Written for Property Poser

A reader has approached our Property Poser panel about a rental situation that has, quite literally, left her powerless.

She writes that she has been renting a property for the last year or so. After a few months, the owner appointed an agent to handle rental matters, including the payment of municipal accounts.

The reader dutifully began making her monthly payments via the agent. Unfortunately, it now appears that the municipality has cut off the electricity supply due to arrear utility payments.

She cannot get hold of the agent as his offices remain closed and her telephone calls go unanswered.

According to the reader, the property owner’s attitude is that he does not have to fix the problem as he is not responsible for the municipal accounts. He has, in the interim, instructed her to resume paying the monthly rental directly to him as the agent has not handed over the outstanding money.

It has come to the reader’s attention, however, that the owner has still not paid any portion over to the municipality to settle the arrears. She therefore would like to know whether the fact that she remains without electricity is a breach of her lease agreement.

The first issue to clarify is that keeping the municipal accounts up to date is, in fact, the responsibility of the owner, says Charlotte Vermaak from Chas Everitt in Port Elizabeth.

“He is ultimately liable for these accounts and the municipality will take steps against him as owner of the property to recover any outstanding amounts.”

Vermaak says the fact that there is a tenant in occupation will be irrelevant to the municipality, although the owner himself can take steps against the tenant for arrear rental payments, should there be any.

“As far as the reader is concerned, she acted within the terms of the lease agreement by paying the monthly rental to the agent, who acted on behalf of the owner.”

The agent takes on certain of the owner’s rights and obligations by virtue of the agreement between the two parties, says Rian du Toit from DTS Attorneys in PE.

“As such the agent would have been obliged to provide the tenant with regular receipts for the payments made.”

Du Toit says this proof of payment would assist the tenant in showing that she has fulfilled her part of the agreement – to pay the rental and utilities on the property. “The landlord would then have to ensure that the services are restored.”

In terms of the Rental Housing Act, the tenant could refer the dispute to the nearest rental housing tribunal if the landlord does not correct the situation, says Du Toit.

“The landlord could also take separate action against the agent for the non-fulfilment of his duties.”

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