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How to Manage Commercial Properties: Building Compliance

Updated on August 18, 2014

Property owners and managers are responsible for ensuring that commercial buildings on their property meet state, city, and local rules regarding building compliance. Building compliance laws generally address fire safety, handicap accessibility, and certificates of occupancy. They are usually made and enforced at the local level but some states have state-wide regulations which work in conjunction with, or in addition to, local laws. As the manager it is your job to know the compliance laws that are applicable to your property, and to make any changes that may be necessary. Ignorance of the law is no defense when it comes to building compliance so familiarizing yourself with your property’s compliance specifications before an inspection is crucially important.

The following overview is a great starting point for learning the compliance issues that you will face as a property owner or manager. Specifically, the overview covers the most common compliance issues: fire safety, handicap accessibility, and certificates of occupancy. Once you know what issues to look for, you can easily find the local laws that apply to your property.

Fire Safety Regulations

Fire safety compliance is enforced by the city or county fire marshal’s office. A fire marshal will inspect the property at least once a year to make sure the building meets the local fire code. The inspection is usually unannounced and involves a walk-thru of the property by the fire marshal along with the property manager. What the inspector checks will depend on how the building is used (ex. retail center, office building, warehouse), but the following items are almost always inspected:

  • Fire extinguishers
  • Smoke detectors
  • Fire hoses
  • Exit Signs
  • Exit Doors
  • Door handles

If there is a compliance issue with any of the items listed above, the fire marshal will usually give management a reasonable amount of time to fix the problem after which he or she will conduct a second inspection. If the issue was not resolved as promised, then the property may be subject to a fine for noncompliance.

Certificates of Occupancy

A certificate of occupancy is a permit which certifies that a leased commercial space meets the local building code. Certificates of occupancy are issued by the city permitting/building department and enforced by the local fire marshal’s office. The tenant is responsible for obtaining a certificate before opening for business. To do this, the tenant must first apply for a certificate at the local permitting office. The office will then schedule an inspection (or series of inspections) of the tenant’s space.

The inspection consists of a thorough examination of the major features of the space such as the electrical wiring, plumbing, and structural integrity, to name a few. Any problems with the premises must be corrected before the city will approve the certificate. In most cases, the lease will specify which party (the tenant or the landlord) is responsible for making the correction. If the lease is silent, you will have to look to state law and individually negotiate with the tenant.

Although obtaining a certificate of occupancy is the tenant’s responsibility, it is generally the landlord’s responsibility to ensure the space is in compliance. More importantly, when the fire marshal conducts a fire safety inspection of the property (described above), he or she will make sure every tenant has a certificate of occupancy. If a tenant does not have a certificate, both the landlord and the tenant may be held responsible.

Handicap Accessibility

Handicap accessibility of commercial properties is mandated by federal law and enforced at the local level. The federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities. Specifically, Title III of the ADA ensures that disabled individuals have equal access to public goods and services by setting a federal accessibility standard for any business that provides public accommodations. Non-profit organizations and government buildings must also comply with the federal standard. In addition, some state and local governments have enacted their own handicap accessibility standards, all of which must be met in addition to the federal standard.

Under the ADA, businesses that provide public goods or services must meet federal handicap accessibility guidelines. This includes businesses such retailers, restaurants, hotels, offices, medical facilities, theaters, and libraries. The guidelines cover common issues including, but not limited to, bathroom accessibility, wheelchair ramps, handicap signs, handrails, and parking. It is the landlord’s responsibility to ensure the property meets the federal guidelines and any state or local guidelines which may apply.

Compliance is enforced at the local level, usually by the local fire marshal’s office. The fire marshal will check handicap accessibility at least once a year when he or she conducts the fire safety inspection (described above). If the property is in violation, the fire marshal will usually give you a reasonable time to resolve the problem after which he or she will conduct a second inspection. If you fail to resolve the issue by the second inspection, the property may be fined for noncompliance.


The information in this article is for general information purposes only. Nothing on this or associated pages, comments, answers, or other communications should be taken as legal advice. The information provided is not intended to create, and viewing of this information does not constitute, an attorney-client relationship.


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    • teaches12345 profile image

      Dianna Mendez 5 years ago

      It is good to know how to work through the new regulations when it comes to helping the disabled. I see buildings renovated for this when I go downtown. It's important in helping everyone to feel a part of the community. Great tips on management of commercial real estate.

    • Blawger profile image

      Bahin Ameri 5 years ago from California

      rfmoran--Wow, thank you for the high praise. It means a lot coming from an established author like yourself.

    • rfmoran profile image

      Russ Moran 5 years ago from Long Island, New York

      This hub is a tremendous resource for anyone involved in managing commercial real estate. Well done!