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Property

Lockdown! Nuisance Neighbours and How to Handle Them

By | Litigation, Property

“You can be a good neighbour only if you have good neighbours” (Howard E. Koch)

It looks as if we will still be under “restricted movement” orders for a while – even when we finally get down to Alert Level 2 and who knows when that will be. 

Tensions between neighbours are no doubt at an all-time high, and whether you are working from home or just trying to stay sane until our “new normal” starts kicking in, you are no doubt noticing more than ever all those little irritants from next door that would normally fly below your radar or at least be tolerable. 

And of course remember it’s a vice-versa situation – your neighbour is in exactly the same position. That’s a recipe for dispute, and going to war with a neighbour is a classic lose-lose option, in court or out of it. Any short-term victory you may think you can achieve will pale against the ongoing trench warfare that will inevitably result. 

First prize: A negotiated win-win

Negotiation will always be your best path to a win-win outcome, and whether you open up dialogue with a friendly chat over WhatsApp or a socially-distanced masks-on discussion over your boundary wall, here is one bit of advice that will substantially increase your chances of a happy outcome for everyone: Understand your legal rights before you start negotiating! 

Should your negotiations come to naught, consider as your next step mediation, arbitration or official intervention (more on possible municipal or police intervention options below). Remember that if you live in a “community scheme” such as a sectional title development or a Homeowners’ Association community, the CSOS (Community Schemes Ombud Service) provides a dispute resolution service to assist with a wide range of community disputes.

Then – and this should normally be your last option only to be resorted to when all other avenues have failed – you have the legal route, normally in the form of an interdict application and/or damages claim. 

How can our law help you? It’s a balancing act…

The principles laid down by our courts in dealing with neighbour disputes over many years are firmly rooted in common sense. You are entitled to the use and enjoyment of your property – so long as you act lawfully – without unreasonable interference. “An interference” our courts have held, “will be unreasonable when it ceases to be a ‘to-be-expected-in-the-circumstances’ interference and is of a type which does not have to be tolerated under the principle of ‘give and take, live and let live’.”  

As the Supreme Court of Appeal (SCA) put it in 2016: “Nuisance involves the unreasonable use of property by one neighbour to the detriment of another.” It’s a balancing act between competing rights – yours and those of the other property owners around you. 

Peacocks, a cherry tree, and the court’s wide discretion

It is also difficult to set out too much in the way of hard and fast rules here, for as our courts have put it “modern conditions require the exercise of a wide discretion in the adjustment of neighbour relationships”. 

Thus the High Court, in a 2013 case involving nuisance peacocks, a “much loved” cherry tree on the boundary of two properties and in danger of being chopped down, and a partially-demolished boundary wall, both quoted and applied that principle with an order encapsulating a resolution of the neighbourly disputes in a detailed and pragmatic manner. The peacocks for example had made a major nuisance of themselves by being noisy, messy and destructive trespassers (they had damaged expensive vehicles by pecking at them when they saw themselves reflected in the rear-view mirrors and highly polished metal surfaces). The court order included both authority for them to be removed by either the municipality or by the SPCA (there being no municipal permit to keep them as required by the municipality’s bye-laws), and an admonition to find them “good and lawful homes”. The cherry tree on the other hand is now protected by an interdict against its removal, with detailed instructions in the court order as to the reconstruction of the boundary wall next to it.

Bear in mind therefore that what is said below is of necessity a simplified and brief summary only – every case will be different, our courts will take into account a whole range of factors in deciding a dispute, and in many instances technical questions of “wrongfulness”, “fault”, “moving to the nuisance” and so on may apply. If your dispute gravitates towards legal action, specific advice is essential!

What is a “nuisance”?

The range of potential disputes falling into the “neighbour law” and “nuisance” categories is wide. Some examples (from the SCA again – emphasis supplied) – “repulsive odours, smoke and gases drifting over the plaintiff’s property from the defendant’s land, water seeping onto the plaintiffs property, leaves from the defendant’s trees falling onto the plaintiff’s premises, slate being washed down-river onto a plaintiff’s land, causing a disturbing noise, causing a common wall to become unstable by piling soil up against it, overhanging branches and foliage, an electrified fence on top of a communal garden wall, blue wildebeest transmitting disease to cattle on neighbouring ground, and occupants of structures on neighbouring land allegedly causing a nuisance.” 

Two common areas of dispute – noise and trees

Let’s have a closer look at how those general principles have been applied to two of the more common areas of dispute –

  1. Noise: If barking dogs, power tools, loud music or the like are making your life a misery – keeping you awake at night perhaps, or (a common concern in this time of remote working) unable to concentrate on that business project or to participate in your daily Zoom “office” meeting – sooner or later you will need to take action.

