Wanted: Dead or Alive - Landlords Witholding Deposits

Private Property South Africa
Lea Jacobs

Tenants who believe that their landlords are unfairly withholding their deposits can report the matter to the Rental Housing Tribunal. If some of the comments left on the Private Property website are to be believed, there are landlords who are going all out to rip their tenants off. One of the biggest gripes is that some landlords are reluctant to refund either all of the deposit, or the amount remaining once the deductions for repairs have been made.

There are strict laws governing rental deposits and no landlord is entitled to keep a tenant’s money unless he can prove that the cash was spent fixing up or repairing damage that the tenant has caused.

The importance of drawing up a comprehensive list of faults and defects that are present when the tenant first takes occupation cannot be overstated. Tenants traditionally have a week to inspect and furnish the landlord or his agent with a list of faults. Any tenant who fails to complete this vital document leaves themselves wide open to a potential dispute, as any damage caused will automatically be ascribed to the current tenant.

Once the tenant has issued notice to vacate the property, the landlord must arrange to inspect the property at a mutually convenient time within a period of three days before the lease expires. The tenant must be present at the inspection. It is worth noting, however, that if the landlord does not inspect the property in the given time frame, it is assumed under law that there are no faults and the full deposit must be refunded.

Under the general provisions of the Rental Housing Act 50 of 1999, the landlord may deduct money for the repair of damages caused by the tenant. However, the Act is very clear that fair wear and tear does not form part of the equation and a tenant may not be penalised for this.

A landlord may deduct from the tenant’s deposit the costs of repairing damage to the property. However, the Act is crystal clear about these deductions and they must be reasonable in terms of cost. In other words, a landlord may not withhold large sums of money for relatively minor repairs. In an effort to protect the tenant, the law also states that landlords must supply receipts that clearly indicate the costs they incurred effecting the repairs. The balance of the deposit and any interest earned must then be refunded to the tenant not later than 21 days after the lease has expired.

In the old days it was pretty difficult to try to claim money owed by an unscrupulous landlord. These days, however, tenants can approach the Rental Housing Tribunal if they have a complaint. The services offered by the Tribunal are free and the easiest way for tenants to find out if they have the right to lodge a grievance against a landlord is to contact their local office. The process is fairly simple and once a complaint has been made, the Tribunal will email or fax the necessary documentation directly to the tenant to complete.

The Tribunal has a maximum of 90 days to resolve the complaint and if the matter goes to arbitration, the ruling has the same power as does a magistrate’s court ruling.

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