Vacant property is vulnerable property – from the elements, from trespass and from criminal activity. Every location too has its own particular vulnerabilities, but wherever your property is and whether it’s empty in the short or longer term, there are five good reasons for protecting it whilst it’s home alone:
1) Protect against squatters
Squatting is the practice of unlawful occupation of a property or land. Although residential properties are now protected by law, with squatters being successfully prosecuted, fined and even imprisoned, the laws for prosecution and eviction do not yet extend in the same way to commercial premises. This means that although there has been a significant drop in residential properties being used as squats, commercial properties have become a real target and the process for removing these squatters remains long and expensive for commercial premises owners – even without owners being additionally liable for the costs of putting right any damage caused or paying any utility bills run up by the squatters themselves.
Prevention is key to protecting empty properties, as the illegal aspect of all squatting relates to the forced entry, with intent to occupy. By adequately protecting all access points risk of forced entry is significantly reduced. Ideally, security systems should be highly visible and sensory, so that would-be squatters are put off attempting to force entry which would attract attention. Possible security solutions include:
- Intruder and break-in alarms.
- Exterior security lighting and motion-activated lighting.
- Security screening to access points.
- Monitored security cameras – for fast response in the event of attempted unauthorised access.
2) Adverse possession
Adverse possession is the means by which having possession of a property could lead to rights and even ownership of it. Although there are many aspects of common law which have to be satisfied before such ownership (also known as title) might be given to someone who inhabits a property but has not purchased it, the fact that someone in possession of a property may eventually be eligible to take ownership of it through legal recourse is of significant concern to anyone who knows their property is likely to be vacant for a considerable time.
Strategies for securing against adverse possession could include:
- Not exposing the property to temporary, ‘informal’ residents, ie: do not be tempted to allow any persons to stay in the property informally to ‘caretake’. Instead, consider a formal security contract with a reputable company.
- Secure the property with fit-for-purpose screens or grilles and ensure a regular schedule of checking and re-checking.
3) Theft, vandalism and arson
Although incidences of metal theft appear to be falling since the government introduced legislation to tackle this theft and make it more difficult for criminals to sell stolen metal (a decrease of 35% between 2013/2014 and 2014/15 source: ONS), metal theft from property is still one of the main reasons for trespass into an empty property. Thieves specifically break-in to strip the property of valuable metals including:
- copper piping
- lead from roofing
- other valuable metal components from fixtures such as boilers and air conditioning units
Thieves commonly rip out significant areas of the property in order to access the metals, whilst vandals generally cause intentional damage to the fabric of a building – all actions which can cause additional problems by making the property potentially unsafe and extremely costly to repair. For example, by disturbing the fabric of a building which has asbestos as, whilst some types of asbestos do not commonly cause a problem if undisturbed, they can be extremely hazardous and expensive to remedy once exposed. In this way, metal theft or vandalism can be a very particular problem if the property is vacant pending planning applications or renovations and can significantly add to the time and money costs of the overall works.
Repeat crime on the same property is also part of the problem as once thieves are aware of, and target, a vacant property, police are commonly reporting evidence that thieves return after repairs to check if the property is still vacant – and vulnerable – so they can pillage replaced pipes and roofing metal. Steps towards preventing such theft from a vacant property include:
- Disabling all access points with robust security screens.
- Installing an alarm system, including audible warning alarms as appropriate.
- Installing CCTV to help prevent, as well as identify and catch, criminals and vandals.
- Removing surplus or unwanted metal items, such as air conditioning units, prior to securing the property.
Vacant properties are also extremely vulnerable to arson as a deliberate act of fire-setting and from accidental fire damage as a result of trespassers smoking or other conducting anti-social activities such as drug taking. Approximately 60% of all fires happen in empty properties, so it is essential to secure against fire and prevent hefty insurance costs in the event of arson or accidental fire damage. Security options include:
- Securing access points with tamper-proof fixings.
- Installing the best-for-purpose type of security screens, such as Sitex screens. These are arson resistant and also reduce back-draft, minimising risks to the property and to fire services in attendance.
- Installing alarm systems with smoke detection.
4) Weather damage
With Global Warming and unprecedented weather patterns, the UK constantly braces itself for extreme weather – wet, wind, ice and cold or heat across all seasons – and all of these weather conditions can cause damage to a vacant property. For example, extremely cold weather can cause water systems to freeze, causing burst pipes and flooding during a thaw. Key ways to protect an empty property from weather damage include:
- Draining down the plumbing and shutting off the water, to prevent burst pipes.
- Shutting off utilities such as electricity and gas to help prevent additional problems such as fire or gas leaks in the event of flooding, wind damage or lightning strikes.
- Ensuring that the property is in good repair before securing the property with fully galvanised, weather-resistant screens and rust-proof fixings.
- Checking the roof and any flat roofs, to ensure no vulnerable points which would allow external weathering to result in internal damage to the property.
- Clearing out and checking gutters to help prevent leaks which may affect the property’s brickwork and timbers.
- Carrying out a regular schedule of checks on the property, but also include conducting additional checks after any local incidences of extreme weather.
5) Consideration to the community
In contrast to the idea that an empty property may just sit there quietly and unassumingly, a vacant home or empty commercial premises can quickly become a neighbourhood nuisance. Vacant properties which are not adequately secured are a magnet for vandalism, break-ins and anti-social behaviour, much of which can have a negative impact on the local community through noise, behaviour, crime and safety.
Additionally, the theft of metals and telecoms components from a vacant property can even cause disruption and additional expense to neighbouring properties as well as local services. Fire risk to a vacant property could also make neighbours and the entire community additionally vulnerable. As such, property owners have a responsibility to actively try to prevent their empty property from becoming a neighbourhood nuisance, with preventative action such as:
- Maintaining local links, such as being part of the local Neighbourhood Watch, to help keep everyone’s properties safe.
- Securing access points to the property adequately.
- Deploying additional alarms and security systems as appropriate, such as monitored CCTV, alarms and security personnel to make regular checks.
It’s really worth noting that by using such preventative strategies to directly respond to a duty of care to neighbours and the local community, property owners also effectively minimise the risks from those other 4 reasons for protecting vacant property, so everyone – and their property – is protected.