South Africa has a rich history of historical buildings that hold cultural significance. While the National Heritage Resources Act of 1999 ensures that these buildings are preserved and protected, there are several unique risks that property owners face, especially when it comes to insurance.

This is according to Tarina Vlok, MD of Elite Risk Acceptances, a subsidiary of Old Mutual Insure, who says that there are strict regulations in place that prohibit alterations or demolition of such properties.

“We have so many historic buildings in our country, from Cape Dutch houses in the Winelands that were built hundreds of years ago, to special landmarks such as the Castle of Good Hope, monuments, memorials, and others. Many of these buildings are at risk due to their age, which means they need to be treated differently to modern buildings at all stages – from maintenance right through to refurbishments,” says Vlok.

Recently historic buildings in Simon’s Town came under the spotlight as being at risk for loss due to decay and neglect, such as Palace Barracks. Some of these buildings were either damaged or suffered from the collapse of some of their structures.

Heritage buildings on wine farms have also been damaged not only due to age but also because of fires or floods. In 2019 the historic Non Pareille farmhouse – dating back to 1826 – burnt to the ground, despite the restoration of the building well on the way.

The iconic Cape Town Mostert’s Mill, over 200 years old, was destroyed in a raging fire in 2021 and is currently in the process of being restored. According to reports, the undertaking of the restoration was a highly specialised event, as skilled craftsmen were contracted to do most of the work. Milling experts from the Netherlands were consulted and the sail cloths and refurbished mill stones were imported from there.

According to Vlok, reinstating a heritage property is often much more expensive and takes longer to complete than a modern building.

“This is because old materials need to breathe and move according to external forces like moisture and temperature change. All repairs need to respect the materials, and insurers and their service providers must ensure that the correct matching and traditional materials are used.”

She adds that for homeowners, often new materials do not match the original proportions and could destroy the character of the home.

“In addition, there is always the possibility that building regulations have changed and that the insurer will have to ensure compliance with modern building regulations, whilst still maintaining the original integrity of the heritage home,” says Vlok.

If homeowners undertake a refurbishment, she says they should engage with their local heritage officials to correctly document the property.

“Get original plans and period photographs where possible. It’s also important to select an insurer with the necessary knowledge about the reinstatement of historic properties and who has a panel of service providers with the skill to repair the property within the heritage authorities’ guidelines.”

Another element that is often overlooked for the preservation of heritage properties, is maintenance.

“Ensure that gutters and down-pipes are clear and not leaking, keep joinery and masonry well-painted with breathable paint, ensure that windows are correctly sealed, treat areas of rust with rust inhibitor, ensure water drains away from the property, and keep invasive roots away from the property. It’s also important to ensure that air vents are unblocked and that there is a free flow of air under the floors.”

She says a well-maintained heritage property that has withstood the elements for more than 60 years does not introduce an increased risk for insurers.

“However, the elevated cost of reinstatement and the expected delays in finalising the reinstatement may add to the cost of insuring a heritage property. Insurers take into consideration many factors when pricing risks, including location and a client’s risk profile.

“It is worthwhile to remember that owning and keeping a heritage property in pristine condition, can not only be a source of pride to the owner but also contribute to the national treasure of South Africa,” concludes Vlok.