Whose fault is the flood?

Private Property South Africa
Lea Jacobs

A demanding tenant can push a landlord over the deep end and, if not held in check, can end up flooding the owner with expenses.

In one instance recently brought to our attention, a tenant has been making unreasonable demands ever since she moved in. First of all, despite the flat having been completely cleaned and inspected by the landlord before the tenant took occupation, she claims that the flat wasn’t satisfactory and is demanding that the landlord pay for the cleaning service she employed.

The landlord says that, since then, he has been receiving almost daily demands. These include that the cupboards in a particular room be painted the same colour as those in the rest of the flat and that the runners on some of the drawers be replaced because they are sticking. There have also been repeated calls to fix a supposedly leaky tap in the kitchen, which the landlord’s own plumber says is in perfect working order. However, the tenant still insisted on calling in a handyman, for the landlord’s account, at what the landlord feels was an inflated price. The tenant is also demanding that a kitchen cupboard door be replaced as it is slightly out of alignment.

Rental agent resigns

While a rental property must be maintained, it does appear that in this instance the tenant is going a little overboard. The landlord says that although he has appointed a rental agent, the agreement is now in jeopardy as the agent wants to resign due to what he feels are the ridiculous and ongoing demands.

While this case study does sound a little extreme and there are always two sides to every story, what is pretty clear is that the tenant is overstepping the mark somewhat. In this scenario it appears that the lease agreement is fairly new and as such the tenant should have sought to resolve some of the issues (including the cleaning of the premises) before she moved in. The landlord says that the apartment is a fairly upmarket unit and is in his opinion in a perfectly acceptable condition. He believes that the tenant is being unreasonable, and is refusing to pay for any work that has been undertaken without his permission.

Michelle Dickens, MD of TPN, says that navigating the ins and outs of a rental agreement can be tricky – especially when it comes to maintenance and repairs. Both tenants and landlords should take careful consideration of their rights and responsibilities before placing their signatures on that dotted line.

“The majority of disputes between tenants and landlords concern the landlords’ fulfilment of their maintenance duties,” she says. “In such cases, tenants are often inclined to withhold rent to force landlords to act.”

The Rental Housing Act

The law is fairly open-ended as far as the maintenance and repairs section of a rental agreement is concerned. It simply states that a landlord is required to maintain the property in such a manner that it is fit for the purpose for which it was let.

Dickens says that this usually relates to the general fixtures and fittings, which must be maintained in a workable condition. This would include things such as a functional geyser that produces hot water, doors that lock and a stove that works. She cautions though that this will not always apply if the required maintenance or repairs in question are a direct result of a tenant’s negligence.

Dickens further warns that the tenant and landlord’s respective responsibilities can differ, based on what has been stipulated in the signed lease agreement. “Always make sure that you read your lease agreement carefully, and remember anything that you agree to must be put down in writing or it will not hold up as far as the law is concerned.”

No guidelines

When it comes to landlord-tenant disputes, interpreting legal obligations can be tricky. The various issues that might arise are almost endless, which means there is no well-defined guideline on how to handle a highly specific set of circumstances.

Dickens goes on to explain that the law which concerns disputes of this nature contains grey areas, as it stipulates that the landlord has a responsibility to maintain the property such that it is fit for the purpose for which it was let. But in practical terms what exactly does this mean?

“Maintenance responsibilities that fall to the landlord are things such as damp, broken stoves and toilets that are not flushing,” Dickens elaborates. “Issues such as doors not locking or light bulbs not working are matters for the tenant to resolve.

It’s all in the lease

“However, because this is not spelled out in legal terms, the only way for both landlords and tenants to ensure they are not taken advantage of is to format a strong lease agreement. The agreement needs to protect the rights of both parties, and it needs to include any obligations undertaken by either party in writing. For example if a landlord has agreed to build a wall, but has only agreed to this verbally, this will be difficult to enforce as it is not set down in writing,” she says.

If a tenant faces a situation in which a landlord is genuinely in breach of contract, payment cannot be withheld as a means of rectifying the situation. Should a tenant withhold payment, he or she will then also be in breach of contract.

Finally, Dickens’ advice for landlords or tenants who are already involved in a dispute of any nature is to make sure that all correspondence is recorded. “If the dispute has to be mediated, whoever looks at it will require evidence of your claims,” she explains. “As such, it’s absolutely vital to have a step-by-step account of how the issue was handled by both parties.”

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