Latest government statistics reveal there are over 200,000 long-term vacant dwellings in England. Leaving a property unoccupied for a long period can lead to problems, such as water escape, theft or vandalism, and a large expense for the landlord. Property owners need to be aware of how they can protect their homes and reduce any potential damage, plus make sure their insurance policy is adequate and valid.

There are many reasons why a house may be classed as empty or vacant. It could be undergoing renovations, have been inherited by a family member, the owners may live abroad or it may have been on the housing market for a long time. From a society perspective, of course these properties would be better served having tenants or owners. The current housing shortage can only be addressed if the housing stock rises and more properties are available for rent or to buy.

For landlords, an empty property clearly means no revenue from rent. Some local authorities will impose higher council tax charges for landlords if a property is deemed to be unnecessarily vacant for an extended period of time. The house can also become a big financial burden if it is struck by one of many problems while no-one is living there. Water escape and damage can be a significant issue. If central heating and boiler systems are not regularly used, particularly in cold weather, then burst pipes and airlocks can result in expensive repairs and further damage. Even a leaky tap or faulty washer can, over several weeks or months, lead to a nasty flood. Dangerous gas leaks can potentially go undetected as well. A vacant house is a prime target for burglars, making the risk of theft a very real one. Even attempted theft can cause damage and breakages that require considerable effort to repair. And then there’s the threat of squatters gaining access and the problems associated with removing them.

To stave off these threats, landlords need to be alert and proactive. Regular house visits and inspections are essential to check there are no issues inside or outside the property. Leaving a contact with a cooperative neighbour is always a wise move. If a problem occurs, such as a faulty lock, broken gate or temperamental boiler, it’s always best to have them repaired or checked by a professional as soon as they arise. All windows should have a key operated lock and doors are much more resistant with a five-lever mortice deadlock. A burglar alarm is a great deterrent, as is using timer lights inside the property and sensor lights around the house. Disconnect any electrical devices inside that don’t need constant power, like televisions and microwaves, and leave central heating systems on a low or frost setting. Switching boilers off completely, particularly in cold weather, is generally not recommended.

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As important as all of these, is to make sure your home insurance is valid for a vacant property. Most insurers define ‘vacant’ as a period of 30 or more consecutive days. In many instances a regular insurance policy will not be suitable if a claim happens due to the house being unattended for that length of time. More reputable insurance companies will usually offer variable cover for when the property has no tenants, ranging from three to 12 months, and a range of factors to protect against such as water escape, fire, explosion, theft and lightning. Many landlords opt for a policy that has a good level of legal cover and one that will handle the tricky business of having squatters removed in accordance with UK laws. Leaving a property unoccupied for a significant amount of time is a situation most landlords will have to address. If this is the case, the landlord should also take some time to ensure their property is suitably protected.

While there are many reasons why properties may be left unoccupied, it’s recommended to try to keep them occupied wherever possible. Having people to report problems when they’re in the building can be a quick alarm system. Also, having people in a property, paying rent means you can recoup some of the costs, and pay off the mortgage.

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