    Particularly relevant here are the various national statutes and local bye-laws dealing with noise pollution. Contact your local municipality or the police for help if you need to. If you live in a complex, Body Corporate or Home Owners Association rules and regulations will probably come into play as well. SAPS should respond to serious violations of our anti-noise laws, and just a warning visit from a blue uniform might solve your problem once and for all. 

    If you end up in a legal fight, our courts will take into account factors such as “the type of noise, the degree of its persistence, the locality involved and the times when the noise is heard”. As we said above, every case will be different.  

  2. Trees: If your neighbour’s trees are damaging your property (common complaints relate to boundary walls, underground pipes, building foundations, driveways and the like), or are causing a nuisance in the form of falling leaves or branches, or are blocking your views/depriving you of light, you are once again left with no hard and fast rules. A court will look at what is “objectively reasonable” in all the circumstances. As a general rule, don’t count on much sympathy from a court if damage is minor and easily repaired, if the nuisance caused is controllable by you with regular maintenance (clearing leaves from gutters and so on) or if your only complaint is loss of your views. That last aspect is a whole separate debate with many twists and turns, but all based on the concept that you will have no automatic right to a view.   

    Where you are dealing with an “overhanging branches” issue, old common law principles will usually apply unless factors such as local bye-laws, heritage protection of older trees etc come into play. You will generally have a right to cut overhanging branches back to your property line if the neighbour refuses to do so and to keep or dispose of the branches if your neighbour declines to take them. 

Disclaimer: The information provided herein should not be used or relied on as professional advice. No liability can be accepted for any errors or omissions nor for any loss or damage arising from reliance upon any information herein. Always contact your professional adviser for specific and detailed advice.

© LawDotNews

Unemployed, Can’t Pay Bond and Credit Instalments? “Credit Life Insurance” May Save You

By | Credit Law, Employment and Labour Law, Personal Finance, Property

If you are one of the many employees retrenched or put on short pay or unpaid leave as a result of the COVID-19 crisis and lockdown, you will be wondering how to cover the monthly instalments on your mortgage bond and other credit agreements. You have no doubt heard of the “payment holidays” banks are offering, but remember that although these are a lot better than losing your house, car etc, they are no free lunch. Interest and fees will still be building up.

Credit life insurance is not just death cover

That’s why you need to check right now whether or not any of your credit agreements are covered by “credit life insurance”. Many people don’t even realise they have this cover in place, and those that do may look at the “life” part of the name and think “well that’s no good to me or my family, I’m unemployed not dead”. The good news there is that most policies cover a host of other events leaving you unable to pay instalments – see below for more.

Do you have cover?

You may well have this cover in place without even realising it because it is commonly required when you take out any form of credit – think mortgage bonds, vehicle finance, credit cards, retail credit (store cards etc) and so on. 

If you aren’t sure, check your latest bond or credit statement for any sign of an insurance premium deduction (it may be called “balance protection” or the like). Then contact the bank (or whichever credit grantor you are with) and ask them to check. You may not have it for example if at the time you ceded another life policy to the credit grantor.

What are you covered for?

Check what the terms of your particular policy are, but the minimum cover required by National Credit Act Regulations (which only affect credit agreements entered into on or after 9 August 2017) is –

  • Death or permanent disability: The outstanding balance of your total obligations under the credit agreement is covered.
  • Unemployment or inability to earn an income: You are covered until you find employment or are able to earn an income, with a maximum of 12 months’ instalments. 
  • On temporary disability: You are covered until you are no longer disabled, with a maximum of 12 months’ instalments.

Exclusions – the Regulations allow a long list of exclusions to be incorporated in your policy so check which apply to you. Most of them are common sense – for example lawful dismissal, retirement or resignation from employment – but if you are told that a particular exclusion applies to you and you don’t agree ask your professional advisor for advice before conceding anything. Employers may be able to assist in this regard when structuring crisis outcomes with staff, but remember to do so only after taking your own legal advice! 

Self-employed people and pensioners should check what cover they have under their particular policy, and what terms apply to them.

Disclaimer: The information provided herein should not be used or relied on as professional advice. No liability can be accepted for any errors or omissions nor for any loss or damage arising from reliance upon any information herein. Always contact your professional adviser for specific and detailed advice.

© LawDotNews

Leases, Contracts and COVID-19: What is Force Majeure?

By | Contract, Litigation, Property

The COVID-19 crisis has changed everything. Our personal lives have been upended and our businesses hit hard. 

And with many businesses operating out of leased premises, a great many landlords and tenants are asking themselves what happens if the crisis leaves a tenant unable to pay the agreed rental. 

