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Heritage Homes In South Africa - What You Need To Know


Heritage Homes In South Africa - What You Need To Know

In South Africa, all structures over 60 years old, including fixtures and fittings, as well as any buildings or sites recognized as heritage sites by Provincial Heritage Resources Authority-Grade (PHRA-G), are protected by the National Heritage Resources Act, 25 of 1999. 

Buying a heritage property offers you and your family a unique opportunity to own a piece of history and to become a part of that legacy.

Heritage homes tend to have charming and hard to replicate design features. They also have a timeless appeal about them and quite often have not only been built on prime locations but are also larger than modern homes with much more spacious rooms and high ceilings.  It very often offers expensive finishes such as sought-after hardwood flooring and fireplaces with marble finishes. These homes, if properly maintained, can be outstanding investments and its desirability and value typically appreciate very well.

Buyers however should be fully aware of all the responsibilities and potential challenges before purchasing such properties and doing a professional home inspection is recommended. It is often assumed that heritage properties cannot be changed at all. Work on heritage properties is encouraged to ensure it is properly maintained and modernised.

For some buyers, purchasing a home is not only about finding a place to live. They are looking for homes that is different from the typical homes in the area and homes that can tell a story, structures rich in character and quirks that many newly built properties lack. It is normally very discerning buyers who can see the diamonds in the rough and love taking on the challenge of restoring old wood, replacing old electrical systems, and repainting in original or period accurate colours.

Knowing what aspects of the original building are important to maintain its character is very important - making it imperative to buyers to understand how the house can be renovated, the design and what building materials can be used.  Maintenance is often a concern for heritage buyers - not just because older homes can sometimes require more care than their modern counterparts, but also because their construction methods are often a little different.

1. Is Your Home or the Home You Intend Buying a Heritage Building in South Africa?

If so, here's what you need to know.

1.1 What does PHRA-G govern?

Under the provisions of this legislation, any building or site recognized as a heritage site by PHRA-G or any building aged 60 years or older can only be modified or demolished once a permit is obtained from PHRA-G.

The term "PHRA-G approval" stands for Provincial Heritage Resources Authority-Grade approval. It is a process related to the protection and management of heritage resources in South Africa. The South African Heritage Resources Agency (SAHRA) is responsible for overseeing the protection and management of heritage resources at the national level. However, provinces in South Africa also have their own Provincial Heritage Resources Authorities (PHRAs) that play a role in heritage management.

1.2 How can permission be obtained from PHRA-G?

There are specific requirements and procedures to follow when applying for these permits. Failure to comply with these requirements may cause unnecessary delays or even a complete halt to the proposed construction, alteration, or demolition. The application process involves using prescribed forms and submitting the required supporting documents as specified on the application form, which can be obtained from PHRA-G's official website. Further details regarding this process are provided below.

1.3 Who makes the decisions about approvals at PHRA-G?

All applications are reviewed and decided upon by the Heritage Council of PHRA-G based on their merits. Depending on the workload, applicants may experience a waiting period of two months or more, although generally applications are processed within a two-month timeframe. The Heritage Council convenes approximately once a month to review and discuss twelve to twenty applications at a time, depending on their complexity. The Heritage Council possesses the authority to approve, approve with conditions, or deny any application received.

1.4 Can decisions made by PHRA-G be challenged?

Decisions made by the Heritage Council can be challenged through two avenues. Firstly, in accordance with the Act, there is a right to appeal a decision directly to the Heritage Council itself. Secondly, an appeal can be made under the Promotion of Administrative Justice Act 3 of 2000 ('PAJA'), in which case the appeal is directed to a judge of the High Court. The first type of appeal, conducted under the Act, can be handled by the applicant without legal representation. However, the second type requires involvement of a legal professional as it must be brought before the High Court. If the appellant remains unsatisfied after pursuing the 'internal appeal' to the Heritage Council as provided by the Act, or if this opportunity is denied, they can seek recourse through the High Court, requesting an order to set aside, modify, substitute, or remit the decision for re-consideration by PHRA-G.

1.5 Consequences of failing to seek approval before commencing work.

Failure to obtain the necessary approvals prior to starting construction, demolition, or alteration on a heritage site can result in the Heritage Council refusing to grant the relevant permission or imposing conditions on the approval. In certain cases, non-compliance with the Act's provisions may lead to criminal charges, potentially resulting in fines or even imprisonment. Moreover, PHRA-G is empowered to conduct investigations, request documents or information, and may even seek court intervention to halt unapproved activities. Such circumstances can cause substantial delays, spanning several months, and could potentially result in a complete denial of approval. This, in turn, would lead to a permanent suspension of the project, unless the decision to refuse approval is successfully overturned on appeal. Financial repercussions can be severe for property owners or developers, especially when significant holding costs are incurred for undeveloped properties. Furthermore, property professionals may face claims for damages if they were aware of the need for approval but failed to act, resulting in financial losses for their clients.

