Secure your vacant property or risk losing it: the threat of adverse possession

In the UK, while residential squatting was made illegal in 2012, ‘adverse possession’ is still a serious threat for property owners with long-term vacant dwellings. Premises managers need to carefully consider their vacant property solutions or risk the consequences.

Under UK law, if a trespasser can prove to have adverse possession of a property for more than ten years, they can apply to the Registrar to become the new registered owner. In some instances, this means that if someone breaks into a home and lives there for ten years, they get the house for free and the original owner is left with nothing.

In 2015, the Land Registry looked at around 700 adverse possession claims, and despite criticism from legal professionals, no plans have been announced to review the law. However, vacant property management experts such as Orbis can provide a professional security and management solution to protect empty buildings. Steel and polymer screens, access control systems, CCTV and alarms will prevent trespassers from gaining entry to a property, making it impossible for them to claim residence.

Some critics may argue that if a property is left vacant for ten years, it should be put to better use. However, in previous adverse possession cases, it has been suggested that occupiers falsely claimed to have taken up residence years earlier than they actually did. Additionally, these homes do not end up becoming available to the homeless, providing much-needed shelter, but often join a portfolio of properties claimed by the occupier.

Neighbours to one such case claim to have only seen the occupier at the home for about three years before he applied successfully to become the new owner. In this case, the Registrar was ordered to pay the occupier’s legal team £265,000, which was funded by the tax payer.

Is using vacant property to house the homeless really a win-win scenario?

Following the tragic deaths of two homeless people on the streets, the Milton Keynes (MK) People’s Assembly has taken action to campaign for the government to give the council powers and funds to tackle homelessness and the housing crisis. But their solution is not without its own pitfalls and dangers.

The MK People’s Assembly put in a Freedom of Information requested for a list of all long-term empty properties in the area, which is now available on their website. The list revealed almost 500 properties have been empty for more than 12 months, including properties the council is liable for.

Sean Perry, a People’s Assembly spokesperson said: “Despite the council publicly showing sympathy towards homeless people and a willingness to help, the answer to the homelessness crisis in Milton Keynes has been right under their noses.”

However, the answer to homelessness and vacant housing is not so clear cut warns Guy Other, CEO of Orbis: “While using empty property to house homeless people sounds like a win-win scenario, some of these buildings will be long term empty for a good reason.”

It may be that premises are empty as they are unsafe and need major redevelopment before people can live in them; in which case, it can be cheaper to build new housing. Void property needs to be maintained and secured to a high standard to ensure that they remain safe and fit for purpose, otherwise they reach a state that becomes too costly to invest in.

There is also a risk in inviting people to live temporarily in a void property. If someone is injured on the premises the owner can be liable, and even temporary residents may gain some rights in regards to the property.

Perry added: “Public concern, already at a high level due to the clear increase of visible homeless people, has turned towards outrage that such tragic loss of life is possible in one of the richest nations on the planet.” Evidently, new solutions are needed but we must be wary of rushing into what could be a potentially negative situation.

Fake workmen turn hotel into drug den

Terrace Guest House in Royal Terrace, which overlooks Adventure Island, Southend-on-Sea, is now believed to house up to 30 people who moved in after squatters allegedly posed as workmen and took over the building. Now neighbours are concerned that the vacant hotel has been turned into a drug den.

There are many stories of squatters taking over and moving large groups into vacant properties, such as our earlier hot topic on the Royal Mint, but it is an even greater concern when criminals start to operate their illegal activity from the premises. There is an increased risk of vandalism and arson, as well as potential damage to the owner’s reputation.

The squatters claim to have a legal right to dwell in the property as it’s a non-residential building and so isn’t protected by section 144 of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act. This is why Orbis urges property owners and managers to consider the need for a professional vacant property management expert. Sites can be assessed and fitted with a bespoke solution to property against intruders and would be squatters.

Residents and reporters from the local paper have witnessed people waiting across the road from the hotel and signalling to an upper window, before being allowed into the property and then leaving hours later looking ‘bleary-eyed’. Unfortunately, the police won’t intervene as squatting is a civil matter and the leaseholders will have to seek an interim possession order.