What follows is of necessity a general guide only – professional advice specific to your case is essential here.

Tenants – your risk

As always “With Great Change comes Great Opportunity”, but if you aren’t able to very quickly find and exploit a viable new opportunity you may well struggle to pay your rental. 

Don’t just stop paying rental! Failing to pay rental on time means breaching your lease, and if you do that you face cancellation, legal action for recovery of outstanding rental, damages claims for breach (substantial if your lease has a long time to run and your landlord struggles to re-let) and calling up of your personal suretyships (exposing you to loss of all your personal assets, house etc). 

Bottom line – take professional advice before you just stop paying!

Landlords – your balancing act

As a landlord you have a very delicate balancing act – on the one hand you won’t want to lose even half-reasonable tenants at a time when finding new ones is going to be problematic. One wonders for example how many small businesses will now either fail entirely or be forced to cut costs. And how many others, having had an enforced period of “working from home”, will now be reconsidering the whole concept of leasing separate office space at all. 

On the other hand of course you need to cover your ongoing costs, which probably means enforcing payment of rent. That in turn means understanding your legal position – for example does your tenant now have an excuse to cancel the lease without penalty? If so, you lose a tenant without recompense. But if your tenant is still bound by the lease, you are free (if you wish – long-term support of your tenant may still be your best option) to demand full payment, then to reduce your losses by cancelling, evicting, executing against the tenant’s assets and calling up personal suretyships. 

What about “force majeure” or “impossibility of performance”? 

Force majeure” (a French legal term meaning “superior force”) is an event, either due to “natural causes” (earthquakes, cyclones and so on) or to “human agency” (war, riots, legislation and the like) that makes it impossible to comply with the lease. 

We really are sailing into uncharted waters here with worldwide debate over whether or not this pandemic is indeed a case of force majeure. There is bound to be a great deal of litigation before we can be certain whether or not the crisis (particularly the declaration of a national state of disaster and the lockdown period) will be accepted by our courts as a “force majeure” event. If it is, many tenants will argue that their failure to pay rental is not a breach of lease but rather a lease-destroying “supervening impossibility of performance”. 

So where do you stand? There are two main scenarios to consider –

  1. What does the lease say? The onus of proving a force majeure is on the tenant trying to escape from the lease, and the first thing for both parties to check is what the lease says.

    Many leases have a clause that deals with a tenant’s inability to occupy premises as a result of damage to or destruction of the premises which won’t apply here, but some leases do have specific force majeure clauses. If yours has such a clause you are bound by whatever it says so check whether a pandemic or government order to cease business might fall under the clause, and if so what results and remedies are specified.

  2. What must the tenant prove if there is nothing in the lease? If there is no force majeure clause in your lease, our common law applies. Your problem here is that there are a lot of grey areas involved and every case will be different, so what follows is just a general and non-exhaustive guide.  

    A tenant would have to prove not only that the impossibility caused a loss of beneficial occupation (entitling the tenant perhaps to a rebate of rental for the lockdown period, or perhaps frustrating the lease altogether) but in all probability also that it is –

  • “Unforeseeable with reasonable foresight”. In this regard we may well hear arguments along the lines of “the emergence of the coronavirus and its impacts were neither unexpected nor improbable”. Could such an argument prevail? Only time will tell.   
  • “Unavoidable with reasonable care”. 
  • An absolute as opposed to a probable impossibility. “The mere likelihood that performance will prove impossible is not sufficient to destroy the contract.” 
  • An absolute not a relative impossibility. “If I promise to do something which, in general, can be done, but which I cannot do, I am liable on the contract”.   
  • Not the fault of either party. “A party who has caused the impossibility cannot take advantage of it and so will be liable on the contract.”   
  • The “contrary common intention of the parties” could override the defence of impossibility. Consider any representations made by either party to the other that may be relevant.

Moreover our courts have held that “In each case it is necessary to ‘look to the nature of the contract, the relation of the parties, the circumstances of the case, and the nature of the impossibility invoked by the defendant, to see whether the general rule ought, in the particular circumstances of the case, to be applied’.”

That’s all fertile ground for expensive and draining litigation, at a time when neither of you is likely to have an appetite for either. 

Which brings us to…

A practical template for negotiation

Take this advice from Roman lawyer and statesman Cicero over two millennia ago: “Agree, for the law is costly”. 

So if you are a tenant, rather than just stopping rental payments and then having to fight it out through the legal system, ask your landlord to agree to a win-win compromise that will limit both short-term and long-term damage to your respective businesses.

