Landlords vs tenants: Who pays for unauthorised repairs?

B1You rent a house and the geyser packs in or the pool starts leaking. The landlord ignores your pleas to fix the problem – or outright refuses to do so. Can you go ahead and do the repairs yourself, then deduct your costs from your rental payments?

A recent High Court case illustrates the dangers of doing so.

The tenant who charged for repairs then short-paid his rent

  • A tenant claimed to have incurred costs in remedying a long list of defects in the rented house, including doors without keys, electrical repairs, pool motor repairs, re-marbeliting of the pool, a gate motor, installation of a geyser, and others. He even billed the landlord for 5 hours of his time spent fixing a water pipe (at “double rate since it was in the midnight hours”).
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  • He deducted his charges and costs for these repairs from his rental payments and then, in arrears to the tune of over R200k, defended an eviction application against him on the basis that the landlord had authorised the repairs and deductions.
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  • The landlord denied having authorised any repairs, and it didn’t help the tenant’s case that an upfront inspection of the premises (jointly with the landlord’s agent) had failed to reveal any of the defects complained of. In any event his defence was completely destroyed by the specific terms of the signed lease –
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    • No alterations to the house or its fittings could be made except with the landlord’s prior written consent. The tenant was unable to produce any written proof of consent, let alone persuade the Court that he even had verbal consent.
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    • The tenant couldn’t claim any compensation for any alterations or additions to the premises or its features, whether with the landlord’s consent or without it.
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    • Rental and all other amounts payable had to be paid on time, monthly in advance, “without any deduction or setoff whatsoever”.
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    • Any changes to those clauses had to be in writing and signed by both parties to be valid.
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  • The Court accordingly gave the tenant 30 days to vacate or be evicted by the Sheriff.

So who pays for what?

Landlords have a number of statutory obligations in relation to maintaining the house in good order and repair, but beyond that what counts most is the provisions of the particular lease that you sign.

So before you sign anything make sure you understand exactly what you are letting yourself in for. Pay particular attention to clauses specifying who must do what by way of repairs and upkeep – you will probably be responsible for minor and day-to-day maintenance issues but watch out for those landlords who try to put a much heavier burden on you.

Two final tips

  1. Don’t make the mistake that the tenant in this case made of not identifying and recording all defects in the premises in a joint upfront inspection.
  2. Both landlords and tenants should take photos of every part of the house before occupation and again after vacation. An app like “Guard My Lease” may help in resolving any later disputes.

This article is a general information sheet and should not be used or relied on as legal or other 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 legal adviser for specific and detailed advice. Errors and omissions excepted (E&OE)