Owning two homes can be a flat too far: Burglars and squatters are a constant worry with empty property

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The Independent Online
JAMES and Sian Sharkey, both solicitors, got married last year. Prior to their marriage James lived in his flat in Brixton, south London, while Sian stayed in Kensal Green, north London.

Once married, James moved in with Sian while they decided whether to rent or sell his flat. They discovered that owning two properties can be a dubious luxury and a lasting worry. The problem, as Sian explains, was that 'we were very reluctant to leave the flat unoccupied for any length of time because of the danger of attracting squatters. There was also a constant danger of burglars.'

Even after Sian and James were married, James had to stay regularly at his flat to ensure that the household contents insurance policy was not invalidated.

Many insurance companies' policies insert special conditions to cover periods when premises are unoccupied. The Abbey National home insurance policy imposes special conditions to cover periods that last more than 30 consecutive days. In order for cover to remain in force, items such as the gas, oil and water systems must be turned off. In addition the property must be inspected regularly at least every 14 days.

If a residential property remains vacant for more than 30 consecutive days, many insurance companies' policies cease to provide cover for a wide range of claims such as damage caused by theft, vandalism, or burst water pipes.

Richard Vause, a chartered surveyor with Edgerley Simpson and partners, a London firm, observes: 'In my experience in dealing with both vacant residential and commercial properties many insurance companies, as a result of the losses suffered in the past, are reluctant to take on new risks when the property is already unoccupied. This usually comes to light when renewing a policy or shopping around for the cheapest quotation. Having said that, each property will be considered on its own merits. Obtaining cover is only part of the problem. In some circumstances, depending on the nature and location of the unoccupied property, premiums may increase sometimes by as much as 50 per cent of the occupied rate.'

One solution to the problems associated with leaving a property unoccupied is to let it, though this can create difficulties if you are trying to sell.

The most popular way for landlords to let a property, secure in the knowledge that they can regain possession at the end of the term, is to grant an assured shorthold tenancy. However, such tenancies must last for no less than six months.

Apart from burglary, the other worry for owners of unoccupied property is the increased threat of squatters. Joy Bailey, a solicitor with the Exeter law firm Ansty Sargent & Probert, said: 'The law governing squatters does have teeth, but if the correct legal procedures are not followed it is likely to bite back with a vengeance. The procedure for reclaiming a building where the squatters did not have permission to enter is relatively simple and speedy.'

The owners must show that they own the property, usually by means of title deeds. The necessary documents can be prepared and served by an experienced solictor within hours. The court will usually provide a hearing date within five days. If the court is satisfied that the squatters' entry was unlawful it will issue an immediate warrant for possession to the court bailiffs. The bailiffs will enforce the judgment as soon as possible.

As Joy Bailey explains, obtaining possession can be costly: 'Under this procedure you can claim only possession but not financial damages. The defendants will almost certainly be unemployed and untraceable after eviction so they are unlikely to bear the legal costs.'

Those who discover squatters are advised to act swiftly; delay may be construed as acquiescence. The squatters should not be given even a temporary right to remain and all services, such as electricity or water supply, should be cut immediately.

Joy Bailey strongly advises owners against taking matters into their own hands. She comments: 'You must keep the law on your side. The squatters will be aware that they have rights too and will go straight to the Citizens' Advice Bureau for help. They may be granted emergency legal aid if the owner has acted outside the law.'

Worse could follow: if force or violence is used, the squatters may be able to sue for assault or be granted an injunction that would allow them to remain in the property while matters are resolved. The owner could even end up with a criminal record.

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