before you buy that building…wait

Despite the poor economy, there are still a few people who are considering investing in real estate. After many calls from excited new property owners ready to tailor their building to their hopes and dreams or make it available to the masses who are waiting to rent it, I must make a statement for your own good……………………………………….WAIT.

Purchasing any building without professional consultation (apart from a single family house…and that’s debatable) other than your real estate agent is not wise in my opinion. I am not a real estate agent, but I am an architect. So I am suggesting you contact your favorite architect and pay them to walk through the building with you to discuss what it is you may be getting yourself into before you purchase it. Although we are addressing the purchase of property, this post also applies to those considering renting space in an existing building. Most landlords are not ready to invest more in their property just for the pleasure of having you as a tenant.

In this posting we will address only one aspect of many to consider. It is called a Change of Occupancy in the building code. Before you get all jazzed up by the slick façade, the open spacious floors and the cool tile in the tiny bathroom, answer these two questions.

  1. What is the current use? The word Use or Occupancy has a very specific definition in the building code. All buildings are required to have approval from a governing agency that permits them to use the building for a specific function agreed upon ahead of time frequently requiring a design professional’s seal on a set of drawings. The building is to have been designed or altered to meet the code requirements for that particular use. Often buildings have been a particular function for so long it may have never received a formal approval for that use. That may permit it to continue on as that function, but it might not. By the way, the word “grandfather” does not appear in any building code or zoning ordinance. We will address this in more detail in subsequent posts.
  2. Are you intending on changing that use? In other words, if you are buying a building and planning on using it to store your left over uranium supply or to start a new church of rock ‘n roll in it, then go back to my first suggestion. WAIT. A Change of Occupancy is another very specific term in the building code and it does not mean the difference between me occupying it and now you do. Some examples are changing a church into an office building, or changing a house into a school, or even changing a warehouse into a department store. All of these qualify for a Change of Occupancy.

When a Change of Occupancy occurs, the building code requires that most or all of the building be brought into compliance with the current local building code. Without consulting with an architect, you may be agreeing to expenses you were not prepared for when you drove by the first time and dreamed of restoring a classic. According to the International Building Code 2009 (the code in effect for Pennsylvania and most of the known world), a section from the Chapter 34 Existing Building reads:

“3408.1 Conformance. No change shall be made in the use or occupancy of any building that would place the building in a different division of the same group of occupancies or in a different group of occupancies, unless such building is made to comply with the requirements of this code for such division or group of occupancies…”

In other words, you cannot change the occupancy without upgrading that portion of the building to current codes. This applies whether you purchase the building or rent the space. We haven’t even begun to discuss what the local zoning ordinance will permit and a host of other building code gems.

By all means, I am encouraging you to get on with your life and business and invest in property. Expand your business, become a coveted landlord, become a responsible property owner. However, don’t go it alone.

Think architect, and for goodness sake, hire one already.

photos are from Jeff Jones photostream on Flickr (used under creative commons license)

before you buy that building…wait

3 thoughts on “before you buy that building…wait

  1. Great post, Lee.

    It sounds like you’ve had that talk a time or two. If so, you’ve saved somebody a lot of time, trouble, money and heartache.

    I’ll be back for more insight!


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