Draw up a checklist including matters such as –

  • Do you or your landlord have any sort of insurance cover for this sort of disaster?
  • If you want to cancel the lease entirely, consider whether, if the protections of the Consumer Protection Act are available to you (see below*) it might pay you to give your 20 business days’ notice and pay the “reasonable cancellation penalty” the landlord is entitled to demand. (*You need to take advice on this – leases between “juristic persons” such as companies and trusts in particular are excluded from this particular protection).
  • Alternatively consider what you can offer the landlord to accept your cancellation without a fight. 
  • If you want to continue in the premises, make sure that your failure to pay on time is specifically recorded as not being a breach of the lease.
  • Decide whether you will ask for a full rental holiday, or a rental reduction. For how long? The better a tenant you have been, the more incentivized your landlord is going to be to help you stay in place. Offering an extension of the lease – if it ties in with your long-term planning – could help a lot with that.
  • If you run into a brick wall there, think of proposing that the arrears not be written off but rather just be deferred until your business is back up on its feet. Specify when payment of arrears will be made, what if any interest will be charged and so on.
  • If the tenant is a corporate entity and you signed a personal suretyship for it, don’t forget to specifically cover that aspect in your agreement. 
  • Remember to include in your agreement what happens to any deposit the landlord may be holding from you.
  • If you agree on a new or amended lease, think of including a professionally-drawn force majeure clause (or check an existing clause for possible update). 
Beyond leases – force majeure and contracts generally

Although this article specifically addresses landlords and tenants, the general principles of “force majeure” and “impossibility of performance” apply to all contracts and might in some cases entitle you to delay or avoid contractual obligations beyond lease agreements. Take professional advice specific to your circumstances!

Disclaimer: The information provided herein should not be used or relied on as professional advice. No liability can be accepted for any errors or omissions nor for any loss or damage arising from reliance upon any information herein. Always contact your professional adviser for specific and detailed advice.

© LawDotNews

Property Sellers – Prepare for SPLUMA

By | Property

Many factors can delay your property transfer, and all of them are likely to cost you. 

A last-minute rush to comply with statutory requirements is one such pitfall to avoid. Beware therefore of the possibility that you will soon need (in some parts of the country you may already need), to lodge before transfer a formal “SPLUMA” (Spatial Planning and Land Use Management Act) certificate of compliance.  SPLUMA, without getting too technical, provides a framework for all provinces and municipalities to pass laws governing land use and development.

There is (at date of writing) some confusion over what is actually required, and although currently a formal certificate of compliance seems to be necessary in some municipal areas only, there is a suggestion that the requirement will apply everywhere by October 2020. 

It pays to comply anyway!

The important thing however is that – regardless of statutory requirements – you won’t want any problems with your buyer down the line complaining about unlawful building work or zoning contraventions. So it makes sense to ensure that you are fully compliant well before you start any sales process. 

Take professional advice (in good time so you can take corrective action if you need to) and make sure that –

  • Building plans for all structures have been approved,
  • Your property’s use complies with its zoning, and 
  • There are no encroachments over building lines and property boundaries. 

Disclaimer: The information provided herein should not be used or relied on as professional advice. No liability can be accepted for any errors or omissions nor for any loss or damage arising from reliance upon any information herein. Always contact your professional adviser for specific and detailed advice.

© LawDotNews

Your Neighbour Builds Without Plans – Can You Get a Demolition Order?

By | Property

“The primary remedy therefore is an order for removal of the structure” (extract from the judgment below)

What can you do if your neighbour has started (or finished) building without the necessary municipal approvals?

In a nutshell, our courts will very probably assist you with a demolition order, as a recent High Court decision around a long-running property encroachment illustrates.

The 16 year saga of an encroaching garage

  • A couple, owners of a property next to a church Mission, expanded their house in 2004 by building a brick garage.
  • They thought they were building on their own land, having in 1998 built a wall along what they genuinely – but mistakenly – thought was the correct boundary between the two properties.
  • As we shall see below, their fatal mistake was building their garage without municipal plans or approval.
  • In fact the garage was inadvertently built on Mission land, but the Mission was having none of that –  
    • First in 2012 it asked the couple – and another neighbour in the same position – to demolish. 
    • When the couple refused (the other neighbour complied) the Mission in 2014 laid criminal charges against them for failing to comply with the relevant Act (the National Building Regulations and Building Standards Act). These charges, for purely technical reasons, failed to stick.
    • On pressed the Mission, this time turning to the local municipality for help in 2016. The municipality duly issued a formal Notice requiring demolition of the garage as it had been erected illegally without plans or permission. The couple simply refused to either receive the Notice or to remove the encroaching garage.
  • Which brings us to the High Court in 2017, with the Mission applying for a demolition order and the couple asking the Court to rather order the Mission to transfer the relevant piece of its land to them against payment of reasonable compensation. 

