It can be devastating coming home from an extended holiday or coming back from taking a construction break on your property and finding that it has been broken into and people are now squatting there. Any kind of break-in is a stressful and frightening experience and often has a lasting effect on the owner of the property, however unlike in the event of a burglary; you now have to deal with people who have broken into your home without permission.
It is commonly thought that there is a grey area in the law when it comes to the squatter’s rights and evicting squatters from your property; however in most cases it is quite straightforward. What is important is that you know your legal rights and that you alert the proper authorities as soon as possible so that they can take matters into their own hands and prevent any further damage to your possessions or your property.
When is it Illegal?
Squatting becomes illegal the minute someone enters your residential with the intent to stay there without express permission from the owner or without your knowledge. People can be arrested for squatting if they enter any residential building that has been adapted into a living space; including temporary dwellings and repurposed flats. It is also an offence if they intend to live in a property without permission for any period of time and if they are aware or they should be aware that they are trespassing.
When is it Legal?
If someone enters your land or non-residential building in order to stay there without permission, although it is a moral crime it is not in itself a crime. However it is a crime if the land is damaged or vandalised in any way. In many cases it is a crime not to leave land or property when asked to do so by the owner, the police, and the local council or by a repossession order.
If the squatters have first entered the property with permission – as is the case with tenants and licensees – then they cannot be arrested unless you go to a professional to get the property repossessed and the tenants evicted. Examples in which this may occur could be that the tenants fall behind on or refuse to pay rent, or if the tenancy has come to an end and the current tenants have not yet moved out.
In some long term cases, the squatters will gain a certain level of ‘rights’ to the property. However this only comes into effect if a single or succession of squatters has occupied the property for a period of ten years or more. This is rare and normally only occurs in unused or inherited property, but it is important to bear in mind.
What can you do?
If you find squatters in your property it is important that you call the police to report a criminal offence. Do not attempt to remove them personally as this may lead to an escalation. The police have the power and authorisation to enter and search a property for persons suspected of squatting. This offence can lead to a maximum of 6 months in prison, a fine of up to £5,000 or both.
If you suspect squatters have set up in a neighbour’s property and you know that they’ve not asked anyone to stay at the house when they are away, you are also within your rights to call the police with your suspicions.
It is important to remember that although most squatters are normally homeless people, you should not let this deter your decision to call the police. You may be worried of appearing heartless but the truth of the matter is that they are squatting illegally and there are housing schemes set up by the government designed to help squatters find somewhere safe and perfectly legal to stay. Do not be bullied, stay calm and simply call the police.
Content contributed by Mike James of Maltaward.
Photo credit to Iván Esteban Reina Ortiz