How To Deal With Squatters
11th January 2018
The police make around 150 arrests each year because of squatters trespassing in residential homes; you might think squatting isn’t a big issue in the grand scheme of things and it will be rather unlikely that you’ll experience squatters in your properties. What this number of arrests does not show, however, is all of the squatters who were not arrested and left at the point the officers have told them to leave; the number of squatters in the UK is largely undocumented. In this guide, you’ll learn the best practices in dealing with squatters.
Squatting in residential premises only became a criminal act in 2012 and can lead to the squatter to being sentenced to six months in prison and/or a fine of £5000. Whereas, squatting on private land or in non-residential properties isn’t a crime. It is often seen as criminalising homelessness but why should you, a residential property investor, be forced to pay a mortgage you can only afford to pay when your tenants are paying rent have to suffer because a person wants free lodgings or otherwise, have wasted their own money and thus, can’t afford somewhere to live?
It’s important to note, also, that a tenant who overstays their tenancy term or otherwise doesn’t vacate the property after being evicted is not considered a squatter, therefore the action you take to remove squatters is not the same to remove tenants and if you follow the advice in this guide to remove your tenants, your tenant will have grounds to sue you even if they’ve overstayed their term or have been ordered to leave by the courts, instead you should follow this guide by clicking here instead.
A quick Google search of “squatters” will through up millions of pages of results, the majority of which appear to offer advice to squatters on how to break the law and remain in residential properties or how to find commercial properties to trespass upon and reside in at the cost of the owners. It’s a real problem and for there to be so much content on the subject matter, it would appear the issue is more widespread than it would appear at the beginning of this guide.
In reference to commercial properties and land, it is illegal to fly tip, steal from or damage the property or use the utilities without the owner’s consent. Squatting in a commercial property or land is still a civil offence and property owners must go through the courts to evict squatters in a non-residential property.
A squatter can take adverse possession of your property if they can prove they have lived there for at least 12 years (or 10 years if the property is registered with the land registry, if it isn’t registered with the HM Land Registry, they’ll have no way to contact you to inform you of squatters’ intentions to take adverse possession of your property meaning their application might sail through without you even realising until years after it is too late); this is the legal transfer of ownership from you to them with no payment from the squatter. Yes, this means a squatter can be given somewhere to live entirely at your expense just because you were unaware that you had trespassers. Prior to 2012, adverse possession of residential homes wasn’t nearly as uncommon as you’d like which is one of the reasons the offence was made criminal.
If you find yourself receiving notice that someone is intending to take adverse possession of your property, you only have 65 days to object but by doing so, their application for adverse possession is usually automatically rejected though there are some circumstances where this is not the case. If you do not reclaim the property and evict your uninvited tenants (by going through the courts to evict the squatters by obtaining an interim possession order – more on this later), they can reapply for adverse possession again in two years. An application for an interim possession order (IPO) has to be made within 28 days of becoming aware of the squatters and once the IPO has been awarded, the squatters have 24 hours to vacate and cannot return for 12 months; this means they can come back and be a real nuisance to your bank balance.
So, how do we deal with squatters? Is it really a case of just going to court and having them evicted? Not quite. In one notable court case, Blackburn VS Lambeth Council, prior to the 2012 change in the law (but still applicable to commercial properties), Mr Blackburn broke a lock into a flat that was heavily damaged by fire, he renovated the property and lived there for thirteen years before the council served him an eviction notice which he was then ordered to vacate by the court, however, upon appeal, the ruling was overturned as he had enjoyed adverse possession for at least twelve years; it was deemed that the damaging of the lock (when breaking in) and then replacing with his own wasn’t an act of criminal damage and instead an important mark of making the place his home. It is estimated that the council had a legal bill of £50’000 and the property they had lost out on was valued at £120’000. The caveat is, however, because the flat is in a tower block, Mr Blackburn was not awarded the legal right to access his home which means he has no way of selling the property which is something many squatters have been able to do in properties like detached/semi-detached homes, Mr Blackburn’s only choice would be to either live there forever or hand it back to the rightful owners.
What should you do if you encounter squatters in your residential property?
You should call the police immediately. The squatters may be asked to leave unless they have committed a crime other than trespass and if they refuse, they will then be arrested and charged for the crime of squatting. If the squatters have caused criminal damage or otherwise broken other laws, it would be expected that the squatters will be arrested.
It is illegal for you to forcibly remove them yourself.
If you are applying to the court for an award of damages, you will be unable to apply for an IPO, instead, you should make an ordinary claim for possession. You must also make an ordinary claim for possession if it has been more than 28 days since you realised you had squatters before taking matters further.
Now, it may be that these individuals, for whatever reason, are homeless. Do not feel guilty or ashamed of reclaiming your property. Refer them to Shelter and the local authority who will advise and give them help where possible. There is a lot of support for homeless people provided they are willing to cooperate with those offering the support; this may mean abstaining from drugs or alcohol whilst in a residential hostel or repaying rent arrears before being offered social housing.