What about alternatives to demolition?

A court deciding a demolition application has “discretion to reach an equitable and reasonable solution in terms of the common law by ordering payment or compensation rather than removal in cases where the cost of removal would be disproportionate to the benefit derived from the removal”. 

In this respect said the Court (emphasis supplied) “the encroaching owner’s own conduct plays an important role” and “while one is acutely aware of the financial implications, inconvenience and disruption which the partial demolition will cause the [couple], the upholding of the doctrine of legality, a fundamental component of the rule of law, must inevitably trump such personal considerations.” 

Commenting on the couple’s “obstructive behaviour” in this case, and finding that they “are indeed in legal and administrative breach of the law … to allow them to keep the structures where they are, would be to perpetuate the illegality”, the Court ordered the couple to demolish their illegal garage within 90 days.

So if you are the neighbour planning to build…

Whilst the case in question deals with encroachment on another’s land, our courts have applied exactly the same principles to a wide variety of “neighbour dispute” cases – sea view obstructions, failure to observe building lines and the like.

So don’t even think of starting to build without having all necessary municipal plan approvals and permissions in place! 

And if you are the objecting neighbour…

The couple in this case put up an argument that the Mission couldn’t demand demolition as it had “acquiesced in their occupation of the relevant land because it did not object when they built the wall on the church ground in 1998, and did not complain when they built the ‘offending’ garage in 2004 or 2005.” 

Factually the Mission’s long history of actively objecting to the unlawful construction put an end to that argument, but the longer you delay in objecting and taking action the greater your risk of facing a similar argument. Take immediate action against any neighbour building unlawfully.

Disclaimer: The information provided herein should not be used or relied on as professional advice. No liability can be accepted for any errors or omissions nor for any loss or damage arising from reliance upon any information herein. Always contact your professional adviser for specific and detailed advice.

© LawDotNews

Budget 2020: Good News for Property Sellers and Buyers, and Some Useful Tax Calculators

By | Economy, Property, Tax

“To support the property market, the threshold for transfer duties is adjusted” (Finance Minister Tito Mboweni)

Transfer Duty Exemption Up

Some good news for property sellers and buyers in particular is the increase in the transfer duty exemption to R1m. See the table below for details and note that with all the brackets being adjusted upwards, buyers at every level will save – for example the buyer of a R2.5m house will save R17,000.

 (Source: National Treasury
Some useful Tax Calculators for you
  • How long will you work for the taxman today?

    Input your salary into the 2020 Tax Clock calculator and find out how many hours you will spend today working for the taxman, and at what time precisely you will finally start working for yourself (warning – it’s not pretty!).

  • How will your income tax change? 

    Put your monthly taxable income into Fin24’s Budget 2020 Income Tax Calculator to find out.  
  • How much extra will your sin taxes cost you this year? 

    Work out how much more you will be shelling out for spirits, wine, beer and cigarettes (or how much you will be saving if you don’t indulge!) with Fin24’s Budget 2020 Sin Tax Calculator.

Disclaimer: The information provided herein should not be used or relied on as professional advice. No liability can be accepted for any errors or omissions nor for any loss or damage arising from reliance upon any information herein. Always contact your professional adviser for specific and detailed advice.

© LawDotNews

Running a Business in a Residential Area – Check Your Zoning First!

By | Litigation, Property

“It is unquestionable that an owner of land is not permitted to perform activities which contravene the restrictive title conditions or the zoning restrictions” (extract from judgment below)

You decide to open a home business, or perhaps you are about to buy a house in order to run a business from it. You apply for rezoning but the council is taking forever to decide (although it has happily started charging you rates and taxes on the business tariff), your immediate neighbours are supportive, you won’t cause any nuisance, you know of many other businesses operating undisturbed “under the radar”, and anyway the suburb’s residential character has been eroding for years. Surely you are safe to just go ahead and open your business?

On the other side of the coin, perhaps you bought your dream house in a leafy suburb, secure in the knowledge that its residential character is protected by strong and effective zoning laws. Then businesses start moving in – what can you do about it?

