new construction or to alter an existing structure. If you are planning to file a Building Permit for this address already, all you need to do is state in the Project Summary that you would like to obtain a new CO for x,y,z.


If you are not filing a Building Permit for alterations or new construction then you still need to fill out the same application and file it at 1401 JFK Blvd. Simply follow the steps below. Or give us a call and we can file for you.


Steps to Filing a New CO


  • Complete prerequisite actions for a building permit
  • Fill out a building permit
  • Obtain 3 sets of professional building plans (if applicable)
  • Write a check for $100 for a filing fee


Hopefully this helped clear a few things up in regards to the elusive but highly necessary Certificate of Occupancy! If not, feel free to request help here.

Philly Zoning Team
  • Jaime Bedard
    Posted at 8:54 pm, February 16, 2019

    This is helpful but why does it not mention Real Estate transactions that require a U & O cert? That’s not mentioned here at all.

    • Alexa Ahrem
      Posted at 9:50 pm, February 16, 2019

      Hi Jamie– Thanks for reading. This post specifically covers the Certificate of Occupancy. U&O in Philly generally has a lot to do with the CO. In Philly U&O is a tax. Generally, a CO and an approved zoning permit prove use and occupancy, Or the city certification proves zoning/use.

    Posted at 7:56 pm, April 4, 2019

    HI, I’m a tenant and I’m opening a retail store in philadelphia. previous tenant was a prepared food take out store( ice cream). Follow by article above, I’m not sure if I need to get a Certificate of Occupany. I’m only doing for Painting and flooring for site and no construction or structure changes made at all. I received a use permit which says retail but my concerns is the certificate of cccupancy. Do I need to get a PLAN to submit the Certificate of occupancy? Even though only minimum cosmetic job was done on site? Can you please answer this question to help me to figure this out? Thank you.

    • Alexa Ahrem
      Posted at 3:29 pm, April 9, 2019

      Hi Angie. Thanks for your question. Typically the CO is attached to the building and says with the building. It doesn’t seem like you need to obtain a new one because you aren’t changing the occupancy class, building an addition, etc. The only way to know for sure is to check with the city, though. I cannot tell you exactly, and this is strictly advice/opinion, not a consultation.

  • Tracy Atwell
    Posted at 7:56 pm, September 23, 2019

    Are landlords required to renew the CO to make sure that the property is kept up to code?

  • Nicholas Wilson
    Posted at 12:10 pm, November 21, 2019

    This post was very helpful! You stated that a CO is not needed if the area of each floor is less than 2,000 square feet. Could you point me to where in the code it states that?

    • Alexa Ahrem
      Posted at 5:26 pm, November 23, 2019

      Hi 🙂 The city is actually now requiring CO’s no matter what size for changes in occupancy classes. Hope that helps.

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