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There seems to be a general misconception regarding squatters rights in the UK. Some people still believe that squatters rights enacted in the 1970s still exist today. Well, the situation regarding empty properties and squatters rights is very different today and if you have an empty property it is very important to be aware of these changes. We will now take a look at various issues surrounding squatters rights, recent changes and ways in which you can make your property less attractive to squatters.
What is a squatter?
The term squatting is defined as deliberate entry of a property without no permission, with the intention to live there. It is often described as “adverse possession” when being discussed in legal circles. So, now we know what a squatter is, how can you avoid them and what can you do if they enter your property?
Vacant properties in the UK
It is safe to say that the Internet has changed the way in which we view the UK property market with information now available at the touch of a button. This has also helped individuals looking for empty properties in which to squat and potentially look to take legal ownership of. However, before we go any further it is worth noting that squatting is still illegal in the UK.
As we will discuss in more detail, changes to the law in September 2012 clearly state that the right of occupation now lies with the property owner. This is a very important means for protecting residential properties many of which could be empty for perfectly valid reasons. Again, there is a general misconception that properties used by squatters have been left derelict for decades. In the vast majority of cases this is by no means the scenario.
Squatters rights in the 1970s
We have all seen the newspaper articles, squatters would quite literally gain entry to a property and then simply paste a poster on the door officially announcing their occupation. They would then ask “not to be disturbed” and under all regulation back in the 1970s they could not be forcibly evicted by the property owner or the police. Any challenge to squatters rights would need to be made through the courts and the courts looked on this particular scenario very differently back in the 1970s.
Current squatters rights
Many people will assume that because of changes in 2012, squatters have no rights today. This is wrong. For reasons which are perhaps more legal based than common sense, squatters still have the following rights even today:-
- Right to be connected to utilities
When squatters move into a property they are legally obliged to contact the utility companies and change the accounts into their names (and make payment). Failure to do so, while still using the various utilities, is theft and can lead to legal action.
- Right to oppose forcible entry
Yes, squatters have a right to oppose forcible entry to a property which they don’t own but which they have chosen to live in. The only exceptions to the rule are the police and court appointed bailiffs who can make forcible entry to the property.
- Protection from violence
Unfortunately, we have seen incidents of violence between property owners and those squatting. While protection is offered to property owners, squatters are also protected from violence which is a basic legal right.
- Right to apply for legal ownership
Earlier on we mentioned the term “adverse possession” which is the legal route taken by squatters to try to gain possession of a property. To do so they must show evidence that they have lived in the property for a minimum of 10 years (12 years if not registered with the HM Land Registry) and have also made improvements to the property. If these conditions are met then there is every chance that squatters can claim legal possession of a property.
Obviously, any property owner who has seen one of their properties occupied by squatters would try to come to a sensible agreement with those in their property. This may involve a formal tenancy, exit payment or simply come to an arrangement whereby they are given time to pack up, make plans and move on. In the event that no agreement can be reached the property owner will need to apply for a court order which is called an Interim Possession Order (IPO).
This is the court permission required to bring in the police or court appointed bailiffs who can then make forcible entry into a property and evict squatters. In the event that the homeowner can prove they are “displaced residential occupiers”or “tenants” made homeless by the squatters, then a court order is not required. In effect this protects those who have perhaps been forced to leave their home for a short while, or even gone on an extended holiday, only to return to face squatters. Those convicted of illegal squatting could receive a prison sentence of up to 6 months and a fine up to £5000, or both.
Assuming that an IPO action is successful then the property owner has two years in which to take action against the squatters. Failure to take action within the two-year period would see the original IPO expire and a further request required at which time the squatters can also reapply for permission to remain in the property.
The best way to tackle the issue of squatters is to prevent them entering your property in the first place. There are a number of very subtle ways in which you can make your property less attractive to squatters and in some cases even give the impression it is lived in even if that is not the case.
- Giving that lived in look
This may involve simple actions such as setting lights to come on at certain times of the day, redirecting post so there is no buildup and even offering neighbours the opportunity to use your wheelie bins. Ensuring the outside of a property is well kept and the garden is neat and tidy will also help to give the impression that the property is lived in. Some people even go as far as to offer car parking spots outside the property to their neighbours.
- Visiting the property on a regular basis
There are numerous reasons why you should visit your property on a regular basis if you’re not living there. These include checking for any damage, collecting post at which time you can carry out regular activities such as moving wheelie bins, opening windows, drawing blind, etc. Again, the idea is simple, give the impression the property is lived in.
- A lockdown
If a property is likely to be uninhabited for some period of time then it may be time to lock it down. Security screens can be placed over doors, windows and other entry points to make it as difficult as possible for squatters to gain entry. At this point it is also worth noting that if squatters have broken into a property then this is illegal entry and any rights they may have had are invalid.
When it comes to squatters in the UK, property owners will need to be fully aware of their rights and those of squatters. There are certain situations where properties may be uninhabited for some time such as awaiting probate, illness, etc and in these circumstances the owner should take action to secure the property. Many property owners will be alarmed to learn that squatters do have rights in the UK. However, if it can be proven they gained entry illegally then these rights disappear and they can be prosecuted by the courts.
So, if you have a property which might be empty for some time it would be foolish just to leave it and hope for the best. Take action, do your research and above all, know your rights!