According to gov.uk/squatting-law, squatting is defined as:
when someone deliberately enters property without permission and lives there, or intends to live there. This is sometimes known as ‘adverse possession’.
Legally, however, if someone has originally entered a property with the permission of the landlord then they cannot be legally classed as a squatter. So landlords cannot report tenants who have fallen behind on rent as squatters.
Did you know that squatting has a long and historical tradition in the UK, dating back to feudal times? Squatting became a larger issue during the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 and the Diggers in the 17th century. In more recent times, there has been a noticeable correlation between housing crises and number of squatters. For example, after World War 2 and during the 60s and 70s.
Three of the most common factors associated with rising numbers of squatters are:
- rising property prices and lack of affordable housing
- increase in homeless population
- high number of unoccupied properties available
According to the government, in 2012, there are approximately 20,000 squatters in the United Kingdom, but other groups declare that the total is much higher. There are no official figures for the number of the squatters in the UK so it’s hard to put an accurate number on it. But squatting has been made easier now in modern times where finding empty properties is as easy as browsing property listings online – you can literally shop for a squat! And there are many resources online to help squatters find guidance in existing communities.
Regardless of your feelings or opinions about squatters’ rights and squatters in unoccupied property, it can be a major issue for landlords. And, like most common issues for landlords, it’s usually unexpected and something that you would think could never happen to you… until it does, and you’re left with the burden of dealing with it.
There are different squatting laws depending on whether the unoccupied property is a residential property or a commercial property, and so it is important to remember how your property type affects the law and procedure.
Squatting in Residential Properties
Squatting in a residential property was criminalised by the government effective 1st September 2012 under Section 144 of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012. The offence is punishable by 6 months in prison, a £5000 fine or sometimes even both.
For Buy-To-Let landlords, squatters aren’t a particularly common problem, but there are landlord insurance policies that cover the eviction of squatters (which can get quite expensive due to legal fees), and unoccupied property insurance that can cover the building and/or contents of the unoccupied residential property for different periods of time in between tenants.
Squatting in Commercial Properties
Commercial or non-residential properties are a little more complicated, as being on the property without permission isn’t normally a crime but a civil offence. This makes commercial properties typically the chosen preference over residential. However if the squatter commits a crime whilst on the property, then the police can take further action against the criminals. Crimes can include:
- causing damage upon entering or while in the property
- stealing from the property
- using the property’s utilities without permission (such as gas or electricity)
- fly tipping
- disobeying a noise abatement notice
- ignoring a court instruction for them to leave
So, if they have broken into your property, then they have already committed a crime. If they have managed to enter the property through, for example, an unlocked door, then they are still within their rights to be there.
How To Prevent Squatters in Unoccupied Property
The most effective way of preventing squatters from entering your unoccupied property is to ensure that the building is secure with locks, an alarm system and CCTV for monitoring. In fact, some landlord insurance policies require you to take preventative measures to ensure that squatters aren’t able to enter the property easily in the first place. It’s a lot easier to keep squatters out than get squatters out, so make it as difficult to get in as possible.
Squatters who have broken into a property can be prosecuted by the police under the Criminal Law for Trespass under the Criminal Law Act 1977, but only if there is evidence that the squatter did in fact break in. Which is why it’s extremely important to ensure that security measures are in place to begin with.
It is also recommended to further secure your investment by performing regular checks of the property for damage or unwelcome tenants, as well as perhaps making it appear as through the property is currently in occupancy to deter potential intruders.
What to do if you have Squatters in your Property?
Remember that if you attempt to remove the squatters yourself by force or threat of force, you will be committing a crime yourself. Squatters are not rats; they are human beings entitled to legal rights of their own which you must respect. The easiest solution for everyone is to negotiate with the squatters peacefully, asking them to leave.
If they do not immediately leave when you instruct them to, phone the police for assistance. It is a crime for squatters to not leave a property if told by:
- the property owner,
- the police,
- the council,
- or a repossession order.
If it has been 28 days or less since your discovery of the squatters in the property, then you can apply for an IPO (Interim Possession Order) to remove them. If the squatters do not leave the property within 24 hours of being served the IPO then they can be sent to prison. If it’s been more than 28 days, you can make a claim for possession where you can also claim for damages caused by the squatters.
Unless you’ve been asleep at the wheel for over a decade, there’s very little chance that you could lose ownership of a property to squatters’ rights. But, if there has been a long-term squatter occupying your property continuously for a minimum of ten years and acting as the owner of the property throughout that time without the permission of the owner, then long-term squatters (or a succession of squatters) can claim ownership of the property. But then, even if Land Registry decides that the squatter’s application for ownership is valid, they will first notify the property owner who then has 65 days to object and the application will be automatically rejected. A reasonable period of time for an owner to object – and who wouldn’t? Once you have reclaimed your property, you will be unable to object again if the same squatters reapply in two years time so you will have to take immediate action to remove the squatters in order to prevent this. However, failing any objection from the owner within that time, the squatter will be registered as the legal owner of the property.
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