Beware restrictions of the National Heritage Act

For some, buying an older home with renovation potential is a cost-effective ticket into an increasingly expensive property market. For others, the chance to return the charming old cottage at the end of the road to its former glory is the realisation of a dream.

But that dream could turn into a nightmare carrying a hefty fine or even jail sentence if you're found guilty of contravening the National Heritage Resources Act ("NHR Act"), warns Mark Beckett, managing director of mortgage originator Bond Choice.

"There are certain restrictions and requirements surrounding the renovation of a property older than 60 years which essentially preclude owners from doing any alterations unless they obtain permission from the relevant provincial authority. Any contravention or failure to comply with regulations could result in a fine of up to R10 000 or imprisonment for up to six months," he said.

Further, said Beckett, a transgressor could end up having to pay a daily fine of up to R50 for the duration of the contravention up to a maximum period of 365 days, which works out to over R18 000. And that's not all. You could find yourself having to make good any alterations or even having to pay the relevant heritage resources authority a sum equivalent to the cost of making good.

In addition to these penalties, he said, an owner convicted of an offence in terms of the Act may be barred from doing any developments on the site for up to 10 years, a restriction that would be binding even on a new owner.

And while many people are under the impression that "alterations" relate only to breaking down walls or building on, in reality the Act is far more restrictive, he added. "It also precludes any action that affects the appearance of a building such as painting, plastering or any other form of decoration."

According to attorney Dana Van Zyl of Smith Tabata Buchanan Boyes, a permit has to be obtained from the relevant authority before a structure of 60 years or older may be altered or demolished. Commenting on the Act, which he says was created to empower civil society to nurture and conserve its heritage resources, Van Zyl said that heritage resources of cultural significance or other special value were considered to be part of the 'national estate'.

"The national estate includes not only places, buildings, structures and equipment but also historical settlements, townscapes, landscapes and natural features of cultural significance, as well as geological, archaeological, palaeontological sites, and graves and burial grounds."

Van Zyl urged prospective buyers of older buildings to familiarise themselves with the age and heritage resource classification of the building as well as any related restrictions that may apply, before putting pen to paper.

Beckett concluded by saying that in light of the possible penalties, it was vital to ensure that you had qualified information on hand and that you received 'best advice' before committing to buying an older property. "Speak to an attorney, mortgage originator or estate agent and have all the "i"s dotted and the "t"s crossed before you make that call."
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