'Avoiding the voids' is the mantra of every buy to let landlord. Not only do they lose money, they are a big neon advertising sign to a group of whom all landlords live in dread – squatters.
Squatting is more than just the activity of a minority of people hoping to live for free in an abandoned building. It is a defined subculture in the UK, aided and abetted by one another on the internet – able to find a likely prospect for a squat and organise a move-in at a moment’s notice, and then cement their position there with a solid knowledge of the law and their minimum rights.
What is a squatter?
Squatters are people who live in a property without permission or any evidence of legal occupancy like leases, ownership documents, tenancy agreements or rental records. A squatter enters the property as a squatter – a tenant staying in your property after their notice expires or without paying rent is not squatting. If a tenancy ever existed, it continues to do so until someone gives notice or you get a court order.
Dealing with squatters
Squatting in residential property is considered trespassing and is a criminal offense. This is according to section 144 of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012.
The act was implemented to give police the right to evict squatters. This was a little daft, as squatting was already a criminal offence if the offenders had refused to leave after being asked – the problem wasn’t that the law was absent, but that not many people were made aware of it. Squatting was confused as a civil matter rather than a criminal one, and therefore something the police couldn’t deal with.
Step one: call the police
If you discover squatters have occupied your property, you should contact the police straight away. Displaced residential occupiers are able to employ the vague tool known as ‘reasonable force’ to regain their home, but landlords don’t have that right. You can, however, attempt to ‘peaceably’ remove the squatters – it is a good idea to have the police or another witness present in case any accusations of threats or violence are levelled at you. (It goes without saying, obviously, that you shouldn’t resort to threats or violence – these are criminal offenses themselves.)
If there is evidence of forced entry, and the occupation is recent, the police may be willing to act without having to go to the courts first.
Step two: get a court order
If that doesn’t work, and the police find a reason not to arrest the squatter or squatters, you can still apply for a court order to have them evicted. An ordinary court order will take about a month to be issued, but something called an ‘Interim Possession Order’ (IPO) can enable you to evict the squatters much more quickly.
Bear in mind that a full possession order will still be pending. You won’t be able to re-let, sell or destroy your property until the full order is granted and, if an order isn’t granted, you may have to let the squatters back into your property and even pay them compensation. You also need to apply for an IPO within 28 days of finding out about your squatter problem.
You can read more about Interim Possession Orders here.
Of course, the best way to avoid having to deal with squatters is to ensure that they’re not a problem in the first place. Re-letting your property quickly involves having the right property and marketing it well.
If a void is necessary, such as for major repair work, follow these tips to help avoid attracting squatters:
- Ensure that the property is locked and secure
- Inspect the property regularly; on a daily basis, if possible
- If not possible, consider having a cleaner or neighbour regularly visit
- Make sure that any works being carried out are done as quickly and professionally as possible, and that the traders secure the property at the end of the day
- Fence off vacant land
If these measures don’t work and you do find that your property has become a squat, alert the police immediately and try to be present when they visit the property. This way, you can explain the situation and try to avoid any more damage.
Also, once you have regained possession, be sure to change the locks!