Municipalities are obliged to collect charges that are payable to them for property rates and taxes and for the provision of municipal services. If you buy a house, the relevant municipality will – after the Seller has settled the required amount – issue a clearance certificate that certifies, amongst other things, that all debts have been settled in respect thereof for two years preceding the date of application for the certificate. Now the question arises: What about debts owed to the municipality that are older than two years?
The short answer is that of course the person who owned the property at the time the debt was incurred will be liable. Despite this reality, a threat exists to the new owner of the property based on the infamous section 118(3) of the Municipal Systems Act which provides a municipality with a lien over a property within its jurisdiction to secure payment of money due to it on that property.
What this means is that if there are monies owed to the municipality which relates to the property, the municipality can obtain a judgment against the person liable for the debt (remember it will be the person who owned the property at the time the debt was incurred), but because of section 118(3) the municipality will have the right to attach the property and cause it to be sold in execution to recover the money being owed. And this property may just be that dream house that was registered in your name not that long ago.
Our Supreme Court of Appeal ruled that the transfer of ownership does not destroy the lien created by section 118(3) and the lien will in fact “follow the property”. The appalling result of this is that a new owner may be forced to have to save his property by paying the municipal debt of someone else. You can later try and recover the money from a previous owner, but this may be a futile exercise, leaving you even more out of pocket.
A notable exception to the above rule is where properties are purchased at execution sales where the municipality did not exercise its rights in terms of its lien. In such a case, our courts have recently ruled, the lien of a municipality over a property lapses. Accordingly, where a municipality is aware of the sale in execution of a property and it issues a clearance certificate without any objection or without exercising its rights in terms of section 118(3), the purchaser will acquire a clean title over the property.
Not all debt older than two years are recoverable by the municipality and it is necessary to distinguish between the following types of debt: rates charges (taxes) and charges for electricity, water, gas and sewer and refuse charges. The reason for having to differentiate is because certain debts prescribe after three years in terms of the Prescription Act and are no longer enforceable.
Rates and taxes only prescribe after 30 years and electricity, water and gas charges after 3 years. It would seem that, at least at present, sewer and refuse charges also count as ‘rates and taxes’ and will thus only prescribe after 30 years.
If you are a potential buyer your must consult with your attorney who can assist you to include a relevant provision in the Deed of Sale that obliges the Seller to settle all debts due to the relevant municipality, and not just the debt incurred during the two years preceding the date of application for the clearance certificate.
As a Seller you would need to consult with your attorney to discuss any provision in the Deed of Sale which has the effect that you guarantee that all debts due to the municipality are settled.
Also estate agents should take note and ensure that their pro forma contracts cover this scenario and that they inform the parties of the effect of section 118(3) as discussed above.
The liability for old municipal debts against the property is a contentious issue and will evoke strong emotions from Sellers and Buyers alike. It is therefore critical that both parties carefully consider the wording of any Deed of Sale and where necessary discuss the situation with a property specialist before entering into any agreement.