The power of body corporates

Private Property South Africa
Lea Jacobs

Body corporate rules can prevent sectional title owners from renovating their property to their own taste.

Although most of us wouldn't think twice about changing the look of our balcony by changing the tiles, this seemingly proposed minor change put a couple who owned a sectional title in Umhlanga at odds with members of their body corporate.

The couple who paid R8.5-million for their unit planned to spend R3-million renovating the unit and this included replacing the tiles on the balcony. And that's where the trouble started. The body corporate didn't want them to lay tiles that didn't conform to other apartments in the complex, despite the couple's argument that the porcelain tiles would be paid for and maintained by themselves.

According to a report in the Daily News, the offending tiles became something of an issue and the body corporate's attorneys as well as the couple's legal representative got involved. It appears that the matter wasn't going to be resolved and the couple decided to take the matter to the High Court. However, both parties later agreed that the dispute be resolved by way of arbitration.

One of the points raised by the couple was that the body corporate had given permission for different tiles to be laid in the penthouse apartment and as such the rules were not being applied consistently. One would think that this sort of ammunition would have helped their case, however, the arbitrator HA De Beer SC, stated that there was "a larger picture to be taken into account". He said there was a need for uniformity and legal certainty and it was the body corporate that was the decision-making body. He also noted that "In buying into a sectional title development, owners have to sacrifice their preferences, freedom of choice and independence when enjoying the benefits of community-style living." The couple's lost the case and have to pay costs on a High Court scale including the fees of the arbitrator.

So what does this incredibly expensive exercise prove? Well for one thing it highlights the power body corporates have when it comes to keeping things uniform within a complex, even when it comes to something as arbitrary as outdoor tiling.

It could be argued that the body corporate was being petty: after all, according to the owner the tiles he wanted to lay weren't unsightly and because of the position of the balcony wouldn't be that visible. But rules are made to be followed and as the homeowner in this instance found, trying to fight a body corporate on such matters can prove costly.

Most sectional title complexes have strict rules as to what can and can't be done to the exterior of a building. Units generally have to be painted the same colour and window frames and doors have to match. In other words if you don't like the look of the outside of a unit, don't buy it and then try and change it.

A word of advice

Read the body corporate rules carefully before you sign an offer to purchase and if you don't like or agree with the rules, buy something else that is more suitable. More often than not it the small things that cause the most aggravation. One would think that the choice of tiles for a balcony would be a non-issue, however as has been clearly seen, this is not necessarily the case. Which brings us to the next point - consult with the body corporate before undertaking renovations to ensure that the work you intend doing complies with the body corporate rules. Perhaps the most important thing to remember is that just because the body corporate has allowed a homeowner to make certain improvements that don't comply with the rules, this doesn't necessarily give you free reign to do the same.

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