Property: Why Do You Need an Occupancy Certificate Before You Buy?

Property: Why Do You Need an Occupancy Certificate Before You Buy?

“…there is no obligation on the [seller] to obtain an occupancy certificate and to furnish it to the [buyers]” (Extract from judgment below)

Imagine this – you buy your dream home, pay for it, take transfer into your name, and move in. But then disaster strikes. The Municipality tells you no occupancy certificate was ever issued for the property and that you must vacate. Now.

Both buyers and sellers should take note of a recent High Court decision highlighting the importance to buyers of getting an occupation certificate from the seller before putting in any offer or insisting on a clause in the sale agreement requiring the seller to produce one before transfer.

What is an occupancy certificate and why is it vital to have one?

It’s confirmation by your local authority that the building complies with the approved building plans and that all other requirements have been met.

Without it, it is unlawful for anyone to occupy the building. You can be ordered to vacate, but that’s not all – other risks include your insurers declining any claims you make, municipal penalties for non-compliance, perhaps threats of a demolition order. You and your family could even be in physical danger if the non-compliance results in electrical hazards, fire risks, structural failure, or the like.

Although the municipality can “grant permission in writing to use the building before the issue of the certificate of occupancy”, that will be a temporary permission only, probably only for a short period and with stringent conditions.

The demolition threat and the court application
  • Having bought a property from the owner/builder’s deceased estate, the buyers took transfer and happily moved in.
  • To their horror, when a municipal building inspector was called in to inspect the building for defects, it came to light that although building plans had been approved 30 years ago, no occupancy certificate had ever been issued.
  • The municipality “suggested” that the buyers vacate immediately and threatened to demolish the building, citing a number of outstanding certificates – completion certificates for the structural and storm water, an electrical compliance certificate, a plumbers’ compliance certificate, a glazing certificate, a gas installation certificate, and a soil poisoning certificate.
  • The buyers demanded that the executor of the deceased estate obtain an occupancy certificate for them, and when she refused, they asked the High Court to order her to do so.
  • The buyers pointed out that, per a standard clause in their sale agreement, the seller was obliged to give them “vacant possession”. That, they argued, meant “lawful possession” requiring the seller to provide them with an occupancy certificate before transfer.
  • The seller (executor) replied that she was not bound by the sale or any other agreement to provide a certificate, that there is no general obligation on a seller to furnish a purchaser of an immovable property with an occupation certificate, that the buyers had been given vacant (“free and undisturbed”) possession, and that anyway the buyers as the new owners should now be the ones to apply for the certificate.
The seller wins, and a warning for buyers

The Court refused to order the seller to provide an occupancy certificate, finding that despite the fact that occupancy of the house was unlawful without the certificate, the buyers had “…clearly received vacant possession. [They] received what they purchased. They had no concerns about what they were purchasing and there is no indication in the papers that they enquired about the occupancy certificate at the time of the sale or prior to taking transfer. They have alternatives available to them … and failed to explain why, as the owner of the property, they have not taken any of the steps available to them.”

In regard to the voetstoots (“sold as is” clause) the Court quoted from a Supreme Court of Appeal decision: “…the absence of the statutory approvals for building alterations, or the other authorisations that render the property compliant with prescribed building standards … does not render the property unfit for the purpose for which it was purchased.”

Perhaps the outcome would be different if a buyer is able to prove that the seller knew of the lack of an occupancy certificate and concealed that, or if a buyer sues for cancellation of the sale agreement or for damages. But that is speculation.

What is clear is this: The occupancy certificate is a vital document and as a buyer you should insist that the seller gives it to you before you make an offer, or that at least a term in the sale agreement obliges the seller to give it to you before transfer.

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: “Conditional Acceptance” of an Offer is Not Acceptance, It’s Rejection

Property Sales: “Conditional Acceptance” of an Offer is Not Acceptance, It’s Rejection

“The conditional acceptance of an offer amounts to rejection of same and not the conclusion of a contract, but may be a counter–offer.” (Extract from judgment below)

A good offer comes in for your property, so you accept it. But you’re not happy with a few of the terms, so before you sign you make a few changes to the offer. Maybe they are big changes, maybe they seem inconsequential.

Either way, you are now effectively negotiating, not accepting the offer. You have in fact just rejected it. Unless the buyer now accepts your amendments in writing (by initialing or counter-signing against your alterations), you almost certainly have no valid sale.

Thinking that you have a valid sale when you don’t is a common and easily-made mistake, and a recent High Court decision shows just how important it is for both seller and buyer to be aware of this danger.

