The popularity of sectional title properties has increased exponentially in the last few years. Today some 40% of middle class South Africans are living in sectional title units.
“But,” says Rowan Alexander, Director of Alexander Swart Property, “the swing to this type of property ownership has not been without its problems – and one of the main reasons for this”, he says, “is that many sectional title owners are vague and misinformed about where their responsibilities end and those of the body corporate take over”.
“The situation”, he says, “is often exacerbated by the fact that many sectional title owners do not know and do not interact with their body corporate committee members, nor in many cases do they attend annual general meetings”.
“Although the body corporate leaders are usually unit owners themselves, they are sometimes seen as working against the interests of their members, especially when they raise levies,” says Alexander. “This, however, is very seldom the case.”
To understand the situation facing most sectional title owners, it is necessary, says Alexander, to realize that there are three types of sectional title property ownership. These are:
1. Full ownership of a sectional title unit, e.g. an apartment, with the title deeds to the property made out in the name of the owner. The size and shape of the unit will be shown on the outline plans which are part of every sectional title unit sale document and which cannot be altered without the body corporate’s permission. The size of the unit will usually determine how large or small the member’s monthly levy is.
2. An “undivided” share in the scheme’s common property i.e. all parts of the property which are not incorporated in one or other of the units, e.g. passageways, corridors, stairways, parking bays, roads, gardens, playgrounds and swimming pools. All owners have an equal share in these.
3. “Exclusive use” property. Here the property is owned by the body corporate but they confer to one or other member the exclusive right to use this section of the common property. Exclusive use areas can, for example, be parking bays or gardens attached to ground floor units. The user will normally have to pay a special levy for the privilege of being the only person allowed to use this space.
Problems between body corporates and their members often arise because members do not understand where the dividing line between their properties and those of the common property actually is — and this can be especially troublesome when maintenance and repairs are necessary. In most cases, however, the line is the middle of the external walls of the unit.
“In almost all South African schemes,” says Alexander, “the exterior of the unit, both the façades and the walls facing the corridors and passageways, have to be maintained by the body corporate, while the interiors have to be maintained by the owners. The unit’s doors and windows facing outwards are also usually maintained by the body corporate, but any surfaces facing into a unit are the responsibility of the owner.”
When units are closely joined together, as is the case in many medium and high rise schemes, there is always a danger that a mishap in one unit, e.g. a serious water leak, a bursting geyser or a gas explosion, will affect other units.
However body corporates by law have to take out insurance policies to cover all such incidents. In these cases the sectional title unit owner will therefore be protected by the policy but if the problem originates in his unit he will have to pay the excess on the insurance claim. If the problem originates in the common property, e.g. on the roof (as quite frequently happens), the body corporate will be liable for the excess payment.
“In general,” says Alexander, “I would recommend that all body corporate members attend their scheme’s annual general meetings and by regular contact with their committee members learn to understand how such schemes work. In my experience there is always a reluctance to be involved in this way and that is unfortunate.”