Seasons change and if your property or premises has become vacant during the year there are four further aspects of security to consider through the dark days, early nights and extreme weather of winter.
1) Weather damage
Weather damage isn’t just limited to external areas of the property as water or ice damage following a storm can quickly affect internal areas too. Common problems during the winter season, which can result in both internal as well as external damage, include: collapsed chimneys; tiles lifting in extreme winds; snow on the roof; penetration of wet through weathered pointing or rendering; burst pipes as a result of frozen pipes thawing out.
Whilst many of these problems are not necessarily expensive to fix straightaway, complications arise for empty properties because often the damage is not discovered immediately but sometimes not until a considerable time after the event. By then, repairs could potentially run into thousands. Fortunately though, although you can’t prevent wild weather from hitting, you could reduce the overall chance of it extensively damage to your empty property by:
- Turning off utilities.
- Turning off water and draining the system down.
- Checking and securing all access points.
- Checking roof and chimney and clearing gutters. Ensure that any repairs are carried out to help prevent weathering and water damage.
- If there is a significant storm, freeze and / or snowfall, check the property as soon as possible afterwards to prevent ice damage externally – roof, gutters and shingles and internally – pipes, brickwork and points of entry.
2) Mould Growth
Mould can occur when a property has been closed up even for a short time and is usually caused by humidity and lack of ventilation. The spread of mould can particularly be a problem when a property is only temporarily vacant, a reason why it’s a particular problem in holiday homes and static caravans which are closed up off-season.
Mould growth isn’t just an unsightly nuisance, it can also be a significant health risk. Aspergillus fungus is a major component of mould found in damp patches and particularly in mildew, something commonly seen in properties which have been closed up or exposed to damp over a long period of time. This type of mould has a Category 1 health risk classification, which is the same as the risk from asbestos.
To prevent mould growth inside the property:
- Remove as many textiles as possible from the property as these can literally soak up and retain moisture like a sponge, becoming mouldy and odorous over time. For example, exchange curtains for wooden blinds or swap textile window coverings for wooden or steel shutters, as an effective deterrent against both damp mould and the possibility of opportunistic criminals, trespassers or vandals.Often security shutters can be installed without affecting the window frames, so can easily be removed and textiles restored once the property is in use again.
- Allow adequate ventilation, even though the property is closed up. Steps to retain ventilation include:
- Allowing a good flow of air to cirullate around the property by ensuring air bricks are not covered or blocked up.
- Pulling any furniture out of corners so that air can circulate behind. Additionally, open doors to built-in cupboards and dressers – particularly those which abut external walls, as external corners can be particularly prone to mould. Keeping cupboard doors open allows air to circulate, helping to remove any moisture seeping through the brickwork, reducing mould growth.
- Visit the property regularly to open doors and windows and air things out (on dry days, ideally)!
- Consider Sitex security screens which allow air flow to be maintained even if the property is closed up.
- If a property is just temporarily vacant for a short time, it’s worth considering whether to keep the heating on a timer, to allow warmth to help keep the house dry. If utilities are all shut off and heating will not be in use, then keeping the inside dry (through good maintenance) and ensuring ventilation is the best course of action to prevent mould growth.
3) Pest infestations
Pests have been around for centuries, but winter especially sees properties vulnerable as pests such as rats heading for the warmth of a nest – something they can easily establish in a property which is empty. Even UK winters are cold enough to cause rats to look for shelter, particularly when a cold one is predicted (The Sun, 2016).
As well as the threat of infestation and potential disease, as rats tend to nest on a come-one, come-all basis, rats can also cause considerable damage to properties, notably by gnawing through timbers and electric cables. Ways to prevent rodent pests such as rats, mice and squirrels from invading include:
- Checking air bricks – although these must be clear to allow ventilation, broken ones which reveal large gaps should be repaired, to prevent rodents accessing through the gaps.
- Removing baseboards from the bottom of fitted units, to reduce hiding and nesting places.
- Clearing all internal and external rubbish from the property, as rubbish encourages rodents.
- Checking the property from top to bottom – including loft, basement and understairs cupboards, removing all rubbish and filling potential pest access routes.
4) Crime in winter time
Vacant properties are also particularly vulnerable to crime at any time of year. However, recent research by Co-op Insurance suggests that during the winter there is a clear statistical increase in property-related crime – as much as 36% more once the clocks go back in October.
It seems that the cover of darkness makes it much easier for burglars and opportunist criminals to identify if properties are occupied or not, especially as lights going on earlier in the evening makes this easier for them. To protect vacant properties against this increased risk of crime, it is advisable to:
- Install motion-sensor lighting outside, at both the front and back of the property, to help deter and reveal intruders, especially as the Co-op report also revealed that 27% of reformed burglars acknowledged they are deterred from homes with these installed.
- If the property is vacant for just a short time and utilities remain switched on, install timer switches on lighting, so that someone appears to be home. Similarly, if the property has a driveway, allow a neighbour to use it, again to give the appearance of domestic routines and the property being in regular use.
- If the property is long-term vacant, ensure a good system of window and door locks and secure access points with adequate screens, to prevent criminals looking in and breaking in.
- Install monitored CCTV systems as appropriate.
- For properties vacant between tenants or owners, do not have a To Let or For Sale sign outside the property – this can be a magnet to criminals and squatters.
- For commercial premises, ensure that all boundary access points are fully secured with fencing and that access points on the premises itself is fully secured with professional screening, along with CCTV which includes ‘night vision’, alarms and/or regular security. Regular monitoring is essential as since the law on squatting changed, vacant commercial properties are additionally vulnerable to break-ins and trespassers intent on squatting in the premises.
Finally, if your property is empty, winter is also a time to keep a weather eye on your insurance. Although full buildings and contents insurance is a must for property, in many cases a claim for damage caused by winter issues will only be upheld if the vacant property itself has been well maintained and secured and if the insurer has been informed that the property will be vacant. By informing the insurer and taking all reasonable steps in maintaining and securing your vacant property not only minimises the risk of problems but maximises the chance of insurance company support in the event of a crisis.