Whether for living in, renting out or refurbishing to sell, buying a vacant property, can be a great investment which also benefits local communities, by bringing empty and possibly even neglected properties back into use. It can also be a convenient way to purchase property without getting caught up in exhaustive property chains or waiting around for vendors to move out.
With the Telegraph reporting that the number of empty properties in the UK has almost doubled in 20 years, and the BBC revealing a sharp increase in vacant homes in the South East particularly, it seems that there may well be plenty of vacant properties to choose from – so how do you go about it?
The professional property market
The UK property market is vast, busy and is a great place to start your search. Make initial contact with property experts local to the area where you want to buy, including:
- Estate agents
Register with local estate agents, with clear information about what you’re looking for and your maximum purchase budget. You can also search proactively by regularly checking online property platforms such as Zoopla and Rightmove. These platforms are great for seeing what’s available and can inform your research and investment potential with recent sales data.
- Property Auctioneers
Property auction houses may be independent or run as part of local estate agencies, so ensure you register your interest, sign up for alerts and check the listing information for upcoming auctions. If there’s no ‘local’ property auctioneer, there will still be a regional one, so check online for their contact details, registration process, and upcoming auction dates.
View as many prospective auction properties as you can, even if you feel the reserve price is a little out of reach. If the property fails to reach the reserve on auction day, the auction house may be able to pass an offer to the owner for you.
Scouting your chosen area for vacant properties is another way of finding out what’s around. If you find what you’re looking for, there are several organisations you can contact to find out more about the property:
- Estate agents: if the property has a board, even a ‘to let’ board, contact the company to express your interest in buying the property.
- Land Registry: for a fee, a land registry search may identify the property’s legal owner.
- Local authority planning office: many vacant properties look neglected because they’re awaiting planning consent, so it’s useful to ask the local planning office if the address has any planning applications in process. The response you get could help you identify if the property is likely to be available to buy or whether it’s just caught in the planning process.
- Local authority housing:
- Some councils sell on their old housing stock, so check with them to see if your identified property is one of those.
- The council’s Empty Property Officer (EPO) is a good contact to have. Their focus is to bring vacant homes back into use and may be able to help direct your search or answer your questions.
- Neighbours: passing your contact details to neighbours to forward to the owners can also be helpful. You could also put a note through the door of the property, in the hope of gaining direct contact with the owner.
It’s worth remembering that data-protection is an important issue, so others may not be able to pass on the owners’ direct contact details. However, they may be in a position to pass on your contact details and expression of interest to the owner, so ensure you have these printed out and to hand as you make your inquiries.
Think plot and premises too
Don’t limit your search to empty residential property, but do also look out for a plot with a property ‘thrown in’, including derelict commercial property. So, as you search the area, estate agent, and online property listings, look out for suitable commercial premises and plots which includes an existing property. Although such properties are often neglected and uninhabitable, they could offer potential for refurbishment, if you can get the plot at a suitable price, and subject to planning consent.
The gov.uk website includes a Council Tax Band Tool which can be useful in helping you to identify a potential plot. All you need is the postcode for your desired area and the tool will identify addresses in the area, along with their council tax banding.
- In most cases, where the property is occupied – even if it’s temporarily empty whilst renovations and refurbishments are going on – it is considered habitable for council tax purposes, so its tax band will show.
- If “deleted” is returned, this tells you the property is indeed likely to be a property now considered derelict and therefore council tax isn’t chargeable.
- Be aware that a “deleted” result may not tell the whole story. For instance, the address could be a probate property which has owners awaiting possession.
This can still be a worthwhile exercise though, as checking out the banding will give you information about potential availability in your chosen areas and could help you find a hidden opportunity.
Find out about funding
When buying a vacant property, cash is your valuable ally:
- As the nation’s favorite Homes Under The Hammer frequently shows, many vacant properties found at auction are unmortgageable, so cash is the only way to secure the purchase.
- If it’s not an auction property, having the cash for the purchase can be an extra bargaining tool.
Most empty properties need some degree of renovation. If you have a relevant network of professionals to do this, then buying an empty property can certainly be viable as refurbishments should increase the property value – so long as you have the funds to do the work.
And because creating habitable accommodation from vacant property is a big issue in the UK, it can be possible to gain financial help through:
- Grants or loans
Introduced in 2011, empty property grants are a government incentive for returning empty properties into use:
- The government issues funds to local authorities;
- Local authorities allocate funds through interest-free loans or grants;
- Funds must be used only to help refurbish a property, according to criteria laid down by individual local authorities;
- Grants may include stipulations relating to what happens to the property once refurbished: often that after renovation, it must be rented to a tenant from the council’s waiting list.
Securing your property
Having successfully secured your purchase and any funding opportunities, you’ll be keen to get working on it. However, decisions, funding and planning applications may take some time and there are many reasons why it’s important to secure the property whilst it remains empty.
Remove all waste from within and around the property. This is particularly relevant if you’ve bought a plot with property or a “deleted” property. These quickly become local fly-tipping zones, which make the property vulnerable to both health hazards and arson.
Boarding up the property is a popular go-to solution for securing vacant property. This is important for safety, security and insurance purposes, but also especially important for vacant commercial properties in the UK, which are at increasing risk of squatters.
- Secure all access points to the property itself – cut-to-fit steel screens are ideal.
- Secure the boundaries, including gateways and driveways – temporary fencing and timber hoarding are recommended.
- Secure against weather damage too by using steel screens for all-weather protection.
- If it’s appropriate, install relevant signage to let everyone know there’s been a change: for the better. This is particularly important if the property has previously been used for anti-social behaviour whilst it’s been vacant, and will certainly be a relief to neighbours.
If you’d like to know more about securing your vacant property, check out our ultimate guide or contact us.