Squatting is a major problem for landlords. The downturn has increased the number of empty properties and, as a result, many landlords have found themselves with unwelcome occupants.
Just last week, film director Guy Ritchie found his central London home occupied by squatters - showing that squatting affects properties at every end of the spectrum.
Regardless of your feelings about squatting, it can be problematic for landlords. You should make sure you understand your legal rights and responsibilities - and that you take steps to protect your empty property.
What are squatters?
A squatter is a person occupying a building that they do not have permission to use. Contrary to popular belief, squatting is not illegal – but it is not uncommon for squatters to break the law as a consequence, for example by causing damage when gaining entry.
Squatting is very common, particularly in urban areas. Indeed, there are around a billion squatters throughout the world. The recent downturn has meant that squatting is on the increase in the UK, with empty properties being occupied remarkably quickly.
Squatters can prove a major problem for landlords, and it is understandable that you may want to get them out of your property as quickly as possible. But it is vital to understand that squatters have certain legal rights, and that you must act within the law at every turn.
How can I prevent squatters?
Preventing squatting is all about making sure that your property is as inaccessible as possible while it is empty. To begin with, of course, you should work to make sure that you minimise void periods to as great a degree as possible. But if you know your property is going to be empty, you should take steps to make it as difficult as possible to get in.
You should make sure that your property is constantly secure. Any entry points should be safely locked. If the property is going to be vacant for an extended period, and alarm systems should be set and working. You may also consider investing in an alarm system that links directly to a security company, who will be able to visit your property immediately in the event that it is set off.
It may also be worthwhile to leave ‘signs’ that the property is, in fact, occupied. You might choose to put lights on timers in order to give the appearance that someone is living there, or have a cleaner make regular visits. Indeed, if the property is unoccupied for an extended period, you should make regular trips there yourself in order to make sure that everything is in order.
What if they are already there?
If your property has already been squatted, it is absolutely vital that you do not attempt to evict the squatters yourself. Squatters have legal rights, and you must respect these. If you do not, you may find yourself in court under the provisions of the Prevention from Eviction Act 1977.
This does not mean that you can’t negotiate with the squatters. You are legally entitled to ‘peaceably’ re-enter your property. Often this is all that is required; many squatters enter buildings because they think they will be unoccupied for an extended period, and simply explaining that you intend to use the property may be enough to persuade them to leave.
If this does not work, and there is evidence of damage to the property, you may be able to seek help from the police. It is worth remembering, though, that the police are often unwilling to involve themselves.
Otherwise, you should begin court proceedings. It is now possible to apply for what is known as an ‘interim possession order’, which is intended to speed up the process of gaining possession. Interim possession orders are given pending a second hearing. In order to be granted this sort of order you must satisfy the court that you will not re-let, damage or sell the property before the second hearing. You must also satisfy the court that you will allow the squatters back in if the court decides that you are not entitled to the order.
In the event that an interim possession order is granted, you must serve the squatters with the papers within 24 hours. They will then be required to leave within 24 hours. If they fail to do so, they can be evicted by court bailiffs.
The squatters also have the right to put their case during a hearing if they so wish. If they choose not to do so, or if their argument is rejected, you will be granted a Possession Order. Generally speaking, a final order can be granted within around three weeks.
It is absolutely vital that you understand the law at every stage. Misunderstandings can render your actions useless or, at worst, illegal. You should therefore seek independent legal advice if you are in any doubt.