Not all fairy tales end happily: Sue Fieldman warns of the pitfalls in claiming title to an apparently ownerless derelict property

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The Independent Online
YOU FIND a deserted property, claim legal title and live there happily ever after without paying a penny for it.

The scenario sounds just like a fairy tale - but, as in every fairy tale, there is an element of truth.

There are 9 million unregistered properties around the country and some are ripe for the taking. But they are few and far between. You should be wary before you part with any money in response to appealing advertisements that offer to help you stake your claim.

A spokesman for the Land Registry said: 'We are concerned that information which can be obtained free of charge from any of our 19 district land registries in England and Wales is being sold.

'We suggest everyone should have a chat with one of our inquiry points before proceeding.'

If you reply to an advertisement from Undiscovered Properties of 6 Elizabeth Avenue, Tattershall Bridge, Lincoln, you get three pages of explanatory literature.

The firm says: 'If you have determination, this could be the first day of your search for that piece of land, cottage or farmhouse that you have always dreamed of. Now you may not have to worry about the cost of it or about raising a mortgage; just go out and find it.'

But this is no get-rich-quick scheme. You cannot claim a legal title for 12 years.

'We know that seems an awful long time away,' UP adds. 'But it is something to look forward to which may make you reasonably well-off, and all the time the property will hopefully be increasing in value.'

UP makes its money not by finding the property - that is your responsibility - but by checking whether anyone owns it.

For a fee of pounds 81, which includes Land Registry fees, UP will make a search to see whether the property is registered and then get a copy of the register that has a plan and shows the name of the owner. The Land Registry fee if you do it yourself is pounds 21. If you want to take the matter further, UP makes extra charges.

You send your cheques to Fairytale Cottage, High Street, Harmston, Lincoln. However, we have been unable to trace a cottage with that address. There is also no telephone number listed.

The Land Registry has had similar problems. A spokesman said: 'We have checked with the electoral register and we understand there is no house called Fairytale Cottage in the High Street or anywhere else in Harmston.'

We then tried to contact UP at its address in Tattershall Bridge. There was no telephone number listed. Our letters to that address have provoked no response.

John Samson, property partner with the solicitors Nabarro Nathanson, advises that you should exercise caution before rushing out to stake a claim to the nearest derelict property.

He said: 'It is highly speculative. Who in their right mind would spend the time and energy when after 11 years and 11 months the true owner could turn up and throw them out?'

If you genuinely think that you have found a deserted property, first check around the locality if anyone knows the owner. If the owner is unknown there is a possibility it has been abandoned.

To discover whether a property is registered, and if so the name of the owner, is a simple procedure. The Land Registry has free explanatory leaflets.

Mr Samson warned: 'A considerable proportion of the country has not yet been registered. The fact that a property is not registered does not mean it is ownerless. It is highly unlikely that Buckingham Palace is registered.'

To obtain a possessory title you need to demonstrate that throughout the 12-year period you have openly asserted possession, for example by taking action such as fencing the property.

The problem arises in 12 years time if the Land Registry cannot be persuaded that the action was sufficient to amount to a claim that the property was yours.

Mr Samson advised: 'In a very recent case someone claimed ownership of an adjoining field by parking cars and boats on trailers for the whole period. The courts decided that this was not enough.

'There are not a lot of claims made for possessory title, although you do get the odd one or two successful ones.'

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