Why You Should Utilize the Open Public Records Act in All Real Estate Transactions
New Jersey's Open Public Records Act, which is often referred to simply as 'OPRA', allows a purchaser to unearth a lot of potentially useful information about any given piece of property in anticipation of a sale.
Verify the Seller's Property Condition Disclosure StatementWhen purchasing a property, the seller's realtor will usually provide the purchaser with a document known as the "Seller's Property Condition Disclosure Statement." This document provides the purchaser with a lot of useful information about the history of the property, i.e., when certain repairs were made and whether there were ever issues with the property, such as leaks. This information can be provided to the home inspector to help him evaluate the condition of the home and is helpful in allowing the purchaser to determine whether the price of the property is appropriate in light of its condition. However, sometimes the information in this document is either inaccurate, where, for example, the seller cannot remember the exact year a certain repair was made, or incomplete, where, for example, it is an estate sale and the estate administrators are unaware of any repairs that may have been made. In either case, purchasers must use their own due diligence to verify the information disclosed.
One way to do so is to file an OPRA request with the municipality where the property is located, which requests: "A copy of any and all open and closed permits for the premises located at [property location]." This will allow the purchaser to determine when certain repairs were made and will also provide them with information as to who made the repairs should there ever be a need to contact the repair person in the future.
Ensure There Are No Open PermitsIf a purchaser submits an OPRA request for "any and all open and closed permits" for a particular premises, the municipality will let the purchaser know if there are any open permits, which means that a permit has not been closed because the repair work never received or cleared the final inspection of the municipality. Unfortunately, open permits are not as rare as one might think.
An open permit for the replacement of a hot water heater may not be a big issue, but an open permit for the removal of a oil tank is. If the permit has not been closed, New Jersey's Environmental Protection Agency may have to be involved, which may not only be an additional headache to the purchaser, but could result in a delay to the closing. Likewise, if a new system, such as an air conditioner system, was installed, the cost to close the permit could be significant. In any event, an OPRA request can be a useful tool to assure purchasers that no open permits exist.
Verify That No Assessments or Deed Restrictions Will Affect the PropertyMost often, the contract of sale will include provisions if there are any pending assessments, such as a sidewalk repair assessment, or deed restrictions, such as open space restrictions, that will affect the property. However, in order to ascertain whether these provisions will impact the sale, a purchaser can file an OPRA request with the municipality where the property is located, which requests: "Copies of any pending or finalized assessments and copies of any and all deed restrictions affecting the premises located at [property location]." To be sure, your title company will most likely uncover any such issues later on, but many purchasers may find it helpful to know this information from the get go.
How to File the OPRA RequestTo file an OPRA request, which can be done prior to the conclusion of attorney review, a purchaser or their attorney will need to contact the clerk of the municipality to request a copy of that municipality's OPRA Request form.
The form will ask for the requestors' personal information, the information requested, and where to send the information (usually, if the requestor asks for the information to be emailed to them, there is no fee to obtain the information, however, fees may be incurred if the information is provided as a hard copy or via fax).
As far as the structure of the request, the following may be used as a guide:
"As the potential purchaser of Lot [[[#]]] of Block [[[#]]] in [[[the name of the municipality]]], please accept this request for information regarding:
1 - Confirmation as to whether there are any open permits for the premises located on Lot [[[#]]] of Block [[[#]]]. If readily available, the requestor would also like to receive copies of all permits, open and closed, for the above-identified property that have been taken out over the last 20 years.
2 - Confirmation as to whether any municipal assessments have been or will be imposed on the owner of Lot [[[#]]] of Block [[[#]]]. If such assessments exist, the requestor would also like to receive copies of the same.
3 - Copies of any restrictions of record, if any, for Lot [[[#]]] of Block [[[#]]]."