The property auction, the counter-offer, and the commission claim
  • A property on auction attracted a top bid of R1.85m and after some haggling the buyer put in a second offer of R1.9m.
  • The seller accepted this second offer, but critically with amendments. The parties could not agree on these outstanding issues, with the result that the seller sold the property to another buyer without the auctioneers’ involvement.
  • At which stage the auctioneers sued the seller for commission, arguing that a sale had been concluded at R1.9m because the amendments to that offer were “not material” ones (in other words, they weren’t important, significant or essential terms). The terms in question related to who was to receive the agreed occupational interest and to the issue of a gas compliance certificate. Neither amendment, argued the auctioneers, was material to the sale.
  • The Court however disagreed, commenting that “In principle, anything more or less than an unqualified acceptance of the entire offer amounts to a counter-offer and constitutes a rejection of the original offer.” It accordingly dismissed the auctioneer’s claim for commission on the basis that the seller’s amendments were material and amounted to a counter-offer which the buyer had never accepted. In other words, no sale agreement had ever come into existence.
So, do you have a binding sale agreement?

If the amendments to the offer have been accepted and signed by both buyer and seller, no problem – the counter-offer has been accepted and you have a binding sale agreement.

Otherwise, as our courts have put it: “When parties conclude an agreement while there are outstanding issues requiring further negotiation, two possibilities would follow: no contract formed because the acceptance was conditional upon consensus, or a contract formed with an understanding that the outstanding issues would be negotiated at a later stage.” Deciding which is which means trying to deduce the parties’ intentions from their conduct and other circumstances – a grey and specialist area requiring specific legal advice.

Bottom line

Making a counter-offer can be an excellent tactic for negotiating towards agreement, but be very careful with the concept of “conditional acceptance”. It is actually not an acceptance at all but a rejection of the offer and could well be a counter-offer requiring acceptance by the other party in order for there to be a valid sale. Avoid all doubt by making sure everything is signed and counter-signed.

As always, ask us 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

Why Buyers Should Ask for Building Plans (and Why Sellers Should Supply Them)

Why Buyers Should Ask for Building Plans (and Why Sellers Should Supply Them)

“No person shall without the prior approval in writing of the local authority in question, erect any building in respect of which plans and specifications are to be drawn and submitted in terms of this Act.” (National Building Regulations and Building Standards Act)

Here’s a nightmare scenario for a buyer – you move into your new dream home, and only then find out that your lovely little office/spare bedroom extension has no approved building plans. The municipality says the seller’s building works were unapproved and unlawful – you must demolish the extension.

How can you guard against that happening to you?

Planning permission is legally required before building

Firstly, local authority planning permission is a legal requirement before any building works, renovations or extensions can take place. You will need to check with your local municipality what its particular requirements are, and what “minor” works are exempt from this requirement in your area.

Without municipal permission, you have an unlawful structure on your hands – a recipe for disaster.

The problem for a buyer is that, once the transfer is through and you are the registered owner, it is to you as buyer that the municipality will look to obtain any outstanding building authorities and plans, to pay any penalties for non-compliance, and possibly even to demolish the unlawful structures.

The seller isn’t obliged to supply proof (and plans) to you, unless…

Your risk as buyer is that the seller is only obliged to supply proof of planning permission and approved plans to you if that is specifically required by the sale agreement. Ideally ask for plans before you even put your offer in, otherwise insist on a clear clause in the agreement requiring the seller to produce the plans before transfer. It’s the only way to avoid the risk of having to rectify unlawful structures.

Make sure it is clear that the seller (not you) must get and produce the plans

A 2023 High Court decision addressed a claim by buyers who had at the negotiation stage noticed newly erected buildings in respect of which they were advised that building plans were at the ‘approval stage’ with the municipality. Accordingly, the sale agreement provided that the sale was subject to approval of building plans by the municipality.

What the deed of sale did not specify was who had to get the plan approval – was it the buyer, or the seller?

The Court ultimately declared the seller responsible for obtaining the plans on the basis that by default only a landowner can apply for approval and plans, but that victory for the buyer came only after a hard-fought court battle – avoid all that delay, cost and dispute with an upfront clause clearly putting the obligation on the seller.

When you have the plans, check them against all structures

Plans in hand, check that all the buildings and structures actually on the property tie in with the municipal approvals and plans. It’s not uncommon to find plans are outdated or inaccurate. Sometimes regulations have changed, sometimes owners chance their luck or have just overlooked the need to keep plans updated as renovations and extensions take place. And whilst the municipality may accept “minor” deviations from plans, you should be sure of what is acceptable and what isn’t before you take transfer. First prize here of course is updated “as-built” plans showing the construction as it exists after completion – you’ll probably need them anyway if you do renovations down the line.

Sellers – why should you have the plans ready to offer them to the buyer?

