IT STARTED off like a normal house rental arrangement.
My tenants moved out of my house in Harare in March 2021, so I reached out to a veteran estate agent who quickly found an organisation that wanted the house for a couple who had been stationed outside Zimbabwe.
I got the number for the new tenant, someone called Ethel and we exchanged messages where she outlined their requirements while the house was painted and readied for them to move it.
The rent came in on time, so everybody was happy.
Then Ethel started asking for money for small repairs.
It sounded reasonable so I made sure she got the money but on one occasion I called her to clarify something, and she said she would ask ‘the people staying in the house.’
I told her I thought she was the tenant and she said she worked ‘in the office’ but there was an older couple working for that her organisation who were staying in the house.
It sounded plausible because I have been an expatriate myself where my company paid my rent.
The trouble started in January when Ethel asked for US$65 to fix a plumbing issue and I agreed then she immediately asked for US$180 for some other thing.
I said to her that I needed quotations before I approved any maintenance work above US$100.
She didnot respond but when the rent came in, it was short by US$669.
I called Ethel and she acted flustered, saying that she thought she had sent me the quotations but somehow WhatsApp didnot send the message.
I insisted on seeing the invoices and she sent one for US$450 and later when I called the company, they said that they did not know anything about it.
I was coming to Harare in February so I asked Ethel for the phone numbers of the people occupying my house so I could do the annual inspection.
Ethel said the tenant was very sick and could not disturbed.
That did not sit well with me, so I pushed her until I got the number.
The tenant was rude when I messaged him, but I politely made plans to view the house on February 18.
After landing in Harare on February 17 and checking into a fabulous Club Room at the Meikles Hotel, where standards are still world-class, I called Ethel the following morning and set up an appointment to meet at the house.
She arrived at the house walking on foot but there was an old car inside the yard whose owner was unclear.
Ethel was younger than I expected, there was no air of professionalism, and all her stories did not add up.
She said that the tenants were out, so the house helper showed me around and strangely, the bedroom suite was locked.
My sixth sense told me there was someone behind that door.
Ethel continued being rude trying to justify the money that she took so I left.
Less than an hour later she called saying that the tenants were back and wanted to meet me.
I went back to meet the couple and they pointed out three issues they wanted to be attended to.
I told them to communicate with me directly in future and asked Ethel for the number of the administrator for the organisation.
Later I found out that Ethel gave me a wrong number then when I returned to Washington the following week, I asked the tenant for the correct number and he duly obliged.
I called the administrator to ask him why he had given Ethel US$669 and he said that she had told him that she was an agent and had been given authorisation to take money for repairs to the house.
I said Ethel was their staff member and they said no, Ethel did not work for their organisation.
I tried calling Ethel to ask her who gave her permission to act as my agent, but she was just crying and apologising.
She said she was an estate agent for an estate agent (name provided).
I then went back to my estate agent to find out exactly how Ethel had got involved with my house for the past year.
The story was that after I gave my estate agent the mandate, she listed the house online and Ethel responded saying she was looking for a house for the returning officials of this organisation who had been posted to a neighbouring African country and were currently staying in a hotel.
She brought the couple to view the house and meet with my estate agent, saying that she also worked for the organisation.
They requested for the interior of the house to be painted and renovations, they moved into the house.
I did not even know Ethel’s surname but after some research I found a Facebook page for Ethel, a property consultant with certain real estate company.
I just qualified as an estate agent in Washington DC myself so reported the matter to the Estate Agent’s Council (EAC) of Zimbabwe to make sure Ethel did not defraud anyone else.
According to EAC, the real estate company changed their name and they parted ways with Ethel a long time ago.
However, the company is still active on Facebook.
All of this is confusing and underlines the fact that people in the Diaspora are always being cheated in their real estate in Zimbabwe.
When you are an absent landlord or not present to do the due diligence on your property, it is only a matter of time before someone tries to rip you off.
There are so many stories of Zimbabweans in the Diaspora buying land or a house while abroad, only to come home and find out the title deeds were fraudulent.
It is everybody’s dream to retire in their home country so almost everyone in the Diaspora wants to or already owns property back home.
But everyone is getting their fingers burnt and losing that desire of buying in Zimbabwe.
Up until recently a friend of mine who works for the United Nationswas looking for land in Zimbabwe, but she is now talking about buying an apartment in Florida instead.
Zimbabwe is not unique to have this problem and if you listed to other African Diaspora on the Clubhouse app complaining about being ripped off in Africa, you know the problem is spread out across the continent.
In the US so many people were getting scammed buying land for retirement homes in Florida that the government came up with the Interstate Land Sales Full Disclosure Act to legislate extensive disclosure when buying land in other states.
Ghana is the one country in Africa that is very serious attracting about Diaspora investments,but the country is notorious for fraudulent real estate deals, so they have come up with laws to address protection of land title and prevent fraud in the purchase of real estate.
A country’s Diaspora are the biggest foreign investors so need to be protected in order to keep bringing their money.
The construction industry is fraught with swindlers as well.
I am dealing with contractors in South Africa who should have finished renovating my house by the time I arrived last month but even by the time I returned.
Estate agents in South Africa tend to be unscrupulous and all my problems with tenants there came from the fact that agents will accept any tenants, just to earn a finder’s fee, and they are long gone by the time the tenants start giving problems.
At one point, Nigerians and other investors were pouring into the South African market but now they are bailing out.
I would exit that market too, but there are few buyers these days.
The challenges of service delivery in South Africa are real.
For a long time, I have been trying to tell City of Johannesburg that they have the wrong meter number on my water bill which they transposed with my neighbour’s, while my neighbour has never paid a water bill.
When I tried to remedy the issue, my neighbour simply filed the number off his meter and continues to enjoy free water while I get letters threatening to cut me off.
South Africa is a mess with its power cuts, rising xenophobia and activist tendencies.
When I was watching the local news in my hotel in Sandton, I thought I was in the United States listening to rants about ‘foreigners taking our jobs.’
At one point I planned to retire in South Africa but the mood there is no longer friendly to foreigners.
Africans like me are learning that their future lies in the Diaspora, so they had better make the most of it.
Visiting Africa is lovely, and it will always be a preferred holiday destination because we have ties there.
But people in Africa view the Diaspora as an opportunity to make quick money.
We work hard for our money out here and it hurts to be conned when invest in Africa!
- Peters is a real estate agent in Washington DC, real estate investor and the founder of Nyasha Africa, www.nyashaafrica.org, an NGO helping doctors in Africa. She is a former real estate fund manager and finance specialist who has worked in Nigeria and South Africa. She holds degrees in pharmacy and business.