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Why Buyers Should Ask for Building Plans (and Why Sellers Should Supply Them)

Why Buyers Should Ask for Building Plans (and Why Sellers Should Supply Them)

“No person shall without the prior approval in writing of the local authority in question, erect any building in respect of which plans and specifications are to be drawn and submitted in terms of this Act.” (National Building Regulations and Building Standards Act)

Here’s a nightmare scenario for a buyer – you move into your new dream home, and only then find out that your lovely little office/spare bedroom extension has no approved building plans. The municipality says the seller’s building works were unapproved and unlawful – you must demolish the extension.

How can you guard against that happening to you?

Planning permission is legally required before building

Firstly, local authority planning permission is a legal requirement before any building works, renovations or extensions can take place. You will need to check with your local municipality what its particular requirements are, and what “minor” works are exempt from this requirement in your area. 

Without municipal permission, you have an unlawful structure on your hands – a recipe for disaster.

The problem for a buyer is that, once the transfer is through and you are the registered owner, it is to you as buyer that the municipality will look to obtain any outstanding building authorities and plans, to pay any penalties for non-compliance, and possibly even to demolish the unlawful structures. 

The seller isn’t obliged to supply proof (and plans) to you, unless…

Your risk as buyer is that the seller is only obliged to supply proof of planning permission and approved plans to you if that is specifically required by the sale agreement. Ideally ask for plans before you even put your offer in, otherwise insist on a clear clause in the agreement requiring the seller to produce the plans before transfer. It’s the only way to avoid the risk of having to rectify unlawful structures.

Make sure it is clear that the seller (not you) must get and produce the plans

A 2023 High Court decision addressed a claim by buyers who had at the negotiation stage noticed newly erected buildings in respect of which they were advised that building plans were at the ‘approval stage’ with the municipality. Accordingly, the sale agreement provided that the sale was subject to approval of building plans by the municipality.

What the deed of sale did not specify was who had to get the plan approval – was it the buyer, or the seller?

The Court ultimately declared the seller responsible for obtaining the plans on the basis that by default only a landowner can apply for approval and plans, but that victory for the buyer came only after a hard-fought court battle – avoid all that delay, cost and dispute with an upfront clause clearly putting the obligation on the seller. 

When you have the plans, check them against all structures

Plans in hand, check that all the buildings and structures actually on the property tie in with the municipal approvals and plans. It’s not uncommon to find plans are outdated or inaccurate. Sometimes regulations have changed, sometimes owners chance their luck or have just overlooked the need to keep plans updated as renovations and extensions take place. And whilst the municipality may accept “minor” deviations from plans, you should be sure of what is acceptable and what isn’t before you take transfer. First prize here of course is updated “as-built” plans showing the construction as it exists after completion – you’ll probably need them anyway if you do renovations down the line.

Sellers – why should you have the plans ready to offer them to the buyer?

The other side of the coin of course is that as a seller, even though you aren’t legally required to do so, it makes a lot of sense to have on hand copies of all building approvals and plans before you sell –

  • As a sales tactic you can now reassure prospective buyers that all structures are lawfully constructed.
  • You will avoid delay if the bank granting the buyer a mortgage bond decides it wants copies of plans as part of its approval process. That’s exactly what happened in the High Court case discussed above, delaying transfer substantially.
  • You will also be reassuring yourself that all necessary approvals and plans were in fact obtained at the time of construction. If it turns out for example that you or a previous owner inadvertently dropped the ball in that regard, a disaffected buyer will try to pin all the blame on you. You might even be accused of fraudulently concealing a lack of plans – in which event the standard “voetstoots” (“as is”) clause won’t protect you. There’s no risk of any of that if you have the actual plans on hand from the start.
  • In any event the “Mandatory Disclosure Form” that you must attach to the sale agreement specifically requires you to certify that the necessary consents, permissions and permits were obtained for any additions/improvements etc. Attaching the actual approvals and plans is the best way to cover you in the event of any dispute down the line.

Should you require any further information please contact our team of experts by email info@pgpslaw.co.za 

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