Are you renting a home? Here are 5 things you need to know

Woman in her apartment.
Woman in her apartment.
Jamie Grill/Getty Images

It’s your dream home, close to work and your kids’ schools. You’re keen to get all the paperwork done to make sure it’s yours – but before you sign on the dotted line it’s important to read the fine print of your lease agreement. If you don’t, there could be some nasty surprises in store for you.

DRUM spoke to PG van der Linde, rental manager of Seeff Pretoria-East, who answered some important questions relating to rental property and finances.

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1.       Can you make changes to a rental property?

You are not allowed to make structural changes or install fixtures without the owner’s written permission. Should the owner grant permission, it’s important to remember that when the rental agreement expires you’re not entitled to any monetary compensation  for the changes – for example, painting the walls in a colour you like or installing an extra towel rail in the bathroom.

You are also not allowed to remove any fixtures when you move out. But if the improvements or renovations are essential – for example, if you fixed a broken door lock or a faulty toilet at your own expense – the tenant might be entitled to financial compensation. Unfortunately, tenants and owners often disagree about what can be considered essential. So before making any changes it’s best to speak to the letting or property agent about whether you can claim the money back.

2.       How can I ensure I get my deposit back?

The short answer is you must leave the property in the same condition as when you moved in and you must pay your rent on time every month. The law stipulates that a prospective tenant and the owner (or rental agent) should inspect the property together before the tenant takes occupation. During the inspection, any damage or defects must be identified and noted in writing. At the end of the rental contract there must be a second inspection. This way you can avoid being held responsible for any pre-existing damage or defects. If the tenant damages any part of the property, the owner can use the deposit money for repairs.

The tenant has the right to see all evidence of repairs made at their expense. The deposit money can also be retained to make up for any unpaid rent. But even if money is subtracted from the deposit, the owner must still pay back the balance within 14 days after the contract ends, plus any interest the  deposit earned while it was invested for the term of the contract. If there are no subtractions, the owner must pay the deposit plus interest to the tenant within seven days after the contract ends.

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3.       What is the difference between damage and wear and tear?

Examples of things that usually wear down over time include carpets that are walked on daily, paint peeling or door handles getting stuck. Regular wear and tear are allowed – except when the damage is to something that doesn’t usually experience wear and tear. For example, a few scuff marks on a door will be considered wear and tear, but if there’s a hole in the door, it will be considered damage. The same goes for stains on carpets that cannot be washed out. The owner will expect you to restore the property to the state it was in when you moved in. 

4.       What’s the standard notice period for cancelling a rental agreement?

Legally, tenants are given 20 working days to give notice of cancelling a contract. But if the owner cannot find a new tenant after you’ve given notice (this applies only if the contract

period hasn’t ended), the tenant can be held liable for a cancellation penalty. A cancellation penalty can mean that the out- going tenant has to pay rent for the remainder of the contract period if no new tenant is found. It’s best to check your contract to see how long the notice period is and whether a cancellation penalty applies.

5.       When must the rent be paid and when is it considered late payment?

Rent is due on the first day of the month – by day two, it’s already considered overdue. Many tenants are under the false impression that they have seven days to pay. An owner may send a claim letter on the second day of non-payment, from which the tenants has 20 working days to correct the mistake. If the tenant fails to pay the rent within the 20 working days, the owner can immediately cancel the contract and serve an eviction notice.

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“If you cannot reach an agreement with your landlord or their agent, you can approach the Rental Housing Tribunal. It’s an objective third party and will base its judgements solely on the facts presented to it. Complaints must be laid in person or via email with the tribunal’s office”, Linde advises. “Websites such as lawyer.co.za offer more information about owners’ and tenants’ legal rights and obligations”.