GETTING RID OF SQUATTERS - ADVICE FROM LETTINGFOCUS.COM
LettingFocus.com landlord expert David Lawrenson explains what you need to know to get rid of squatters.
Property consultant David Lawrenson of www.LettingFocus.com says, "Squatters are possibly every landlord’s worst nightmare."
WHEN A SQUATTER IS NOT SQUATTING
First things first, if your tenant decides not to leave when he should - say after the expiration of a section 21 notice - he’s not a squatter.
For tenants like this you have to use normal court processes to get them out and not rely on your own “self help” measures.
For evictions of assured shorthold tenants following non-payment of rent or because they have not left at the end of the tenancy and after the appropriate correct notices have been served, you can probably follow the court procedures yourself without having to pay for the services of a solicitor.
THE REAL SQUATTERS
Real squatters are people who have no right to be in your property, either because your tenant has let them in (and they are not on the tenancy agreement and there has been no agreement by you to allow your tenants to sub-let), or they could be a third party who has simply let themselves in, while the property was left empty, unoccupied and unsecured.
In effect they are trespassers. (In fact there is no legal definition of squatter!)
If a trespasser is in occupation you ARE able to rely on self help measures (i.e. not involving the court) to get the property back.
Clearly, what you have to do is somehow get into the property and change the locks and secure it. But herein lies a problem.
Although you can do this yourself - and you would be wise to have the police there when the squatters come back what you cannot do is use forceful entry if one of the squatters is actually in the property at the time and opposes you.
SQUATTERS DON'T DO TRADITIONAL WORK
Of course, all clued up squatters know this, and so they always make sure that someone is in the property at all times. Since many won’t have what one would describe as "traditional jobs" involving working 9 to 5, this is often not a problem for them.
And if you ask the police, you'll usually find they will not be interested in helping you.
In these cases, if you try to get them out the squatters will probably quote the relevant law which is section 6 of the Criminal Law Act 1977 - and no doubt call the police to stop you from trying to evict them.
To counter this you will need to use the special court processes for trespassers. Usually the paper can be issued in less than four weeks but if you go down this route (or indeed any route to get rid of squatters) you are strongly advised to use the services of a solicitor to help you.
For most people this will be the most attractive option and is usually easier than waiting in vain for them to go out so you can nip in and change the locks. It is also much better from the point of view of your own physical safety!
The good thing here will be that you will usually only have to wait about a month and the occupiers will nearly always go just before the bailiffs arrive, taking their stuff (or at least the stuff they want to take) with them.
If the property was your former home, or was somewhere that you were about to move into then this should mean you have a right to get back in more quickly.
If this is the case though you will need to prove it was your former home or that you have recently bought it and intended to move into it as your home.
WHAT IF YOUR TENANT LETS SQUATTERS IN?
If your tenant let squatters in (and assuming you did not allow your tenant to sublet to them), it gets a bit more complicated.
What happens here depends upon whether your tenant told you he was going or not.
If he didn’t say he was leaving - then even if you suspect that he has definitely left and even though someone else is in the property - it’s probably best to be safe and pursue the normal track court possession routes through the courts to get possession. (In other words, you would still in effect have to assume that your tenant was in possession!)
To avoid people just letting themselves in to your property and becoming squattertrespassers, its essential to keep your property secured at all times, especially between tenancies and before the completion of the conveyancing.
Windows should not be left open because with no evidence of forced entry, squatters cannot be treated as burglars.
To avoid letting to tenants who up sticks and abandon a property to others, you have to rely on doing a thorough reference check on all tenants, including a check with former landlords.
In September 2012 a new law made squatting a potentially criminal, as opposed to civil offence (as was the case previously).
At LettingFocus we are very sceptical if this will make much difference - and in a blog from Septmeber 2012 we showed just how easy it will be for squatters to avoid prosecution under the criminal law - and why the police may still be just as reluctant to enforce the law as they were when this was a civil offence.
GET PROFESSIONAL ADVICE
Finally, a word of caution, this article is a rough guide only and not intended to offer, replace or substitute proper legal advice in any way.
So, if you have a problem with squatters you are strongly advised to seek proper legal advice from a solicitor experienced in dealing with squatters and housing law.
ABOUT DAVID LAWRENSON AND LETTINGFOCUS
At LettingFocus.com our main work is our consultancy role in which we help organisations and public bodies with their products and services for the private rented sector.
If you are from an organisation or the media please go to our home page: LETTING FOCUS HOME PAGE.
As well as our work for organisations, we also offer a limited amount of unbiased consultancy advice for landlords.
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