As a landlord, you’d probably never expect that the tenants in your buy-to-let property are actually involved with organised crime. Furthermore, you’d probably never expect that they’re using your property to carry out that crime.
And least of all, you’d probably never expect that you could be prosecuted for their criminal activity.
In recent years, commercial properties have been bypassed in favour of regular domestic properties to cultivate drugs.
Posing as tenants, drug dealers are turning to typical three-bedroom suburban homes and turning them into cannabis farms where they can grow thousands of pounds worth of the class C drug.
What is a cannabis farm?
A cannabis farm is the production of cannabis plants, most commonly found indoors within privately rented houses.
Growing cannabis plants actually works better indoors than outside as the plants grow faster under controlled conditions. By providing 16–20 hours of constant lighting, water from the mains, additional carbon dioxide, plus control over the ambient humidity, the plants have the optimum conditions in which to grow, which typically takes around three months.
It is estimated that 500,000 people grow cannabis—also known as marijuana—in the UK; that equates to approximately one person per street! The market is valued at £1 billion, with cannabis being the most commonly used recreational drug.
What does a cannabis farm do to a property?
For optimum plant growth, certain conditions within the property have to be met. These conditions include an indoor temperature of between 24oC–30oC which threatens to negatively impact the relative humidity within the building.
With an increase in relative humidity comes an increase in condensation which can lead to even more problems such as damp, mould, peeling paint and wallpaper, and even rotting wood. For more information on relative humidity and what it can do to your home, read our blog series on mould here.
The use of heat lamps and artificial lights which are often left on for up to 20 hours a day provide a huge fire risk. And that’s not to mention dodgy electrical wiring to either install the number of lights and lamps needed or the bypass which is often done on the electricity meter to avoid paying electricity fees.
Other defects to the property caused by cannabis cultivation includes:
- Fire risk posed by heat lamps, faulty wiring, and bypasses on the electricity meter
- Mould and damp caused by excessive condensation
- Trapped odours
- Modified water mains
- Demolition of internal walls to make way for pipes
- Holes in ceilings and walls
- Uplifted carpets and flooring
It shouldn’t go unmentioned that commonly, the first sign that there has been a cannabis farm in a residential property is as a result of a fire. And this is often done deliberately to try to cover up evidence.
The law and your responsibilities as a landlord
If your buy-to-let property is found to be a cannabis farm, you could find yourself in an awkward situation.
It is illegal to allow any property you own to be used for the cultivation and/or supply of drugs, including cannabis. If you allow the cultivation, production, or supply of cannabis from premises for which you are the landlord, you could end up facing the same penalties as those carrying out the crime. These penalties namely include hefty fines, upto 14 years in prison, or both.
Even if you do not receive the same penalties as your tenants, the whole ordeal of arrest, investigation and possibly court can be extremely distressing. Thorough investigations and court cases can last months and could end up costing you a fortune.
Added to that, whatever the outcome, you’re probably not coming out of the ordeal completely unaffected. Your reputation as a landlord is likely to be affected, there will be costs to restore the property, and you will have lost revenue from the lost rent while the property is vacant.
It’s important to note that many landlord insurance policies do not cover malicious damage caused by tenants; which is the damage caused to your property as a result of cannabis cultivation will be classed as.
The constant high levels of moisture are likely to have caused excessive mould growth, and could have led to secondary damage such as rotting wood which can affect floorboards as well as timber joists.
The cost of restoring your property—including putting right electricity and water meters—can easily run into thousands of pounds. Even if your insurance policy does cover malicious damage caused by tenants, the amount they’ll actually pay out is likely to be capped and unlikely to cover the extent of the repairs needed.
So, how do you spot a cannabis farm?
Having your buy-to-let property turned into a cannabis farm can happen to anyone. And while they are designed to go unnoticed, there are a few telltale signs you can keep an eye out for.
If you notice one or more of the following, raise your suspicions with the police, do not confront the tenants directly.
A sweet, sickly smell
Most cannabis farms are discovered by passersby or neighbours who smell the familiar sickly sweet aroma of cannabis. A cannabis plant takes approximately three weeks to grow and in its final stages, it has a particularly strong odour.
Blacked out windows
If windows are constantly covered, either by blinds or drawn curtains, it could be because the occupants are trying to hide something from prying eyes. Take notice if curtains or blinds are ever opened, and if there are any patterns to the days/times if they are. It’s also not unusual for windows to be completely blacked out to help control lighting conditions internally which promote optimal growth of the plants.
