Estimates from the Empty Homes Agency suggest there are around 600,000 unoccupied homes in England. It’s also estimated that the vacant commercial property in the UK as a whole would be enough to create a further 420,000 homes.
Properties can be left vacant for various reasons – some are awaiting refurbishment, some struggle to find a tenant and some are left empty so they can increase in value. Regardless of why they are left empty, vacant properties can carry additional risks for property owners, especially if they’re unoccupied for long periods. Some of the main risks are:
- Unlawful occupation (e.g. squatters)
- Theft and criminal damage
- Water damage
The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 makes squatting in a residential property a criminal offence, with a maximum punishment of 51 weeks in prison, a fine of up to £5,000, or both.
Squatting in commercial properties, however, is not a crime and the process of evicting squatters can be very protracted with considerable legal costs. Unlawful occupation therefore represents a potentially expensive problem for commercial property owners.
Theft and criminal damage
Squatters and other trespassers can cause significant damage to the property. Vacant properties are at an increased risk of crime including theft of not only contents, but also fixtures and fittings like pipework and boilers which can be very costly to replace.
Buildings which have been unoccupied for several months without regular inspections and maintenance are at significantly increased risk of water damage, for example from burst pipes or small leaks which go undetected and become more serious.
The Defective Premises Act 1972 and Occupiers Liability Act 1984 place upon property owners a duty of care to protect anybody who enters a vacant property from hazards or defects which could harm them. This includes estate agents, surveyors, emergency services and even trespassers and vandals. If a defect in a vacant building led to an injury or damage to a neighbouring property, the property owner could face a legal claim.
How to mitigate the risks
The first step to reducing these risks is to carry out a thorough risk assessment. This will vary depending on the type of property but should generally cover such things as how easy it is for intruders to gain entry and remain undetected; whether there is anything in the property likely to attract thieves, and how secure these items are; and whether there are any hazards or defects that could create a risk of injury to others.
Security is also important: install good quality locks and burglar alarms and consider mobile security cameras. Owners should ensure a basic level of maintenance for their properties and try to avoid making it seem uncared for or obviously unoccupied, by removing things like fly posters and graffiti.
- If possible, switch off utilities and electric systems to reduce the risk of fire or water damage.
- Drain fuel and water tanks and systems and arrange for periodic inspections to check for signs of intrusion or damage such as water leaks, or potential hazards such as rubble, protruding nails or live wiring.
- Securely close letterboxes, as these are often used by arsonists to set buildings on fire.