A recent High Court decision addresses both questions directly…

A suburban office and the interdict application
  • A construction company opened an administrative office in a suburban area, manned from 8 am to 4.30 pm on weekdays by a staff of four (with the occasional visitor). 
  • Three complainants in the suburb, objecting strongly to this move, applied to the High Court for an interdict against the running of any business on the property. They had, they said “acquired their properties with a keen expectation of residing in a residential suburb with amenities that are consistent with a residential suburb and with a residential character” – sentiments which will no doubt resonate with many other home-buyers.
  • Critically, one of the restrictive conditions in the offending property’s title deeds read “this erf shall be used for residential purposes only and no trade or business or industry whatsoever shall be conducted thereon”. That, said the Court, rendered the property’s usage illegal. Full stop.
All the defeated defences

The property owner and the business (let’s refer to them together as “the business” for simplicity) raised a series of defences to the interdict application, all of them rejected by the Court on essentially the same ground that “the use or continuation to use the property for any business or trade other than for residential purposes constitutes an illegal act” 

  • The suburb’s character had been changing over the years with businesses moving in, including a large shopping mall. Not relevant.
  • The business had applied to the local council for re-zoning and removal of the title deed restriction over a year before, no objections had been received and it had in fact been supported by at least one neighbour. Not relevant.
  • Although the rezoning application had yet to be granted or declined, council was already collecting rates and taxes payable by business and commercial properties. Not relevant.
  • The office caused no nuisance to anyone in the area. Not relevant.
  • Other property owners in the area were also in contravention of the law. Not relevant.
Who can object and who can’t?

The business also argued that only property owners living “in close proximity” to the office had any right to object. That, it said, excluded not only the complainant who was not an owner (she lived with her parents) but all three of the complainants because they all lived about a kilometer away from the office. 

No problem, said the Court, “the essence of town planning schemes is conceived in the interest of the community to which it applies” and the complainants lived “in an area affected by an applicable zoning scheme”. All the complainants had “protectable interests” and therefore locus standi (in plain English, the ‘right to bring a legal action’) and were entitled to enforce their rights under the planning scheme.

The interdict and the request to suspend it

“Once it is accepted”, quoted the Court from an earlier judgment “that the nature of the right in question is a public right, then it must follow … that for continuing infringements of that right the only effective remedy is an interdict, all the more so where such infringements amount to an offence.” Final interdict granted with costs.

Finally, the Court rejected a request by the business to suspend the application of the interdict. The business had been continuing to act in an unlawful manner for at least fifteen months, it was “hell-bent to do so without the necessary relaxation of the restrictive conditions” and to suspend the interdict would be to support or give approval “to an ongoing illegality which is also a criminal offence … tantamount to the subversion of the doctrine of legality and undermining of the rule of law”. The business “must be brought into line immediately when such matters are brought to the attention of the court.” Interdict effective immediately.

Owners – must you always rezone?

Have your attorney check what title deed restrictions your property is subject to, what your current zoning is and what it allows and doesn’t allow. Your local town planning scheme may perhaps let you run a small scale “home enterprise” or “micro business” either without any municipal consent (there will be conditions attached) or with a municipal permit. Or you may need to formally apply for rezoning and removal of title deed restrictions. Every local authority will have its own rules on this and the important thing is to comply with them or risk unhappy neighbours applying to close you down.

Disclaimer: The information provided herein should not be used or relied on as professional advice. No liability can be accepted for any errors or omissions nor for any loss or damage arising from reliance upon any information herein. Always contact your professional adviser for specific and detailed advice.

© LawDotNews

Does an Expired Lease Automatically Continue Month-to-Month? At What Rental?

By | Property

“Close your eyes –
Landlord knocking
On the back door”
(Jack Kerouac; Northport Haiku)

Your residential fixed-term lease expires but for whatever reason you don’t sign a new one. Nor does the lease say anything about what will happen on expiry. Is there still any form of valid lease in place and if so what terms and conditions apply? What rent is payable?

To avoid confusion over the answers to those questions, the Rental Housing Act (“the RHA” – which, as its name suggests, applies only to residential leases) says that you are deemed “to have entered into a periodic lease, on the same terms and conditions as the expired lease, except that at least one month’s written notice must be given of the intention by either party to terminate the lease.”

Your fixed-term lease is now a “month-to-month” lease. Nothing changes except that the lease is no longer for a specific period but rather continues indefinitely unless and until a month’s written notice is given by either party. 

Critically, the rent remains unchanged, unless…

The case of the verbal rental increase
  • A tenant rented a residential property for a year at a rental of R30,000 p.m. The written lease was extended for another year at a rental of R32,400 p.m. When that expired, there was no written extension, but verbally the tenant agreed to pay an increased rental of R34,500 p.m. and in fact paid that amount for another nine months.
  • When the landlord then gave notice to vacate to the tenant he declined, only moving out four months later. The landlord sued him for various amounts, including damages for “holding-over”. The concept with “holding-over” is that where a tenant remains unlawfully in the property and thereby prevents the landlord from re-letting the property, the landlord can recover his losses from the tenant in the form of damages. 
  • The tenant fought back, and one of the defences he raised (the one relevant to this article) was that the orally-agreed increase in rental to R34,500 p.m. was invalid. In terms of the RHA, he argued, the rental remained at the R32,400 p.m. applicable at the date of expiry.
  • Not so, held the High Court (this being an appeal from a Magistrate’s Court ruling). The subsequent oral agreement to change the rental was valid – all the RHA says is that the terms and conditions of the lease (including the agreed rental) are deemed to be unchanged, which is “rebuttable”. In other words if you can show that different terms and conditions were agreed upon, verbally or in writing, they will be valid.
  • The end result – the tenant must pay damages in the full amount of R69,000 (2 months at R34,500 p.m.) plus interest and costs.
The bottom line, and what your lease should say about expiry

