What can be done about bad landlords?

Much media coverage has been given to the difficulties landlords often experience with disorderly or defaulting tenants, and it’s true that these days exceptional care has to be taken to check prospective tenants’ general creditworthiness, previous track record as rent payers and records of how they take care of the properties they occupy.

Tony Clarke, managing director of Rawson Properties, says the ongoing need felt by landlords and agents to protect themselves from delinquent tenants has resulted in excellent, accurate online profile networks, which pick up 85 percent or more of bad tenants and make it very difficult for them to rent again.

However, says Clarke, the question has to be asked: what checks are done on landlords?

“It has to be admitted that South Africa has slightly more than its share of bad landlords, the main characteristics of whom are often arrogance and inefficiency.

He says Rawson Properties regularly comes across landlords who refuse to pay for essential maintenance and repair tasks. Often they ignore repeated requests from agents whom they are supposed to be assisting. This can result in facilities like garage doors, swimming pools, Jacuzzis and even kitchen appliances becoming unusable by the tenants. It can also result in trees and shrubs growing to the point where they damage walls and windows and block out sunlight.

“Many leases,” says Clarke, “stipulate that the landlord is responsible for repainting and recarpeting the property when necessary, maintaining the electrical and plumbing systems and for responding to tenants’ calls on these matters. But all too often we come across single residential properties and sectional title schemes (where these matters are the responsibility of the trustees and their managing agent), where the neglect is plainly evident from the moment you walk in onto a property.”

In financial matters, says Clarke, Rawsons have also encountered landlords whose ethics are very definitely ‘debatable’. Refunding of deposits at the end of leases can be particularly contentious because it is only too easy to claim that normal wear and tear are the result of inappropriate behaviour by the tenants.

“We have come across cases where at the end of a reasonably short lease the landlord decides he would like to repaint the unit, even though it probably does not need this treatment. How convenient it can be in these cases to trump up a case for using the tenant’s deposit to fund the refurbishment.”

Also unacceptable, says Clarke, is the practice of charging excessively high interest rates – up to 25 percent in some cases – on overdue rentals.

“We all know how important rental cash flows are, but it is not acceptable to use this as an excuse to charge exorbitant interest on late rentals. This is a practice which, I believe, will be very hard hit by new legislation now in force.”

In sectional title schemes, says Clarke, apparently discriminatory rules, for instance, concerning pets or children, may be necessary as the wishes of all residents have to be respected. But in single residential units these are not acceptable and in many cases are, in fact, contrary to South Africa’s constitution.

“No person can be turned down for a lease on the grounds of race, sex, disability or religion and in freehold homes children and manageable pets should also be accepted, even if landlords happen not to like that.”

Another particularly irksome practice adopted by some landlords, says Clarke, is to enter the premises without notice, either to check on its condition or to show a possible tenant or buyer around.

“Twelve to 24 hours notice should always be given and if the tenants are not there they should still be informed that an inspection will take place.”

Asked if the Rental Tribunal is not there to solve these problems, Clarke says that it does do that, but it focuses on the major controversies and, because it is very slow moving, is not a great help in the day-to-day problems encountered by the average tenant dealing with a difficult landlord.

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