TOMS RIVER – Let the buyer beware.
That’s been the rule for residential home sales in Toms River. But a new law requiring a continuing certificate of occupancy for home sales will provide more protection for buyers, township officials say.
“We don’t want to stop sales. We don’t want to hurt anybody. We want to protect people,” township Engineer Robert J. Chankalian said at a recent Toms River council meeting. As of July 1, sellers must pay a $300 fee to Toms River, which covers the cost of a township inspector’s visit to the home, he said.
The inspector will conduct a physical inspection of the property; a township record search will also be performed, to make sure there are “no open or unresolved building, zoning, housing, code enforcement, or engineering conditions, violations or permits.”
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A copy of the inspector’s findings will be given to the home owner as well as the prospective buyer; if the property falls inspection, the owner will be given a time period to make repairs, and must pay an additional $150 fee to have the property reinspected. A transfer of title affidavit costs $175.
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The inspections are similar to those that already take place before a rental certificate of occupancy is issued.
Toms River has seen a steady stream of people who have bought properties that were found to have serious issues of which they were unaware, Chankalian said. Among the problems: homeowners who unknowingly purchased properties labeled as “substantially damaged” by 2012’s superstorm Sandy, and face having to elevate their new homes, or complete other expensive work to bring the dwellings into compliance with federal flood insurance mandates.
Buyers have also purchased houses that include illegal basement apartments, or boat lifts and pools where electrical service is not properly grounded, leading to potentially dangerous conditions. Unauthorized work often doesn’t come to light until there is a reassessment, a property is sold, or there is a tragedy, like a fire or a serious accident, officials have said.
Trying to prevent a tragedy
Chankalian said the vigorous inspection could prevent tragedies like the 2017 fatal electrocution of 11-year-old Newark girl who was swimming in a Toms River lagoon.
Police said at the time that the girl and a friend were on a raft when they touched a metal boat lift, and an “electric current appears to have energized the equipment,” causing the electrocution.
Then-Mayor Thomas F. Kelaher said that the boat lift was installed in 2001, but the property later changed hands, and was purchased by homeowners who did not have a boat and did not frequently check on the lift. Over the years, an electrical junction box under the dock corroded, Kelaher said.
This is not the first time that Toms River has considered a continuing certificate of occupancy ordinance; in June 2017, the council tabled a similar measure after objections by real estate brokers and several residents.
And there are objectors this time around as well. When the ordinance came up for a final vote Dec. 28, 2021, Councilman Daniel Rodrick voted against it after questioning the inspection fee. The new law passed by a 5 to 1 vote, with former Councilman Terrance Turnbach abstaining.
Councilman Justin Lamb, who was sworn in to his first council term Jan. 3, recently called the measure “government overreach” and “onerous.”
Real estate broker Michael Silkowitz, who lives in Toms River, panned the requirement for a continuing certificate of occupancy, saying paying the inspection fee along with the cost of making repairs could make selling a house difficult for those who don’t have the money.
He derided several of the items the inspector will check in a home, including a requirement for “interior thumb-knob door-locking mechanisms for primary means of egress,” and “walkways, including sidewalks and driveway aprons, free of tripping hazards.”
He said it is up to home buyers to “do their due diligence” before purchasing a property, by hiring their own inspector. Silkowitz, who owns the Academy for Real Estate Careers, a school for potential brokers, called the new ordinance “an embarrassment.”
Chankalian said he would always encourage home buyers to hire their own inspector, but said the township’s own experience with issues that arise after a sale shows that serious issues often are not discovered.
“We want the buyer to know everything,” he said. “Not all inspectors avail themselves of the permit files.”
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Many towns throughout the area have already adopted ordinances requiring home inspections before a house is sold. Jackson, Manchester, Neptune and Middletown are among the towns that have similar ordinances, although their fees range from $100 to $150, lower than the $300 Toms River will charge.
Toms River chose the $300 inspection fee, Chankalian said, so that all township taxpayers don’t foot the bill for the new inspectors the code enforcement department will have to hire.
Instead, the cost is a “user fee” borne by those selling a home.
“The value you are getting for $300 is pretty good,” Chankalian said. “We want it to be a user fee, we don’t want the taxpayers subsidizing it.”
Code Enforcement Officer Craig Ambrosio has held two seminars for real estate organizations so far, to explain the new ordinance.
The new continuing CO law does allow an exception, for properties where a buyer assumes all responsibility for obtaining permits and making repairs of a home, and agrees not to live in the house until the township issues a CO.
Those who violate the CO law could face fines up to $2,000 and up to 90 days in jail, or be required to perform up to 90 days of community service.
Jean Mikle covers Toms River and several other Ocean County towns, and has been writing about local government and politics at the Jersey Shore for nearly 37 years. She’s also passionate about the Shore’s storied music scene. Contact her: @jeanmikle, [email protected].