1.6 Obtaining approval after work has begun.

Although PHRA-G has the authority to grant retrospective approval, the Heritage Council takes a serious stance on those who commence work without prior approval. It can be exceedingly challenging to obtain retrospective approval in certain cases, and in others, it may be entirely denied. Therefore, it is crucial to seek and obtain the necessary permit before initiating any work to avoid costly delays incurred when PHRA-G orders work to be halted.

2. National Heritage Resources Act

Heritage legislation and processes may vary between provinces in South Africa. Therefore, it is advisable to consult the specific guidelines and requirements of the relevant Provincial Heritage Resources Authority in the province where the heritage resource is located.

The extent of the protections in terms of the National Heritage Resources Act varies depending on a property's heritage grading - something all prospective buyers should investigate before buying the property.

There are three heritage grades that can be assigned to a heritage property.

  • Grade I apply to heritage resources of national significance.
  • Grade II to heritage resources of regional significance, and
  • Grade III - broken into IIIA, IIIB and IIIC - to resources that may or may not have strong historic significance on their own but have contextual significance as part of an area or neighbourhood.

The lower the grade, the tighter the regulations, with most heritage properties on the market in South Africa falling into Grades II and III. Just because a property is regulated, however, does not mean its owners will need to bend over backwards to give their home a fresh coat of paint, or install a few discreet solar panels.

The entire purpose of heritage regulations is to preserve historic properties for future generations which means there is no benefit in preventing owners from doing the necessary maintenance or improvements to keep them in good, liveable condition.

In most cases - if alterations do not detract from the historical importance of a property or that of its neighbours - it is not too difficult to get the necessary approvals.

3. Which historic home features are the most desired?

The features which continue to stand the test of time and taste are:

3.1 Authentic architectural details

A desire for uniqueness is driving a rising demand for historic homes due to the character and craftsmanship that historical properties exude. These buyers want a home that expresses their one-of-a-kind personality and preferences.

Buyers of historic homes appreciate things like the intricate millwork (i.e., custom woodwork such as doors, sash windows and trim), parquet or inlaid wood flooring, custom stained glass, and fireplaces with elaborate mantels and or marble finishes.

But just as each historic property is a unique artifact of a different time, each homebuyer has their own criteria that informs their search. It really does depend on each buyer's preference. It could be based on the style of historic architecture - for example, a Cape Dutch home with yellow wood trusses in the roof or a Victorian style townhouse with vintage pressed ceilings. The original features and architecture of the property provide the character and should be accentuated as much as possible to show off the home's history.

3.2 Property with a captivating story or compelling origin

Homes with a captivating story due to the personalities who have lived there or due to the way the original or previous owners designed or used it, will always provide talking points, and creates value. You cannot put a price on a great story. A rich past is an excellent advertising feature, should the owner ever wish to sell the property or want to use the property as a guesthouse or provide an Airbnb service. Homes with storied pasts are often situated in storied places, which means many historic properties are in prime locations.

3.3 Classic exterior design & modern interior conveniences

Historic homes can feature modern interior conveniences - if the exterior integrity and historical significance of the home is protected, buyers will be allowed to update the interior to today's standards. While historic homes buyers appreciate historic charm, they also want modern conveniences, an updated kitchen and energy efficiency - essentially the ability to blend these modern comforts together while preserving design.

3.4 Proximity to urban centres

Luxury properties are often situated in neighbourhoods far away from the city's center, necessitating longer commutes, and less direct access to the vibrancy and convenience metropolitan living can provide. That is usually not the case with a lot of the historic properties. Many buyers want to be closer to the center of town and sacrifice a larger erf and modern home for more convenience. One result of the urbanization movement is the rehabilitation of older and historic homes because of their proximity to the urban center.

4. Heritage Resources Authorities in your area:

South Africa:

Eastern Cape:

Free State:


KwaZulu Natal:



Northern Cape:

North West:

Western Cape:

Author Cor van Deventer (Van Deventer & Van Deventer Attorneys) / Blue Design Architectural Designers / Pri
Published 10 Nov 2023 / Views -
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