Are you a landlord? Or perhaps you own an unoccupied property? If you do, then the thought of squatters has probably crossed your mind at least once. And if it has, you’re not alone.
Squatters are a common concern for many landlords—both residential and commercial. Government figures suggest that approximately 20,000 people squat in unoccupied properties across the UK. That’s an increase of 25% from the previous decade.
And with more than a million empty properties across the country—with a third having been vacant for more than six months—it’s easy to see why landlords are concerned.
What is squatting?
Squatting is when somebody deliberately enters a property that doesn’t belong to them and without permission from the owner, and either lives or intends to live there.
Sometimes known as “adverse possession”, squatting in residential buildings has been illegal since changes to the law in 2012. Penalties for squatting can include six months in prison, a £5,000 fine, or both. However, it’s important to note that squatting in commercial buildings or land is still considered a civil, not criminal matter, although damage to the property itself as a result of squatting is a crime.
It’s a common misconception that tenants who stop paying rent but remain living in the property are squatting. But specifically, squatting only applies to those who enter a property without permission from either the landlord or the tenant/occupants.
It’s usually considered a crime to not leave land or property when instructed to do so by the police, the owner, the council, or a repossession order.
Squatting in non-residential buildings
As mentioned above, squatting in residential buildings is now considered a crime, but what about those buildings or pieces of land which were not designed to be lived in?
It doesn’t matter if the affected building is long abandoned, closed off for refurbishment work, or simply closed for the holidays. Squatters can still take up residence and it not be considered a crime.
While simply being on somebody else’s non-residential property isn’t usually a crime, action can be taken by the police if squatters commit other crimes when entering the property or while staying on the property.
Examples of crimes include:
- Causing damage when entering the property
- Causing damage while inside the property
- Not leaving when told to do so by a court
- Stealing from the property
- Using utilities such as electricity or gas without permission
- Not obeying to a noise abatement notice
Damage caused by squatting
Squatting is a major concern for many landlords, and it’s not just because of the statistical chance that it could happen to you.
Evicting squatters can be a long, tough, and costly process. But what happens to the actual property when squatters move in? It’s not uncommon to hear that hundreds of pounds worth of rubbish is left, including drug paraphernalia and human excrement.
If gas, electricity, and water supplies are shut off to your property but squatters take shelter there anyway, you have to consider that they may turn to candles for lighting, small fires for heat, and have no running water to flush toilets. This not only leaves you with a hazardous environment which will require specialist cleaning to make safe, but you could also have smoke and soot damage from continuous use of candles or small fires.
Added to that the general disrepair of the property, and you could also find mould and damp problems when you return, escalating the cost of squatters even further.
The term “squatter’s rights” is commonly used to justify staying in a property. But what does this actually mean and what exactly are squatter’s rights?
A long-term squatter can become the registered owner of a property or piece of land they have been staying on without the owner’s permission. But they will need to provide a series of evidence and make an application which you can object.
Like mentioned earlier, a squatter is not considered somebody who has stayed within a property they originally had permission to live in, even if the contract or conditions have changed. So squatters applying to become the registered owner must prove two things: That they—or a succession of squatters—have lived in the property for ten years (or twelve if the property is not registered with HM Land Registry) and that they—or any prior squatters—did not have the owner’s permission to reside in the property. So for example, they were not originally tenants, a sub-let, or “staying with a friend” during a previous tenancy.
Squatting and the law
As mentioned above, squatters can apply for legal ownership of your property. If this is done, and your property is registered, then HM Land Registry will inform you of an application. But if you wish to keep your property, you need to take action.
It is possible to block an application from squatters, but the way in which you do so will depend on whether your property is registered or not. Either way, you should be able to obtain legal advice from a conveyancer or solicitor.
If your property is registered and you are informed by HM Land Registry has informed you that an application for ownership has been made, you will have 65 days to object. HM Land Registry will be able to advise you through the process.
If you have a valid objection, then HM Land Registry will reject the application, afterwhich, you must take action to remove the squatters from your property. If you do nothing within two years of the original application, you will not be able to object again if the squatter’s reapply so it’s important that you do something.
Unregistered properties can also have an application made against them, however, HM Land Registry may not be able to contact you to inform you of such.
An application for an unregistered property can still be objected, and HM Land Registry will advise whether the objection is valid. If it is, they will firstly ask you to try to negotiating with the squatters; for example, to offer to sell the property to the squatters.
If an agreement cannot be reached, then a tribunal will decide who owns the property, which HM Land Registry will organise.
Removing squatters from your property
When it comes to removing squatters, you want to act as quickly as possible. Any delays could actually cause you significant inconvenience and risk causing a lengthy and costly process even longer.
Squatters can be removed from your property by either using an interim possession order (IPO) or by making a claim for possession. If you require help with making a claim for possession, a solicitor should be able to help.
You can apply for an IPO as long as it has been less than 28 days since you found out that there are squatters in your property. An application for IPO needs to be completed and sent to your local county court.
The court will reply—usually within a few days—which will contain documents that need to be provided to the squatters within 48 hours.
Once the squatters are served with the IPO, they can be sent to prison if:
- They do not leave your property within 24 hours
- They do not stay away from your property for 12 months
To ensure that you have final possession of the property, you must make a claim for possession which can be done on the IPO application.
An IPO isn’t always going to be an option. For example, you cannot use an IPO if you’re also making a claim for damages caused by the squatters, or if you’re trying to evict former tenants, sub-tenants or licensees.
Never try to remove squatters by force or by threatening violence. If you do, you may find that you’re committing a crime yourself.
Cleaning up the mess
The mess squatters leave can be immense. From drug paraphernalia and syringes, right through to human excrement. General household waste isn’t disposed of and often, piles of rubbish are left to build up within the property.
Coming into the mess left by squatters can be overwhelming. Strong odours and hazardous materials can make it feel even more daunting to face.
But specialist hygiene cleaning companies can help. With licensed waste disposal, specialist knowledge and equipment, companies such as Ideal Response can help you get your property back to normal, no matter its size or state.
Our squatter clean up service leaves you with a clean, safe, odour-free environment. Contact us today for more information or to receive your free estimate.