Don't Paper Over the Cracks

Private Property South Africa
Lea Jacobs

There is far more to being a landlord than simply collecting the rent every month. Property, regardless of who lives in it, needs to be maintained and tenants warned about potential hazards.

One Durban landlord found this out in a rather painful way recently when one of his tenants sued him after she had fallen through a skylight into the flat below while hanging up washing on the roof. According to a report in the The Mercury, the woman concerned suffered two broken ankles, injuries to her spine and lungs as well as cutting her wrist and hand when she fell.

The issue in the case was that the landlord had painted over a skylight, thus creating a dangerous situation. Although he argued that the rooftop was out of bounds, it was common knowledge that this rule was not being observed.

In these instances, the issue of liability insurance always rears its head. Stated succinctly, it's always advisable to have this form of insurance, but this is best discussed with your broker, who will advise you on how best to cover yourself against this type of incident.

However, even if a landlord is insured this doesn't necessarily mean that he can shirk his duties of keeping the property in a safe, habitable condition. Of course, accidents can and do happen and obviously the landlord cannot be held liable in every instance. Issues such as a geyser bursting and causing injury or damage for example are generally unforeseeable by both the landlord and the tenant. However, if an unqualified person such as the tenant has been tampering with the geyser, it stands to reason that the risk of something going horribly wrong is high and that person would be the author of their own misfortune.

Wooden decks surrounding pools or entertainment areas are often accidents waiting to happen, particularly when they are not properly maintained. Wood has a limited lifespan and needs to be treated or replaced periodically. In general, structural and exterior aspects of a property are the landlord's responsibility; minor repairs and things internal to a home are, once again in general (it depends on what the lease reads), the tenant's responsibility. In this vein, trees are often a bone of contention. A falling branch can cause severe damage to a property, or even result in fatalities, so it's in the interest of both parties to deal with problems before they arise.

From both sides of the fence, it is advisable to always reduce things to writing when a potential hazard has been noted. Because tenants are more likely to notice potential problems and run the risk of being injured if the fault isn't rectified, it really is up to them to bring things to the landlord’s attention and when this is done in writing, it can prevent future arguments.

In the Durban case, it took 10 years, a lot of heartache and a great deal of money before the matter was resolved. The lesson to be learnt here is for landlords to identify potential dangers in conjunction with their tenant and deal with them effectively - before someone gets seriously hurt.

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