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Are owners liable for common property upkeep in sectional titles?

30 Sep 2019

Finding enough money for maintenance tasks is a constant struggle in most sectional title (ST) schemes, even if they do have a sizeable reserve fund, but no matter how stretched the budget is, the body corporate cannot transfer responsibility for common property maintenance to individual owners.

No matter how stretched the budget is, the body corporate cannot transfer responsibility for common property maintenance to individual owners.

This is according to Andrew Schaefer, MD of national property management company Trafalgar, who says when you buy into a ST scheme, you become the owner of your section of the building or complex, plus an undivided share of the common property, which can include driveways, passages, lifts, courtyards, and shared gardens, as well as the exteriors of all the buildings in the scheme.

However, Schaefer says as an individual owner you are only responsible for the upkeep of the interior of your own section, the common property must be maintained by the collective of all owners in the scheme, which is known as the body corporate - and which is financed by the monthly levies that all owners must pay.

He says this is clearly stipulated in sectional title legislation, so there can be no confusion about it.

The trustees elected by the other members of the body corporate are obliged to plan and budget for large and anticipated maintenance expenses, such as painting the building every eight to ten years, as well as the expected need to replace or service certain equipment such as a gate motor or swimming pool pump.

This type of expense is what the maintenance reserve fund is supposed to cover, and it is supposed to be spent in accordance with a professionally compiled 10-year maintenance plan that is updated and presented at the Annual General Meeting (AGM) every year.

In addition, though, the trustees must try to budget for everyday maintenance tasks such as cleaning and gardening and for running repairs to things like lifts, stairs, pathways, gates and fences, water pumps and outside lights - and given rising costs and the unexpected nature of many of these expenses, body corporate finances are often under strain.

But that does not mean that the trustees can turn maintenance of the common property over to the individual owners. One can only imagine what chaos would ensue if owners were to assume individual responsibility for painting the roof and walls over and around their own sections, for example, or for maintaining their own parts of a common garden, says Schaefer.

For one thing, the scheme would rapidly lose its uniformity of appearance, and it is likely that all units would lose value as a result. In addition, it would be extremely difficult for the trustees to deal with owners who did maintenance less often than others, or those who made a worse job of it than others.

And if they failed in attempts to persuade reluctant owners, for example, the body corporate might possibly have to refund other owners the costs of the work they had done, or have to pay anyway for the less well-maintained portions of the scheme to be brought up to scratch.

It is also likely that disputes between owners and the body corporate over the appearance of the different sections would be rife.

Consequently, Schaefer says sectional title owners and buyers need to accept that ST schemes are communities in which co-operation is a given and there is naturally a joint obligation to repair and maintain the common property, facilitated by the annually-elected trustees.

Having said that, though, owners also have a right to know how their levy contributions are being allocated, and should interrogate the annual budget to see whether sufficient provision has been made for day-to-day maintenance and contingency repairs. The breakdown of the expenses covered by levies must be given in the budget, also presented and approved at the AGM every year.

“An experienced managing agent with extensive budgeting know-how can be of great assistance to the trustees in this regard - and in ensuring efficient levy collection to avoid budget and cash flow shortfalls,” says Schaefer.

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