The other side of the coin of course is that as a seller, even though you aren’t legally required to do so, it makes a lot of sense to have on hand copies of all building approvals and plans before you sell –

  • As a sales tactic you can now reassure prospective buyers that all structures are lawfully constructed.
  • You will avoid delay if the bank granting the buyer a mortgage bond decides it wants copies of plans as part of its approval process. That’s exactly what happened in the High Court case discussed above, delaying transfer substantially.
  • You will also be reassuring yourself that all necessary approvals and plans were in fact obtained at the time of construction. If it turns out for example that you or a previous owner inadvertently dropped the ball in that regard, a disaffected buyer will try to pin all the blame on you.  You might even be accused of fraudulently concealing a lack of plans – in which event the standard “voetstoots” (“as is”) clause won’t protect you. There’s no risk of any of that if you have the actual plans on hand from the start.
  • In any event the “Mandatory Disclosure Form” that you must attach to the sale agreement specifically requires you to certify that the necessary consents, permissions and permits were obtained for any additions/improvements etc. Attaching the actual approvals and plans is the best way to cover you in the event of any dispute down the line.

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

“Pay Extra for My Generator or I’ll Cut You Off During Loadshedding”. Can a Landlord Do That?

“Pay Extra for My Generator or I’ll Cut You Off During Loadshedding”. Can a Landlord Do That?

Loadshedding continues to plague us and our businesses, and when tenants are connected during power cuts to their landlord’s alternative power source – such as a generator – it is essential for both parties to understand their respective rights.

Lights out for a shopping mall gym
  • An upmarket gym had relied for years on its shopping mall landlord’s generator to get through loadshedding, without having to pay extra for it.
  • “Out of the blue” the landlord demanded a monthly “diesel recovery levy”, and a dispute arose over whether it was entitled to do so or whether the cost was already covered by an existing “all-inclusive monthly fee for all expenses related to the lease of the premises”.
  • The parties agreed to refer that dispute to arbitration but then the landlord decided to flex its muscles by cutting off the gym’s connection to the generator.
  • The gym obtained an urgent reconnection order from the High Court. Although that is only a temporary solution for the tenant (it must still win the arbitration or pay the extra levy), the Court’s decision is a significant one in that it has confirmed the principle that access to an alternative source of power does fall under the protection of the “spoliation” principle.
“Spoliation” – no one can take the law into their own hands

No one can go the self-help route and take the law into their own hands by removing property from someone else without a court order. Anyone deprived of possession like that can urgently obtain a “spoliation” order forcing an immediate return to it of the property.

At this stage, the court won’t be interested in who has the legal right to the property – all it will look at is whether –

  1. The possessor was in “peaceful and undisturbed possession” and
  2. It was unlawfully deprived of that possession.

That’s straightforward with possession of a “corporeal” thing like a car, or a house, or a parrot. But when it comes to an “incorporeal” like access to an alternative energy source, things become more complicated. Now you must prove that you had “quasi-possession” of the power supply.

As complicated as that may sound, what’s important on a practical level for both landlords and tenants is that this judgment has confirmed in principle that access to an alternative power supply such as a generator falls under the law’s protection as much as possession of a corporeal “thing”.

The bottom line

Whether or not a tenant has an enforceable right to its landlord’s alternative power supply – and if so whether it must pay extra for it – will depend on the wording of the lease.

But the landlord cannot just cut off an existing power supply without following legal process.

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

Can You Use Land Use Laws to Close Down a Neighbour’s Business?

Can You Use Land Use Laws to Close Down a Neighbour’s Business?

“A bad neighbour is as great a calamity as a good one is a great advantage”. (Hesiod, poet of Ancient Greece)

Your neighbour’s business is driving you to distraction. Perhaps it’s loud all-night music, or an invasion of your hard-earned privacy, or illegal parking in your driveway, but regardless of what the nuisance factor is, it really is untenable. You’ve tried everything you can think of to sort it out amicably – polite requests, offers of mediation, compromise proposals. Nothing has worked, and the nightmare continues.

So, it’s off to court you go. Legal action is never first prize when it comes to long-term relationships with neighbours, but if they leave you with no other alternative, take heart from two recent High Court cases. In both, businesses being operated by neighbours in contravention of land use laws were penalised for doing so.

