Buying a Multi-Family House

One of the most important steps in purchasing a home is ensuring that you are paying the fair price for what you are buying. This is especially true with the purchase of a multi-family dwelling, which may include a home with a small apartment, usually located in the rear of the house or above a garage, or a dwelling with several smaller studio or apartment-like units. Many times the conversion to a multi-family use is made over the passage of time, as the residents needs and uses have changed.

Many times people will look for homes with a second apartment unit to either generate rental income or to help pay the mortgage. Sometimes this type of home is sought by a purchaser to allow an elderly or disabled family member to live in the same house, but also permitting some privacy. Sometimes these homes are called “mother-daughter” homes.

Many people will look to the Multiple Listing Services, also known as MLS, and seek out multi-family houses. However this listing does not ensure that you are buying a legal multi-family unit. In order to verify that the residence or dwelling that you are purchasing is legal, you must contact the Township Zoning Officer, who is located in the Township Planning and/or Zoning Department.

The Zoning Officer will look up the property to ensure that multi-family use is permitted within the zone that the dwelling is located. In addition, the Zoning Officer will have information as to whether any of the previous owners appeared before the Land Use Board, or, more specifically, the Board of Adjustment, for approval of a Certificate of Non-Conformance, which permits the use of the dwelling as a multi-family unit.

Buyers must understand that obtaining a Certificate of Non-Conformance is not just a process of applying for the Certificate. A property owner or contractor purchaser will need to formally appear before the Board to ask for that relief. They will be required to place specific testimony on the record in order to satisfy the statutory requirements. Many time this process includes the assistance of an attorney, professional engineer, planner and/or architect.

Further, previous tax bills which identify the dwelling as multi-family, along with building and construction permits from the Township, do not take the place of a Certificate of Non-Conformance. Although, these documents may be compelling evidence to provide the Board during a hearing, they do not automatically translate into an approval.

Failure to obtain the necessary documents and approvals from the Township can result in a summons issued by the Township for operating a non-permitted use. These summonses can result in fines, penalties and a mandatory appearance in Municipal Court. Even worse, you can be prohibited from renting or utilizing the dwelling as a multi-family residence, which will then result in loss of income. In the end, you may have paid more then what you bargained for. All purchasers should use the assistance of legal counsel when purchasing property. Contact us at R.C. Shea and Associates for all your real estate and land use needs.

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