Of course your lease may have been a month-to-month lease from the start – we are talking in this article only about the concept of fixed-term leases expiring and automatically becoming month-to-month. It is in such a case that the upshot of this new High Court decision is that the answer to the question “What rental must the tenant pay under a month-to-month lease?” is that the rental remains unchanged unless – as in this case – the evidence shows clearly that a new rental was agreed upon.

That of course opens the door to uncertainty and dispute, and to avoid that make sure that your fixed-term lease provides clearly in writing exactly what will happen when it expires. Some leases for example provide that they will continue automatically on a month-to-month basis, but incorporating any changes to rental or other terms notified in writing by the landlord to the tenant. Without such a clause you could be in the same position as these parties, battling your way through the courts and hoping that a magistrate or judge (probably both in the end result) will uphold your interpretation of whatever you think was verbally agreed.

Avoid verbal leases!

As a final note, remember that verbal leases (in fact verbal contracts of any sort), and/or verbal amendments to them, are a recipe for misunderstanding, duplicity and dispute.

So although our law accepts the validity of verbal leases (written leases will be compulsory only when the latest amendments to the RHA finally come into force), in practice you should always insist on everything being in writing and signed by both parties, with a clause providing that no amendments will be valid and binding unless likewise reduced to writing and signed.

Disclaimer: The information provided herein should not be used or relied on as professional advice. No liability can be accepted for any errors or omissions nor for any loss or damage arising from reliance upon any information herein. Always contact your professional adviser for specific and detailed advice.

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Must You Pay Tax on Your Rental Income?

By | Property, Tax

“Few of us ever test our powers of deduction, except when filling out an income tax form” (Laurence J. Peter of The Peter Principle)

Letting out property can give you an excellent “annuity” income, and if that concept appeals to you and a buy-to-let property comes your way at the right price put an offer in right now; before the current ‘buyer’s market’ runs its course.

In your financial planning however remember the tax implications, because as a landlord you must add your rental income to your salary and other taxable income in your tax return every year. Not to do so is tax evasion, and that carries heavy financial penalties as well as the very real threat of criminal prosecution. 

Having to pay tax on your rental income could be make-or-break when it comes to deciding on how much you should pay for a particular property, so do your homework before you put your offer in.

Our tax laws are complex and specialised, so professional advice on your particular circumstances is essential here. These general concepts will however help you in your initial planning –

You must declare all property rental income

You must declare your gross rental income to the taxman whatever type of accommodation you rent out – whether a whole house or apartment, just a room/garden flat or anything similar – or if you are in the guesthouse/B&B/Airbnb business.

You can claim some expenses, but not all

Your taxable income will be calculated by subtracting allowable deductions from your gross income.

In general, only “expenses incurred in the production of that rental income can be claimed” (SARS). So you can claim things like levies, rates and taxes, bond interest, advertising, agent’s fees, homeowner’s insurance, garden services, electricity and water, repairs and maintenance to the leased area (which would, says SARS, “usually take place when a person attempts to restore an asset to its original condition as a result of damage or deterioration”). Beware the “beginner’s mistake” of thinking that your full bond repayment instalments are deductible – not so, only the interest portion can be claimed and not the capital repayments.

In regard to VAT (per SARS): “The supply of accommodation in a dwelling is an exempt supply for VAT purposes, and consequently you may not deduct VAT incurred on expenses in respect of supplying accommodation in a dwelling.” 

And when it comes to renting out only a portion of a property (a room say in the house you live in) you can only claim pro-rata to total floor area. Click here for a practical example from SARS.

Take advice also on claiming depreciation on furniture and the like – your allowable deduction there might be worthwhile.

Not allowed are “expenses that are capital in nature or that are not in the production of rental income” (SARS). So the cost of improvements to the property – which would normally “result in the creation of a better asset” (SARS) – cannot be claimed. Improvements can however be added to the “base cost” of your property – important when you come to pay CGT (Capital Gains Tax) on eventual disposal.

How are you taxed, and what about “ring-fencing”?

Your total taxable income (i.e. including net rental income) will be taxed as per current tax tables.

