Rules for renting: How to be happy as a tenant

According to the most recent General Household Survey released by StatsSA, about a quarter of the 16.7 million households in South Africa rent their accommodation.

A large number of these are renting in the informal sector, where there is rarely any kind of lease document or protection for tenants, says Andrew Schaefer, managing director of national property letting and management company Trafalgar.

“But even in the formal sector, prospective tenants are often not careful enough when entering into a lease, in comparison to the sort of caution people tend to exercise when they sign a property sales agreement.

“For example, tenants need to make sure they are aware of anything they will be charged for in addition to the rent, such as water, electricity, refuse removal or security. If these amounts are not included in the rental they can make a big difference to monthly payments – and the affordability of the property.”

The general rule on affordability, he says, is that your total monthly rental should not exceed 25 to 30% of your net household income. But even that is high for many South Africans, who are often also spending a large proportion of their disposable income on debt repayment and transport to and from work.

“To allow some leeway for emergencies as well as future rent and cost-of-living increases, we would prefer to see tenants spending less than 25% of their take-home pay on rent.”

Schaefer says that once it is implemented, the new Rental Housing Amendment Act will make it compulsory to have a written lease, but that until then, tenants should insist that they are given a copy of their lease and make sure they are familiar with all the terms and conditions. They should also make sure that it states the length of the rental period and what notice period is required.

“And before signing or moving in, they must inspect the property thoroughly with the agent or landlord. Any defects in the unit should be documented and photographed and attached to the lease so there can be no dispute later on about when damage was done and by whom.”

The lease should also state, he says, that it is the landlord’s responsibility to ensure that the property remains habitable during the lease period – so if the roof is damaged by a storm and leaking, for example, it is the landlord who must ensure that it gets fixed and your belongings don’t get ruined. It is worth noting, however, that it is your responsibility as a tenant to insure your own belongings against damage or theft.

“Tenants must also understand exactly what they will be responsible for as far as day-to-day maintenance of the property is concerned. It is not unreasonable, for example, to be expected to water the garden, mow the lawn and keep the pool clean if you are renting a house but the situation may be entirely different if you are renting a sectional title flat or townhouse.”

Shaefer says it is also vital for tenants to know what additional costs they will incur if rental is not paid timeously, and to ensure that their damage deposit is placed in an interest-bearing account.

Those renting in sectional title schemes should also take care to read and understand the rules of the particular scheme before they sign the lease, as some of these might not suit their lifestyle, or might prohibit them from keeping pets, for example. Landlords in sectional title schemes are obliged to make tenants aware of these rules and a copy should always be attached to the lease.

“You should also enquire about any costs payable to the body corporate for security discs and remotes and about whether the unit has a DSTV connection and /or a high speed internet connection. An increasing number of buildings have ‘fibre to the home’ connections in every apartment.”

When viewing units to rent, he says, prospective tenants should also:

Take note of the type of tenants already living in the building. For instance, if you are a student who requires quiet time to study you should perhaps not choose a building where most tenants have young children.

Check whether pets are allowed, if there is secure parking, what entertainment facilities there are and if there is a drying yard for your laundry.

Double-check the parking allocation and bay numbers to ensure that your vehicle will fit your assigned spot – and that you won’t get off to a bad start with your new neighbours by parking in their bay.

Ensure that the security meets your needs, for instance, whether it’s 24-hour control or remote access.

If there is a pool and you have children, make sure that the pool area is properly fenced off and that the gate lock is working.

But before you do any of this, says Schaefer, you should check out the surrounding area and make sure it is safe and suits your needs in terms of amenities such as proximity to schools, shops, sports and medical facilities.