Property Law - Why Do You Need an Occupancy Certificate Before You Buy?

“…there is no obligation on the [seller] to obtain an occupancy certificate and to furnish it to the [buyers]” (Extract from judgment below)

Imagine this – you buy your dream home, pay for it, take transfer into your name, and move in. But then disaster strikes. The Municipality tells you no occupancy certificate was ever issued for the property and that you must vacate. Now.

Occupancy Certificate and South Africa Building Regulations

Both buyers and sellers should take note of a recent High Court decision highlighting the importance to buyers of getting an occupation certificate from the seller before putting in any offer or insisting on a clause in the sale agreement requiring the seller to produce one before transfer.

What is an occupancy certificate and why is it vital to have one?

It’s confirmation by your local authority that the building complies with the approved building plans and that all other requirements have been met.

Without it, it is unlawful for anyone to occupy the building. You can be ordered to vacate, but that’s not all – other risks include your insurers declining any claims you make, municipal penalties for non-compliance, perhaps threats of a demolition order. You and your family could even be in physical danger if the non-compliance results in electrical hazards, fire risks, structural failure, or the like.

Although the municipality can “grant permission in writing to use the building before the issue of the certificate of occupancy”, that will be a temporary permission only, probably only for a short period and with stringent conditions.

The demolition threat and the court application

  • Having bought a property from the owner/builder’s deceased estate, the buyers took transfer and happily moved in.
  • To their horror, when a municipal building inspector was called in to inspect the building for defects, it came to light that although building plans had been approved 30 years ago, no occupancy certificate had ever been issued.
  • The municipality “suggested” that the buyers vacate immediately and threatened to demolish the building, citing a number of outstanding certificates - completion certificates for the structural and storm water, an electrical compliance certificate, a plumbers’ compliance certificate, a glazing certificate, a gas installation certificate, and a soil poisoning certificate.
  • The buyers demanded that the executor of the deceased estate obtain an occupancy certificate for them, and when she refused, they asked the High Court to order her to do so.
  • The buyers pointed out that, per a standard clause in their sale agreement, the seller was obliged to give them “vacant possession”. That, they argued, meant “lawful possession” requiring the seller to provide them with an occupancy certificate before transfer.
  • The seller (executor) replied that she was not bound by the sale or any other agreement to provide a certificate, that there is no general obligation on a seller to furnish a purchaser of an immovable property with an occupation certificate, that the buyers had been given vacant (“free and undisturbed”) possession, and that anyway the buyers as the new owners should now be the ones to apply for the certificate.

The seller wins, and a warning for buyers

The Court refused to order the seller to provide an occupancy certificate, finding that despite the fact that occupancy of the house was unlawful without the certificate, the buyers had “…clearly received vacant possession. [They] received what they purchased. They had no concerns about what they were purchasing and there is no indication in the papers that they enquired about the occupancy certificate at the time of the sale or prior to taking transfer. They have alternatives available to them … and failed to explain why, as the owner of the property, they have not taken any of the steps available to them.”

In regard to the voetstoots (“sold as is” clause) the Court quoted from a Supreme Court of Appeal decision: “…the absence of the statutory approvals for building alterations, or the other authorisations that render the property compliant with prescribed building standards … does not render the property unfit for the purpose for which it was purchased.”

Perhaps the outcome would be different if a buyer is able to prove that the seller knew of the lack of an occupancy certificate and concealed that, or if a buyer sues for cancellation of the sale agreement or for damages. But that is speculation.

What is clear is this: The occupancy certificate is a vital document and as a buyer you should insist that the seller gives it to you before you make an offer, or that at least a term in the sale agreement obliges the seller to give it to you before transfer.

Provided by Anthony Whatmore & Company

Anthony Whatmore

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The information provided herein should not be used or relied on as 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 professional adviser for specific and detailed advice.

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