Both sellers and buyers (of anything – houses, cars, you name it) need to understand how the CPA (Consumer Protection Act) has impacted on the very common “voetstoots” (“as is”) clause.
Firstly, what’s the difference
between “patent” and “latent” defects?
Before we get into the meat of this question, let’s understand two important terms –
- “Patent defects” are those that can be easily identified on inspecting the goods – like a broken door, damaged tiles, cracked mirror or windscreen, and so on.
- “Latent defects” on the other hand are hidden or non-obvious. They “would not have been visible or discoverable upon inspection by the ordinary purchaser”. Think for example of seasonal roof leaks, broken underground drains, leaking geysers and the like.
Exactly what is a voetstoots clause?
A general rule in our law is that when you sell something, you give the buyer an “implied warranty” against defects. That can be disastrous for the seller as it allows the buyer, on finding a defect, to claim a price reduction (or sometimes cancellation of the whole sale).
Hence the very common voetstoots or “as is” clause. In effect as seller you are telling the buyer “you agree to take the goods as they are, the risk of defects is on your shoulders, and I give no guarantees”. Note however that a seller cannot always hide behind such a clause – if he/she is aware of a latent defect and deliberately conceals it with the intention to defraud the buyer, all voetstoots protection falls away.
And then along came the CPA
The Consumer Protection Act has been a game changer when it comes to consumer rights. In a nutshell, as a buyer you are entitled to receive goods that are of good quality, “reasonably suitable” for the purposes for which they are generally intended, defect-free, durable and safe.
If anything you buy fails, or turns out to be defective or unsafe –
- You can return the goods to the supplier – without penalty, and at the supplier’s risk and expense – within 6 months of delivery, and
- You can require the supplier to give you a full refund, or to replace the goods, or to repair them. The choice is yours; the supplier cannot dictate your options to you.
But does the CPA apply to all sales?
Here’s the rub for buyers – the CPA applies only when the seller is selling “in the ordinary course of business”, so generally “private sales” will fall outside its ambit.
In other words, if you buy a movable like a car from a trader or dealer, the CPA applies and overrides the voetstoots clause. But if you buy from a private seller, the voetstoots clause applies and you have no CPA protection.
What about property sales?
Developers, builders, investors and the like are clearly bound by the CPA. But for private sellers the position is less clear. Although it seems very likely that one-off private sales of residential property don’t fall under the CPA, there is some suggestion that we won’t be 100% sure on that until either our courts rule definitively on it, or the CPA is amended to provide clarity. On the “better safe than sorry” principle, don’t take any chances – cover yourself as below.
Practical advice for sellers
Cover yourself by disclosing any defects you know of to the buyer, and record any such disclosure/s in a written and signed annexure to the deed of sale. A buyer cannot complain if you have informed him/her of the condition of the goods and they have been bought on that basis.
Then if you are selling in the “ordinary course” of your business, be very aware that the CPA applies to you. Understand its very strict requirements (what is said above is of necessity only a brief overview) and the risks of not complying.
If on the other hand you are a “private seller”, make sure you are covered by a properly-drawn voetstoots clause. On the off-chance its validity is challenged, you can avoid later disputes with a “belt-and-braces” approach – have the goods checked out by an independent expert (like a home inspection service when selling a house) and have your lawyer incorporate that into the sale agreement.
Practical advice for buyers
Don’t risk having to fight in court over whether or not the CPA applies to your purchase, and over whether or not any voestoots clause is valid. Be warned that depriving a private seller of the protection of a voetstoots clause is never going to be easy, particularly since you will need to prove that the seller intended to defraud you by concealing a defect.
Rather be sure of the condition of the goods before you buy. If the seller hasn’t provided you with an expert report as above, commission one yourself.
Note: The Consumer Protection Act (Act 68 of 2008), Regulations, Complaint Forms etc are downloadable from the National Consumer Commission’s website