Mould And Damp: Who’s Responsible?

Mould and damp in rental properties are often a source the contention between landlords and tenants. Despite the confusion as to who is responsible for the maintenance and repairs associated with mould and damp, in residential property terms the two issues are not used interchangeably.  In fact, property legislation clearly outlines both the landlord and tenant’s responsibilities in relation to the two.  To avoid further confusion, both issues will be defined with reference to the Rental Housing Act (RHA) and the Etchells & Young lease agreement.


Defining the Terms


Damp is most often caused by a fault in the structure of the building and the direct presence of water, either in the ground, via a leaking pipe or other ingress of water.  It typically occurs on walls, floors, ceilings, roofs, doors and window frames, as well as pipes and plumbing.  It may be penetrating/lateral  (entering through cracks in a wall, a loose roof tile or faulty guttering) or rising (from the ground into walls or floors due to the deterioration [or lack thereof] of the damp proof course).  

Damp causes tell-tale watermarks, for example, the characteristic ‘tide marks’ caused by rising damp, staining, crumbling plaster, peeling/blistering paint, and rotting floor- and skirting boards.



Mould is a fungus that grows best in humid, damp and poorly ventilated spaces without any direct sunlight. Mould in the home is caused by excess humidity and moisture in the air, or a build-up of condensation on surfaces - it needs a water source or constant moisture to grow and survive. It thrives in warm, damp areas and this is why mould is most common in bathrooms.  Condensation forms when warm, humid air (water vapour) comes into contact with a cold surface.  As a result, small water droplets collect on the surface.   The hot water used to shower and bath increases the amount of moisture in the air in the form of steam, which collects on the typically colder surfaces found there – tiles, mirrors and walls.  Mould is also prevalent in kitchens and laundries, particularly behind washing machines and tumble dryers, and around facets and sinks.  Cooking without an extractor, washing and drying clothes indoors, and the use of kerosene heaters also produce excess moisture which can lead to condensation.  Condensation is exacerbated in rooms where ventilation is poor and the temperature inside is higher than the temperature outside. 


Mould can cause long-standing damage to a property.  Moreover, extensive mould can have serious health implications.  The degree to which an individual’s health is adversely affected depends on the type of mould, the amount of mould present, and whether the individual has existing respiratory problems or allergies.    


Defining Who Is Responsible

The Rental Housing Act:

The Rental Housing Act stipulates that the landlord is responsible for providing the tenant with a dwelling place that it both safe and suitable for living.  This refers unambiguously to protection from the elements and other threats to the health of the tenant, their household, or visitors.  The landlord is obliged to maintain the existing structure of the dwelling (which includes the walls, roof, electrical and plumbing systems) and repair damage caused by fair wear and tear, if this damage affects the tenant’s beneficial occupation of the rental premises.  The landlord is, therefore, responsible to rectify rising or penetrating damp because it relates to the existing structure of the dwelling and could pose a health risk to the occupants of the property.  However, the tenant is responsible to notify the landlord of the presence of damp that could cause any damage to the structure of the property as soon as is reasonably possible.  If he/she fails to do so in a timeous manner and allows the problem to persist and worsen, the landlord could hold the tenant liable for the resultant repairs.


The RHA then goes on to state that the tenant is responsible for maintaining the dwelling in a clean, tidy and safe state of repair and should use all electrical, plumbing, sanitary, heating, ventilating, air-conditioning and other facilities and appliances in a responsible manner.  The tenant is liable to maintain, replace or repair fixtures and fittings such as globes, handles, locks etc. before the lease term has ended so as to return the property to the landlord in the same condition as was received.  This means that dealing with the presence and development of mould is the tenant’s responsibility and they must timeously treat and remove any mould that may occur.   


The E&Y Lease Agreement:

Before occupation, both the tenant and the landlord (or agent), must jointly inspect the property to identify any defects that may exist. The lease allows the tenant another 5 business days, following occupation, to notify the landlord of any further defects that that have been identified.  This refers specifically to structural damage and would therefore include any damp issues.

Clause 15 of the E&Y lease agreement echoes the RHA in that it prescribes that the landlord is “responsible to keep in good order and repair, all exterior walls, the roof, plumbing, electrical and other structural parts of the premises and will be responsible to repair any structural damage, except where this damage is caused by the tenant […]”  and that if any of the structures become defective or pose a threat to the safety of the tenant, the tenant is to immediately report these defects to the landlord in writing.  The landlord must repair damages and defects where these affect the tenant’s beneficial occupation of the premises or pose a threat to the tenant’s safety.  “Should the tenant not report the defect or damage [or should the landlord, his agent or maintenance contractor be unable to gain access to the property], then the tenant will be held liable for any resultant damage and all costs incurred by the landlord to carry out such repairs at a later stage”.

Further to this, the lease stipulates that the tenant agrees and undertakes “to maintain the interior of the premises and all improvements, fixtures, fittings and to regularly clean […] and to ensure that the property is in a good, clean, sanitary, and tenantable condition for the currency of the lease […]”.  The lease also states that this specifically includes keeping all walls, ceilings, tiles and grout, as well as the shower enclosures free of mould and any other dirt.


Common causes of Household Mould:

·      Lingering moisture and humidity caused by lack of ventilation.

·      Leaking pipes, taps and toilets.

·      Leaking appliances or connection pipes to appliances such as washing machines, dryers and fridges.

·      Lack of or ineffective regular cleaning routine.


Prevention and Treatment of Mould:

A thorough and regular cleaning routine is essential to detecting and rectifying any underlying sources of mould.  It is important that both the mould and underlying cause are effectively treated and/or repaired to prevent recurrence.

Reducing the amount of moisture in the air is crucial to reducing the presence of mould.  

Simply opening a window while showering/running a bath (or immediately after) or switching on the extractor fan will reduce the amount of moisture and humidity, thereby reducing the amount of condensation that collects on surfaces.

Increase ventilation by opening doors and windows in rooms where humidity is high.

Run a cold shower for 30 seconds after a long, hot shower (especially in the winter).  This quickly and effectively removes steam from the room and will therefore assist in reducing moisture on the walls and ceiling.

Take a cooler/cold shower! Besides being very healthy for you, it will reduce steam and humidity in the room.

Wipe down condensation that has collected on surfaces (walls, window frames, pipes etc.) with an absorbent cloth, ensuring the area is completely dry. 

Regularly wash towels, rugs, mats and curtains in the bathroom – left unwashed for long periods, these are the ideal environments for mould growth.

Treat and kill any mould as soon as it is detected by using reputable products that effectively kill fungi, algae, bacteria and their spores. Once the mould has been treated, a quick spray every few months is an easy and cost effective measure to prevent recurrance.


Here are two examples of products that are readily available from hardware stores or retailers in South Africa:

Genkem Mould Stop removes mould and mildew from a wide range of surfaces – grout, plastered walls, concrete tiles, ceramics, ceilings, roofs, showers, toilets etc. – and is ideal for home use.

TFC Mould Buster is a specially formulated chemical that successfully kills mould and mildew and can be used on any surfaces – both indoor and outdoor. Mould Buster is a highly corrosive chemical and so care should be taken at all times when handling the product - protective clothing and goggles are recommended. Follow the instructions provided by the manufacturer.