Why are estate levies so high?

Living in a housing complex or estate has many advantages such as heightened security and well-maintained public spaces. Communal living comes with a price tag though – namely the levies and taxes that owners pay for the upkeep of their properties. Owners often complain that levies are too high and, in some cases, increases of up to 65% have been reported. So, what is legal and fair? And what can owners do if they feel their levies are excessive?

What do levies cover?

Every owner in an estate or complex must pay a monthly levy to ensure the scheme is run efficiently and benefits everyone. However, homeowners do not always know what their contributions cover. Levies cover everything on what is known as ‘common property’. Anything outside of your unit is part of that common property, unless you have exclusive usage of some part of it, like your garden, says independent real estate professional, Sarel Ueckermann.

This means you pay for everything from water infrastructure and administration to garden services. Security is another major shared expense. Data per unit is another potential cost and homeowners need to take all these charges into account when they purchase a unit in an estate or complex.

Levies are a function of the costs, and the costs are fully mapped out in the budget for the complex, which is tabled at the annual general meeting (AGM),” explains Andrew Schaefer, managing director of Trafalgar Property Management. “Costs are linked to services and maintenance, so if you want levies reduced, look at where costs can be reduced.”

Are levies unfair?

Trustees may request that homeowners pay special levies to cover emergencies or extra work, for example, when a lift in a building needs to be replaced or a swimming pool is resurfaced. Some owners feel that they are being overcharged, however, and may be reluctant to pay these fees over and above their monthly contributions.

Special levies can be raised under certain circumstances, but they can be limited in future, thanks to the Community Schemes Ombud Service Act 9 of 2011 (CSOSA) which says that schemes must setup a reserve fund to ensure there are enough savings to cover emergencies. Unfortunately, it takes time for schemes to build up reserves, which must be equal to the income earned by the scheme in the previous financial year.

If you have a turnover of R1 million, you must have R1 million in your reserve fund, and keep that going,” says Ueckermann. He adds that the act should have been phased in over time to help owners, rather than implemented all at once, which has caused some financial distress to owners.

Controlling costs

Although trustees can approve a special levy regardless of how owners feel about it, there are ways to manage and control the finances of a scheme, says Schaefer. “Owners should always attend AGMs so they can review the budget, make recommendations to reduce costs, and vote on important issues,” he says. “Always insist on obtaining quotes, choose reputable contractors, and consider installing cameras instead of having security personnel patrol the estate.”

According to Lauren Squier, an associate at Schindler’s Attorneys, trustees do not have absolute power: “Members can restrict the trustees’ approving expenses over R50 000 and require that the members approve these at a special general meeting or via round robin (a resolution passed in another format),” she says. “There are ways to limit special levies and control your investment as a member, but it is important to be reasonable in doing so, as restricting the trustees severely will prejudice the running of the scheme.”

If you are buying into a complex, ask your estate agent if you can examine the minutes of AGMs, levy statements, municipal accounts and complex rules, Schaefer advises. This will give you a good idea of whether you can afford to buy into it. “There are free online courses that can walk you through estate living, with moderators who can answer any questions you may have,” Schaefer says. “Do your homework, especially if you’re a first-time homeowner. You don’t want to lose your home because you haven’t factored in all possible costs.”