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Empty house grants

Citing research by the pressure group Action on Empty Homes, an edition of the Big Issue on the 25th of November 2022, reported that there are some 257,331 long-term empty homes in England – those that have been unoccupied for longer than six months. The same sources revealed that there are a further 43,000 long-term empty homes in Scotland and around 27,000 in Wales.

This is at a time when the overall shortage of housing – especially for those looking for affordable housing – is getting worse rather than better. A story in FT Adviser on the 15th of March 2022 pointed out that in the 1990s, the average age of the first-time buyer was approximately 29. By 2002, it had reached 31. Immediately before the recent Covid pandemic, it had climbed further to 32. During that pandemic, it rose two more years to an average age of 34.

Lengthening delays in the purchase of that first home, of course, means that further pressure is put on the already high demand for accommodation in the private rental sector.

So, what is being done to bring empty homes back into the use for which they were intended – and help to address the chronic shortage of housing?

National and local government grants

At national level, the government body responsible for housing, land, and regeneration – including the regeneration of empty housing – is the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (until September 2021, it was the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government. Its executive branches are currently Homes England and the Regulator of Social Housing.

Pressure groups are calling on the government to do more to tackle the growing number of empty houses. During National Empty Homes Week in 2022, Propertymark wrote to the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities asking it to restart its Empty Homes Community Grant Programme, which has been inoperative since 2015.

Those initiatives included a New Homes Bonus that made available grants to local authorities to bring empty homes back into use and a Build to Rent fund for the building works that included the conversion of empty properties into homes.

These have been replaced by an overarching Home Building Fund – providing development finance for new housing – administered by Homes England.

Local government

Responsibility for tackling housing shortages caused by empty houses has instead fallen on the shoulders of local government. The execution and administration of the policy objectives and funding provided at the national level are effectively delegated in practice to local government.

It is at this level, that a large proportion of grants and loans become available to smaller, individual investors in buy to let property regenerated from previously empty housing.

With the availability of a large number of empty properties, coupled with favourable loans and bids for grants from the local authority, together with the protection of empty property insurance whilst refurbishment and modernisation takes place, there are some opportunities for prospective landlords and homeowners to make use of a previously wasted housing resource.

Access to the assistance available from local authorities for the regeneration of empty housing – by way of loans and grants – varies from one council to another.

Incentives are frequently launched, therefore, on a relatively small-scale and very local basis.

Who can get an empty home grant?

This varies depending on where the property is and your status (e.g. investor or owner-occupier). Some are available to:

Empty property grants

One such scheme in South Wales, for instance, is offered by the local council Rhondda Cynon Taf and makes up to Β£20,000 available by way of grants for repairs and refurbishment of long-term empty property (that has been vacant for more than six months). The applicant must plan to use the property as their main residence for at least the next five years.

The London Borough of Brent also offers grants – of a maximum up to Β£6,500 – for the refurbishment of sub-standard homes (including empty houses) or the conversion of large empty homes into smaller dwellings. A condition of the grant is that when the works are completed, the property must be let to the council for a period of five years.

These two above examples help to illustrate:

  • the active steps being taken by various councils around the country to identify the number of empty homes in their area;
  • the type of incentives that are available by way of locally funded grants and loans;
  • the very local – and sometimes quite small-scale but no less valuable – nature of such schemes; and
  • the widespread recognition by local authorities that empty housing represents a wasted resource at a time when practically every part of the country faces a housing shortage.

The upshot is that if you are interested in buying an empty property to refurbish, modernise to live in, let to tenants, or sell on there is likely to be help from a local council nearby. It is important, though, to do your research and establish just where and in which districts any such scheme might apply and to make enquiries about which of your refurbishment and regeneration projects might qualify for a grant or loan.

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