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Squatters and the law

Few things are likely to generate an increase in the blood pressure of many landlords than the subject of squatters.

Unfortunately, no brief article of this nature can cover a multitude of different situations that might be defined as squatting or indeed the various complicated legal implications arising from them.

But there is no doubt that dealing with squatters can be stressful, traumatic, and expensive.

What follows is a brief discussion of some of the basic principles. If you have any specific questions, you may wish to read the government website and – if the problem is, quite literally on your doorstep – consider the possibility of legal advice.

Squatting is defined by law, not landlords

Remember that because you consider someone in your property to be a squatter, doesn’t necessarily mean that the law will agree.

One of your first steps, therefore, is to make sure that you understand that the squatters concerned are genuinely squatters. For example, tenants who are behind with the rent or with whom you are currently engaged in eviction proceedings are not, under the law, categorised as squatters. If follows that if your tenant has been issued with a notice to vacate but stubbornly stays put, that does not make them a squatter.

As a general principle, the term relates to individuals who have forced entry to an unoccupied property without your authority or the due legal permissions.

Stay calm and let the law and others resolve it for you

Today, squatting is relatively rare compared with incidences of the problem just a few decades ago. Problems are likely to be quite quickly resolved nowadays and – frustrating as it may be if it happens to you – a little patience might be necessary.

It is important that you stay calm. You must not, under any circumstances, try to use force or threats of force to evict squatters that have occupied your property. It would be wise to avoid any form of face-to-face confrontation. If you are communicating with people on your property whom you believe should not be there, try to do so in the presence of the police.

Over recent decades, the law has changed to give groups such as the police considerably more powers to deal with squatters than they may have had at one time.

If your property is classified as residential, fit for occupation, and you discover that your property has been illegally occupied, you should immediately notify the police without hesitation. Do not delay as this might be construed as a tacit agreement for the squatters concerned to stay on your property.

Squatting in a residential building has been a criminal offence since the 1st of September 2012.

If you think that your property has been illegally occupied by squatters, therefore, you might want to arrange for the delivery to them a letter confirming that they are committing what appears to be an illegal act.

Do not go round to your property for a confrontation or attempt to sort things out yourself. That is a recipe for a potential disaster and conflict that might undermine your legal position.

Prevention is better than cure

In the case of residential properties, a whole range of circumstances may arise which lead to the premises standing empty and unoccupied for potentially extended periods of time. Even when they are in the active process of renovation or redecoration, they are likely to stand vacant for a lengthy period.

Obviously, it is preferable to avoid squatters getting into a property in the first place rather than try to get them out after the event.

Therefore, you should take all reasonable steps to try to disguise the fact that your property is unoccupied. That is perhaps also likely to be useful in terms of deterring thieves and vandals who may be more reluctant to try and enter a property if it appears to be occupied.

There are plenty of tips and suggestions available about ways in which you may help to hide the fact that a home is empty and unoccupied – measures might include the installation of timer switches on lighting in rooms around the building or even something as simple as changing the positions of the curtains (from drawn to open every once in a while).

Closely linked to the above tip, it is important to do whatever you need to in order to avoid broadcasting the fact that your property is sitting temporarily unoccupied. Do not mention it in letting advertisements or by hanging things such as “To Let” notices in windows.

Our Guide to unoccupied property has further tips and information.

If your property is going to be empty for longer than a month or so, remember that you may need to arrange standalone unoccupied property insurance – since any existing home insurance or landlord’s insurance is likely to become severely limited, or may even lapse altogether, once the place has been unoccupied for longer than 30 to 45 consecutive days (the exact interval varying from one insurer to another).

Whether it is existing home insurance, landlord insurance, or even unoccupied property insurance, you might also want to check any provision in the policy for cover for certain types of legal fees and expenses. You may find that some insurance policies specifically exclude cover for the cost of legal fees or expenses involved in the eviction of either tenants or squatters.

Non-residential property

The law on squatting is more complicated if your property is classified as commercial property rather than residential.

If that is the case, you may need to seek a form of court order to force the eviction of the parties concerned – even though you might have considered them to be “squatters” by common definition. While the unauthorised occupation of a residential property is defined as a criminal offence, that is not the case with commercial or non-residential buildings – and you are likely to need a court repossession order instead.

The fact that any property stands empty and unoccupied does not, in itself, make that property “non-residential”.

What to do about squatters?

Squatting in residential property. Thankfully, however, since changes to the law which came into effect in 2012, the problem is no longer as commonplace as it once was.

If you own a non-residential or commercial property that is sitting empty, the position may be more ambiguous and potentially more expensive for you to resolve.

At Cover4LetProperty, we will be only too pleased to offer you further advice on some of the insurance implications of squatting and related issues.

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