Noisy nightclubs shut down … with some harsh words for the landlord
  • A university residence was subjected to noise from nearby nightclubs, with students complaining that loud music prevented them from sleeping and studying until the early hours of the morning.
  • The establishments were on property zoned “Use 6: Business 1″ which allowed for the use of the premises as a “Place of Refreshment”, such as a café or bar. But these particular businesses fell into the municipality’s definition of “nightclub”, which put them into the “Place of Amusement” category – for which they were not zoned.
  • They argued that their “tavern” liquor licences obliged them to provide entertainment and therefore allowed them a secondary use of the premises as a “Place of Amusement”. The Court disagreed: “the terms of the liquor licence can never override the provisions of the Town Planning Scheme”.
  • The premises were accordingly being used outside of their land use rights and were prohibited from continuing to do so, i.e. the nightclubs must close down. If they convert to just being “pubs” they are prohibited from making any noise in excess of the noise levels permitted by the land use rights of the premises.
  • Finally, the Court had a harsh word or two for the landlord of the premises in question, which had, it said, remained “supine” rather than enforcing a clause in the lease prohibiting the tenants from creating any nuisance to neighbours. The landlord was accordingly ordered to take “all reasonable measures” to stop its tenants from making a noise nuisance, plus it must pay a share of the costs. That’s a clear warning to all landlords that they risk liability for their tenants’ wrongdoing.
Approvals for a seaside guest house set aside
  • The owner of a seaside property realised that not only were her neighbours running a seven-room guest house without municipal permission, but that they planned to go double story with it. “There”, she thought, “goes my privacy”.
  • She also feared the negative impact of a guest house on the general character of the area, on traffic volumes and on stormwater management, particularly in light of the guest house’s plan to increase its size to eight suites with parking for sixteen cars.
  • The guest house owners had applied to the local authority for a permanent departure from the zoning scheme conditions (their house being zoned “single residential”) and for the removal of restrictive conditions attached to the title deed. The municipality refused to remove the title deed restrictions but granted a conditional approval for the operation of a guest house.
  • The homeowner was having none of that and took the matter to the High Court, which found that the local town planning scheme in force at the time (before a new scheme was adopted) did not empower the municipality to grant approval for building or running a guest house on the property. The Court set aside the municipal approvals.
  • Both the development and the operation of a guest house on the neighbour’s property were thus declared unlawful. The neighbour, if it still wants to operate the guest house, must now make new applications to the municipality under the “new” town planning scheme for the area. That’s Round 1 to the homeowner, and an expensive lesson for the neighbour.
Before you buy a property…

Whether you plan to run a business from the property you are about to buy or are worried that one of your new neighbours might do so in the future, check what zoning and land use restrictions apply to your respective properties before you put pen to paper!

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

Festive Season Sellers: Start Getting Your Compliance Certificates Ready

Festive Season Sellers: Start Getting Your Compliance Certificates Ready

“If you don’t like where you are, move. You are not a tree” (Jim Rohn)

It’s that time of year again – summer sunshine, happy holidaymakers in festive mode, and an upsurge in property sales.

Whether seller or buyer, be aware of the various compliance certificates that may be required for your transfer to go through smoothly. These certificates ensure that the property is up to standard in terms of safety, health and building regulations, and can also help prevent any unexpected costs or legal issues from arising later on.

In most cases the responsibility for obtaining these certificates lies with the owner of the property, and failure to do so can result in delays in the transfer process, or even legal action. Also, if remedial work is required, this could take time and delay the whole transfer process. For these reasons, it’s a good idea to obtain the necessary clearance certificates as early as possible (just keep an eye on how long each is valid for). 

So, sellers – here’s a checklist for you of the certificates of compliance you might (or might not) need –

  • Electrical: One of the key certificates required for property transfer is the Electrical Compliance Certificate. This confirms that the electrical installations (distribution boards, wiring etc) in the property meet safety standards and other requirements, and that any necessary repairs or upgrades have been carried out. It does not cover actual appliances like stoves, geysers and the like. The certificate must be issued by a registered electrical contractor, and you cannot agree with the buyer to waive this requirement.
  • Electric Fence System: Additional to and separate from the electrical certificate discussed above, this applies if you have an electric fence system installed (or modified) after 1 October 2012.  It can be transferred to the buyer. Only a registered electric fence system installer can issue it. Again. It can’t be waived.
  • Gas: A Gas Compliance Certificate is only required if you have gas appliances installed and confirms that the installations meet safety standards and are in good working order. A registered professional must issue it, and again it cannot be waived.
  • Beetle Infestation: Required by banks and perhaps insurers in some (mostly coastal) areas of the country, this certificate confirms that the accessible wood of permanent structures is free of wood destroying insects. You can agree with the buyer on whether or not a certificate is necessary, and if so, who must obtain and pay for it. Usually valid for 3 to 6 months.
  • Water Installation: Currently only required by the City of Cape Town and aimed at preventing illegal water connections and stormwater ingress, this certificate confirms that the water system installations comply with the City’s byelaws. It does not confirm that the whole plumbing system is in order even though it may be referred to as a “plumbing certificate”. Only a qualified and registered plumber can issue it. Again, you cannot agree with the buyer to waive this.

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

You have Successfully Subscribed!