It’s not unusual for homeowners to have a degree of security but sometimes, especially in relatively safe neighbourhoods, it can look a little out of place. So if your new tenants are adding extra security measures like grilles over the windows, a second or third lock, or even installing CCTV, you may want to consider why. Oftentimes, drug dealers showcase paranoid behaviour and usually expect trouble from police or others involved with cannabis cultivation. For instance, it’s not unheard of for growers to steal from each other.
High levels of condensation
For best growing conditions, there will be excessive moisture and high indoor temperatures, meaning that humidity levels within the property will be very high. This will subsequently result in an extremely high level of condensation within the building. Even if you cannot gain access to inspect the inside, condensation will be evident on windows. If you do gain access to inside the property, as well as condensation on the windows, you should also expect to find peeling paint/wallpaper and evidence of mould growth.
Lots of visits to your new tenants could just mean that they’re very popular. But if there are a lot of different faces and cars, at all different times of the day—particularly early morning or late night during “unsocial hours”—then the visits may not be as innocent as they seem. Asking neighbours about visits to the property could help you identify any suspicious patterns.
Changes in utility bills
If your tenants electricity and water bills are part of the rent, then keep an eye on them. A sudden or drastic change should ring alarm bells. The bills could either go up, which shows an increase in usage, or they could go down. If the bills go down, it could be a sign that both the water and electricity meters have been bypassed, causing all sorts of disruption and issues to put right.
Bright lights day and night
Bright lights shining for 16–20 hours a day, every day, should raise alarm bells. Especially when they come on and go off exactly the same time each day and are on no matter the time of year. While it isn’t unusual to see some houses leave one or two bedroom lights on overnight, it is unusual to have a whole house lit up, or bright lights come on in several rooms halfway through the night.
Other signs to look out for:
- Constant ventilation resulting in a humming sound
- A lack of activity; no garbage bins out for collection, front lawn left uncut, etc
- Large amounts of DIY when first occupied
- Silver duct tape hanging out of windows
- Low level hanging equipment
- Excessive usage of deodorisers/air fresheners
- Plants, lights, and reflective materials
- Bulbs, soil, and fertiliser
- Flasks, beakers, and rubber tubing
- Rubble bags
- Self-sealing bags
- Gas cylinders
- Be vigilant in background checking your tenants. Be sure to get references from employers and previous landlords if possible.
- Avoid tenants who are keen to pre-pay their rent months in advance. Generally speaking, do not accept payment for more than two months in advance.
- As with paying in advance, avoid accepting cash payment wherever possible, especially when it’s combined with paying a couple of month’s rent at once.
- If you are not confident in carrying out adequate background checks, employ the help of a letting agency.
- Retain a good relationship with neighbours and ask that they keep an eye out for unusual or suspicious behaviour.
- Avoid sub-letting.
- Carry out regular internal inspections of the property.
In addition to the above signs, look out for any of the following items left in or around the premises which could suggest the growing of cannabis:
If your buy-to-let property has any of the above signs, contact the police. Never confront your tenants directly. If they are involved in organised crime and drug dealing, violence is also highly likely. Do not put yourself at risk of unnecessary harm, instead, contact your local police force.
How you can help prevent yourself becoming a victim
Cannabis farms are designed to not be detected so it’s very likely that you’ll never know it’s happening until your tenants leave. But there are some things you can do to help prevent falling victim to cannabis cultivation.
While the above points are not fault-proof, they should help to prevent you from falling victim. The last point in particular is the most crucial, although perhaps the hardest to actually put into action.
Although some insurance policies require regular inspections of the property, actually gaining access to carry them out isn’t always as easy.
Unless specific provisions were made in the tenancy agreement for you to have access under certain defined instances, the Residential Landlord’s Association (RLA) points out that the default position is for the tenant to be granted “exclusive possession”. In other words, the right to exclude you or anyone else from having access to the property.
If you are gaining access for the sake of repairs, there still needs to be a genuine reason for entry and evidence of the repairs needing to be made. But even if you do gain access inside the front door, you may be stopped going into certain rooms. For example, it’s not uncommon for the tenants to refuse entry due to babies or others sleeping, or to say that now isn’t a convenient time due to unforeseen circumstances.
Restoring your property
As mentioned earlier, restoring your property once it has been used for cannabis cultivation can run into thousands of pounds. The property is highly likely to be suffering from mould due to high levels of moisture, along with cosmetic damage such as flaking paint and wallpaper.
Walls are often knocked down, meters bypassed, and a strong odour left even once all the plants have gone.
If you need help with dealing with the restoration of your property – in particular mould growth, drying of the property, and odour neutralisation – then give us a call or fill out the form below to speak to one of our experts and see how we can help you get your property back to normal.