In a much-anticipated Constitutional Court Judgment it has been ruled that new property owners are no
longer expected to take responsibility for settling municipal debt incurred by previous owners of the
The matter stemmed from a litigious battle which challenged the constitutionality of section 118(3) of the
Local Government: Municipal Systems Act.
Section 118(3) followed the archaic notion that services rendered by the municipality on any property
followed the land and not the individual who incurred the debt. This created a significant stumbling block for
new owners of immovable property, particularly first-time home owners.
Conveyancing attorneys – Port Elizabeth
Am I responsible for unpaid municipal debt?
In terms of section 118(3), the Municipality is treated as a preferred creditor, thus compelling the new
owner to settle the outstanding amount before being entitled to take transfer of the property. Arrear
municipal debt is therefore treated as a preferred debt (even over the settlement of a mortgage bond
registered against the property) and a rates clearance certificate may not be issued without these debts
having been settled in full.
While section 118(3) does not specifically call upon a purchaser to settle arrear municipal debt, the
responsibility to deal with the situation usually falls on the party who is in the less favourable bargaining
position. More often than not, that party is the purchaser who in all likelihood has already taken occupation
of the property and is desperate to have transfer effected.
The High Court found section 118(3) constitutionally invalid, to the extent only that it has the effect of
transferring to new or subsequent owner’s municipal debts incurred before transfer. The High Court found
this to be an arbitrary deprivation of property in terms of section 25 of the Constitution. It said that new
owners of property are not liable for municipal debts incurred by previous owners. Therefore, municipalities
may not sell the property in execution to recover the debt or refuse to supply municipal services on account
of outstanding historical debts.
Municipal Rates and Property Transfer Costs
Over and above all the other costs associated with purchasing and selling property, a purchaser was also
expected to first foot the bill for any outstanding municipal account for that property. This arbitrary and
unfair principle acquiring property with existing debt attached to it created a very real injustice.
Having to settle historical debt also presented major delays in the transferring of a property, due to buyers
having to source the often-enormous amounts required to extinguish the debt.
Considering the fact that municipal rates are linked to the value of the property and the area in which it is
situated, new home owners stand to now save substantially. Furthermore, this drastically reduces the
chance of debilitating and unanticipated expenses arising from property transactions.
The Constitutional Court upheld the High Court’s view on the matter. The ruling is certainly welcomed and
comes at a time when even the most astute consumers are struggling to make ends meet and are in
desperate need of any form of financial relief.
The Constitutional Court’s decision will almost certainly encourage young professionals who are looking to
purchase immovable property to reconsider the investment option and may assist in removing the death
sentence “debt” stigma which has deterred so many from taking that massive progressive step of
purchasing their own property.
Whether you are buying or selling property, Greyvensteins Inc. Conveyancing Attorneys will ensure that
you are fully familiar with the transfer process as well as what will be required of you during the process.