However, this will take time and in the meantime the property could be getting damaged, the owner’s reputation may be suffering and repair costs will be mounting. Ideally, properties need to be professionally secured to prevent illegal entry from ever happening, thus avoiding the cost and stress caused.

Commercial property owners to pay service charges on empty buildings in Scotland

The Scottish Government has announced that empty commercial property owners will have to pay water service charges from the 1 April 2017. Previously, void building owners received a 100 per cent relief from payment, but this will now only apply for the first three months, at which point the owner will only receive a 10 per cent relief.

“The introduction of these charges is on the basis that vacant properties benefit from water and sewerage services and should therefore pay for them,” said Environment Secretary Roseanna Cunningham. “It is expected to generate some £15m a year additional wholesale revenue for Scottish Water, allowing business charges to be frozen.”

This decision may discourage building owners from leaving any of their portfolio long term void. It seems to fit with efforts in Scotland to reduce vacant property, in line with work by organisations like the Scottish Empty Housing Partnership, who are targeting the residential vacant property sector.

With the increased efforts in Scotland to reduce void premises, we’re encouraging property owners and managers to consider the vacant property management solutions they have currently implemented, and to evaluate whether it is suitable and efficient to protect their long term investment. A professional service can offer a bespoke solution, using a range of methods such as steel or polymer doors and screens, CCTV, alarms, and access management systems, to ensure vacant properties are secured from vandalism, arson and squatting. This will make the renovation and return to use process much easier and cheaper for the building owner or manager.

However, the decision to reduce the water services relief has received some criticism and has even been seen as an attack on businesses. Murdo Fraser, Scottish Conservative finance spokesman, said: “We should be supporting firms at this tricky time, not penalising them further.” He also added that: “The Scottish government may say it is ‘generating’ the extra money, but in truth it’s simply another tax raid.”

Regardless of the political agenda behind the tax, managers and owners should ensure that they are protecting their investment by protecting the longevity of their building assets.

Void property rejuvenation project receives ‘Best’ praise

A partnership project, undertaken between the city council and a number of community groups, to revive vacant residencies was deemed an example of good practice last month by Lord Best, chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on housing. However, Orbis is concerned that property owners and managers may be too lax when it comes to investing in the long and short term prospects for their portfolios.

The government funded project saw a range of work completed on nearly 600 empty homes, including the refurbishment of 100 year old privately owned terraces and the conversion of an 18th century property into council flats.

While this demonstrates that more effort is being made to bring vacant buildings back into use, and we are seeing an increase in these sorts of projects, more can be done to support them, starting with the property owners and managers. Buildings that have been vacant and out of use, even for short periods of time, should be maintained and managed to a professional standard using bespoke solutions, like those offered by Orbis. As a result, less capital will be required to regenerate or redevelop the property, allowing funding to be more easily secured and spread further.

“I was very pleased to welcome Lord Best and members of the all-party group to meet the Hull empty homes partnership and see what we have achieved through the strength of this very special local partnership,” commented City councillor John Black, cabinet member for housing.

He went on to say that the partnership; “increases the supply of quality housing in the city and improves neighbourhoods through the reduction of empty homes. Additionally, the partnership creates employment, apprenticeships and training opportunities with many partners providing placements for specific groups including people who are long-term unemployed and those who have recently left prison.”

Orbis Announce New Monitoring Services Director

Orbis are very pleased to welcome Shaun Wilcock who has joined Orbis in the role of Monitoring Services Director. Shaun has 15 years’ experience in leading technology businesses within both IT and security markets. He previously held positions including CTO at Teledata and Head of Technology at Reliance.

Shaun’s appointment to Orbis brings on board a wealth of experience in delivering projects including the NHS Lone Worker Framework, Safe Estates Void Property Monitoring, ISO27001 Information Security Management Accreditation and overall IT integration and automation.

Shaun has successfully grown two BS5979 Cat II security monitoring businesses. He sees his introduction to the business as an opportunity to leverage his experience to bring on board new products and services, apply operational delivery discipline and streamline business processes through the effective use of IT systems.

Shaun says: “I am excited and honoured at the opportunity to lead Orbis’ monitoring services, one of the UK’s market leaders in void property and lone worker solutions. Orbis’ leading position coupled with my background will create a formidable force, providing an exciting roadmap ahead. I look forward to realising our vision together”.