What if your letting business shows a loss? Per SARS – “should the expenses exceed the rental income, the loss should be available for set-off against other income earned by the individual, provided that the loss is not “ring-fenced” in terms of prevailing anti-avoidance provisions”. In other words SARS could ring-fence your letting business losses to stop you from setting them off against your regular non-rental income. But if that happens you don’t lose those losses, they are just carried forward so that when your letting business starts turning a profit the losses can then be set off against that profit.

Keep an eye also on your obligation to register for and pay provisional tax. As an individual if you earn taxable income of R30,000 p.a. or more in “rental from letting of fixed property” you fall into the net.

Keep full records from Day 1!

Create and maintain a full spreadsheet, with a file of supporting documents, of all income and expenditure (distinguish between revenue and capital, claimable and not claimable). It’s a relatively painless exercise if you update it regularly, but a real challenge if you end up trying to recreate everything only when the annual “income tax return panic” sets in, or when SARS and/or your accountants call for breakdowns and documentation. 

Disclaimer: The information provided herein should not be used or relied on as professional advice. No liability can be accepted for any errors or omissions nor for any loss or damage arising from reliance upon any information herein. Always contact your professional adviser for specific and detailed advice.

© LawDotNews

Property Sales and Trusts: Demand Proof of Trustee Authority

By | Property

“If you want to make your house easy to sell, make it easy to buy” (Anon)

You are overjoyed at receiving a good offer for your property – not easily achieved in these hard times and of course you certainly don’t want to do anything to jeopardise the sale.

But perhaps do that little bit extra homework before accepting the offer if it comes from a trust. The pitfall here – and it’s one that perennially takes sellers by surprise – is that the trustee/s signing the offer to purchase/sale agreement must have the necessary authority to do so. Drop the ball on that one and you will find yourself without any sale at all.

As a seller learned to its cost recently in the Supreme Court of Appeal (SCA)…

For want of a second signature the seller goes down R3m 
  • In 2013 a company sold to a trust for R1.45m a “real right of extension” in a sectional title development (a right in this case to build on common property).
  • An agreement to sell a “real” property right of that type must, as with a standard property sale, be in writing and signed by both seller and buyer (or their authorised agents) to be valid.
  • The seller’s problem here was that only one of the trustees signed the sale agreement. The other trustee refused to sign, and in 2017 the seller found itself trying to convince the High Court to order the trust to pay it the R1.45m plus interest (by then a total just shy of R2m), alternatively to order the trustee who signed the deal to pay up personally in return for taking transfer into his own name.
  • The High Court however pointed out that where a trust has more than one trustee, they must act jointly, and a property sale agreement needs the signatures of all the trustees. One trustee signing alone would be regarded as an agent and would need either general authorisation in the trust deed or written authorisation to sign the particular agreement. Otherwise, as in this case, the signing trustee acted without authority and the sale was void.
  • Defeated in the High Court, the seller appealed to the SCA, abandoning its claim against the trust itself and now trying only to hold the signatory trustee liable in his personal capacity.
  • Its argument was that, despite the invalidity of the sale, the trustee was still liable – in his personal capacity – to pay and take transfer as he was guilty of breaching the clause (standard in property sale agreements involving corporates and trusts) that he “warrants and binds himself in his personal capacity by virtue of his signature hereto … that he is duly authorised to enter into this agreement on behalf of the company, close corporation or trust”.
  • No claim there, held the SCA, commenting that “The ingenuity of this argument is surpassed only by its lack of substance … what [the seller] is essentially seeking is specific performance of a void and invalid contract against the person who signed that contract but was not a party to it – this on the basis that if he’d had the authority to sign, which he had not, the property would have been sold to another. This merely had to be stated to be rejected.” This appeal, said the Court, was doomed to fail.
  • The end result – six years down the line the seller loses its claim (no doubt over the R3m mark including interest by now) and its legal bill will be a hefty one.
Could you sue the trustee personally for damages?

“Theoretically”, said the SCA, the signing trustee could be held liable to the seller for damages flowing from his breach of warranty, and that is of course a strong warning to those signing for trusts and companies – make 100% sure that you have full authority to do so!

But, said the Court, the seller in this case didn’t formulate its claim as a damages claim against the trustee personally and even it had, it would have had to provide evidence as to what damages it had actually suffered.

Indeed proving damages in a case like this is never going to be easy – the seller would have been much better off insisting upfront on proof of the trustee’s authority to sign alone.

As always, get professional advice before you sign anything.

Disclaimer: The information provided herein should not be used or relied on as professional advice. No liability can be accepted for any errors or omissions nor for any loss or damage arising from reliance upon any information herein. Always contact your professional adviser for specific and detailed advice.

© LawDotNews