Whether it is residential, commercial, retail or industrial, if you are involved in renting, selling or developing properties then inevitably there will be times when they are unoccupied, possibly for an extended period of time.
In addition to the losses through theft and damage (e.g. by flood, fire and infestation), businesses could also face expensive litigation claims if someone manages to break into the property and subsequently suffers an injury. This guidance will assist in reducing the risk of loss or damage to your vacant property – and help ensure you can provide maximum protection for your very important asset.
Whether in between rentals or planning some major refurbishment there are many reasons why your property may be left unoccupied. The measures you need to take to protect premises may therefore be dependent on the length of unoccupancy, time of year, location, and, if undertaking any renovations, the nature of any work being carried out.
A vacant and unprotected property is a magnet to vandals, thieves and squatters. Fixtures and fittings may be stolen; pipework and cabling stripped out for its copper content; buildings covered in graffiti or damaged when thieves try to gain access; and fires deliberately set to cause maximum damage.
Plus, whether invited or not, you still have a duty of care, and statutory obligation under the Defective Premises Act and Occupancies Liability Act, to those who access the building. This means that in addition to experiencing losses through theft and damage, and significant loss in the property’s value, you could possibly face expensive litigation claims if someone manages to break into your property and subsequently suffers an injury!
Vacant properties can therefore present health and safety issues that leave property owners faced with huge bills, significant loss in the property’s value, and even exposed to litigation and compensation claims.
Whether you are a small property landlord or run a portfolio of commercial properties the threats to those properties while unoccupied, are more or less common to all property owners.
- Fire: the most common cause of fire in empty properties is arson. But it can also be caused by faulty electrical equipment where there has been a failure of proper maintenance.
- Vandalism: £500m of damage is caused by vandalism every year. This can take many forms – windows smashed, boundary fences broken, walls graffitied, fixtures and fittings destroyed, plus general structural damage.
- Theft: depending on the type of property this can range from valuable metals* e.g. copper cable / water tanks; roof tiling – especially lead; machinery; to fixtures and fittings including antiques such as fireplaces. *It is estimated that metal theft from vacant properties amounts to £770m a year.
- Urban exploring* (also called urbex, or place hacking): an increasing cult where “urban explorers” enter derelict buildings, typically unusual and forgotten places, and then showcase photos and videos of them on social media.
- Flood: Damage caused by leaking and burst (or stolen) pipes can be considerable – and costly!
- Duty of Care: As a property owner you need to be aware of the obligations you have in relation to the property. This includes being:
- responsible and liable if anyone injures themselves on the property.
- considerate of any impact on neighbouring properties, especially where properties are adjoined.
- required to inform your property insurer that the property is vacant, under the ‘change of occupancy’ clause. Vacancy can change the terms and cover of any current policy. Failing to inform your insurer could therefore be considered a breach of this clause, resulting in any claim being rejected.
Ensure you check with your insurer before the property becomes unoccupied so you can arrange suitable insurance cover. This may include being required to inform them of key holders, in the event of problems, particularly if you’re not living locally to the property yourself. This can be a key-holding security organisation, aligned with your security system, so someone will guarantee to respond when needed.
Managing the Risk
Think about what you can do to minimise risk and maximise the security of your vacant property. To safeguard your property against the risks of being empty your first step is to:
- Deter any potential intruders. (It is important to note that squatting or illegal occupation of non-residential property is NOT a criminal offence).
- Minimise damage by early detection of any intrusion or occurrence (such as storm-damage to buildings).
- Manage lawful entry to the premises (such as contractors / inspection checks).
It is recommended that regular inspections of the property are made (and may be a stipulation of your insurance cover) and that all visits to the premises are formerly recorded.
Securing Your Property
To keep potential intruders away when your property is empty there are some simple things you can do to put them off and make these events less likely.
For smaller properties this includes creating the impression your property is occupied.
- Rather than white washing windows – a sure giveaway that the property is empty – use blinds, nets and curtains to cover them up.
- Install lights on timers in different parts of the building and ensure they operate at suitable times for that part of the property. Getting it wrong is another clear giveaway that no one is home!
- There’s no point in spending a small fortune on locks to secure the door and forget to secure the window next to it. Or having strong locks on front and back doors but ignoring the weak one on the garage door – which gives direct access to the house!
- If the property is unoccupied because work is being carried out don’t allow the tradesmen to leave their tools behind overnight. This makes it more attractive for thieves to break in causing damage to your property, just to get to the builder’s tools.
- Redirect post; seal up letter boxes or install an inside metal cage. Get someone to regularly pick up the post and any fliers / junk mail delivered.
- Ask neighbours to help maintain the illusion by putting out waste bins / parking on driveways.
- Engage someone to keep vegetation under control. Straggly hedges and overgrown lawns are another dead giveaway that premises are unoccupied.
- You also need to protect against the potential for non-human intervention.
To avoid fire damage and gas explosion turn off power supplies and remove all combustibles from the premises (this will also help prevent infestation). Isolate and drain down water and heating systems to avoid flooding. Where this is not possible consider adding anti-freeze to central heating systems, and maintain a minimum temperature of 7 degrees celsius within the property at all times.
For larger commercial properties, or those in more remote locations, the above precautions still apply – but you may need a different level of approach. For example: you wouldn’t want to disconnect all utilities where you have existing security or fire protection systems in place, including:
- Security alarms, security cameras / CCTV and motion-activated lighting, and water sprinklers.
- Where power has been disconnected you might want to consider engaging a security firm which installs battery powered and remotely monitored security systems.
- Ground and accessible upper floor windows should be externally boarded up with plywood or steel sheeting.
- Making sure that all windows and doors are securely locked is paramount. Using heavy duty and multiple locks also creates a visual deterrent to potential intruders. (Main entry doors should be secured by a 5 lever mortice deadlock or suitable equivalent to BS3621).
- Existing intruder and fire alarms systems should be connected and maintained by a firm listed on a suitably accredited inspectorate body. Similarly ensure any guarding contractors are accredited by the relevant bodies.
- Such contractors may also be involved in carrying out regular inspections to determine if any damage has occurred that needs to be remedied e.g. structural storm damage.
- Significant health hazards can be caused as the result of intruders discarding rubbish, even syringes, and by fly-tippers – which, in turn, encourages infestation by vermin.
- Regular inspection and maintenance will ensure boundary fences are kept intact and grounds kept clear of rubbish. Clearing garden waste, like overgrown shrubs, will also remove any potential hiding place for would-be intruders.
*Urban exploring is thought to be increasing in popularity mainly due to its alluring presence on social media. Although strict codes of conduct exist within explorer communities – namely that those entering derelict buildings should “take nothing but photographs, leave nothing but footprints” – it’s a dangerous pastime (there are a number of instances where urban explorers have died) and the establishment of a route into a building can in itself mean that it becomes a target for criminal damage. Furthermore, with a growing number of followers, it is inevitable that these rules, however well-intentioned, will not be adhered to by many.
This article is supported by our risk management partners, Health & Safety Click. For more information, please visit www.archriskmanagement.co.uk. To register is free if you are an existing Arch policyholder. If you require more information, please contact your local Arch branch manager.