There’s nothing more disheartening to see a lovely old house abandoned, forlorn and forgotten, and left for nature to reclaim what was once hers, but why do houses become empty or derelict and what happens to the house when it’s left empty for a long period of time?
Visit many towns and cities in more or less any country and evidence of past glory and present decay are all too evident. The recession of the past few years has seen the problem increase hugely, with workplaces closing, effectively condemning entire communities to rack and ruin, but this is nothing new.
Is there a problem in the UK with empty homes?
When times go bad, owners of larger homes often can no longer afford the upkeep of such a large home and look to make severe cutbacks such as the selling of land or parkland, selling buildings on the land to others for redevelopment and sub dividing larger homes into flats.
The government stated that……
“Empty homes in England account for 3% of the total housing stock. According to Council Tax Data collected by local authorities, there were 734,000 vacant dwellings at the end of September 2010.
Out of those, 301,000 are in the private sector, which accounts for 1.6% of all private sector stock. Empty homes brought back into use can contribute to the housing supply to meet local needs and help tackle homelessness, prevent neighbourhood decline and regenerate areas.”
There are of course socio economic factors are play too, but in this article, we mainly look at what happens when a house is left to rot, rather than WHY as there are a multitude of reasons why, including war, the loss of local industry and wealth, cliff erosion for seaside homes, wider political reasons, increased taxation and so on.
However, here is a brief list of why I think homes get left empty.
The reasons why houses get left empty indefinitely.
There are several common reasons why homes become empty and they are:
- The inability of the owner to financially meet the cost of repairs and the upkeep of the house.
- Planning restrictions relating to the occupancy of the property.
- Access problems such as land disputes or road closures.
- Problems with leaseholders or banks.
- Difficulty in finding tenants to live there.
- The property may be languishing on the subdued housing market for too long because of market conditions or poor pricing and marketing of the house.
- Problems with someone inheriting the house and they are untraceable or may not even know they suddenly own a property somewhere.
- Problems with death duties or unpaid taxes.
- Stubborn owners refusing to let the property for whatever reason or investment reasons, waiting for the market to rise before repairing the house.
- Development reasons, but plans have gone awry for some reason.
What happens to a long term empty house?
The generally accepted definition of an empty home is one that has been unoccupied for at least 6 months, however this is somewhat vague and does not take into account military housing or holiday homes which can be also empty for long periods of time, much to the chagrin of the people in the UK who cannot afford a decent home.
What happens to empty property is not just a matter of concern to the actual owner of the building, but a house that is left to its own devices will over time have knock-on effects that are far from desirable.
Problems caused by empty homes.
An empty house can have an adverse effect on the houses around it and in some cases, can affect the value of neighbouring homes, or in extreme cases, the entire street.
The effect on the neighbouring houses
If you are trying to sell your house for £200,000 and the empty house next door has a rusting Ford Sierra outside, an overgrown garden and the roof falling in, chances are your home will lose up to a QUARTER of its market value or will not sell at all.
Burglary and crime.
An empty house is a target for crime and criminals have been known to store stolen goods in empty houses, commercially grow cannabis in abandoned homes or sell drugs from the house.
In addition, the property can be targeted by burglars out to steal anything and that includes the radiators and other metal in the home such as pipes, for scrap.
Squatters and illegal occupation
When a house is empty, especially in areas that are in high demand such as central city locations or holiday areas, they can attract illegal occupants or squatters. Sometimes these are well meaning people who cannot afford or find a decent home and many undertake repairs and upkeep to the house themselves, at their own cost.
Then there are illegal workers, illegal immigrants, criminals on the run, who need somewhere to live and many of them wreck the property and then move on to another one at a later date.
Homes with no-one living there are a target for arsonists, often mischievous kids or teens who may not quite know the gravity of their actions, some would suggest.
Fires can also start accidentally from leaking gas pipes and/or faulty or damp electrics, again, related to no maintenance.
A house with no-one living there can attract vermin such as rats, or even wild dogs or cats, which can cause untold damage and nuisance to neighbouring homes.
In addition, a lack of sanitation use, cleaning, flushing of toilets etc., means that the sewers from the house do not get flushed through on a regular basis and start to emit rather unpleasant smells, plus allowing vermin to enter the house.
A lack of cleaning in the area also can bring a sense of foreboding and despair to the whole area.
Vegetation can also become a nuisance with trees and bushes slowly growing into the rafters, roots undermining foundations and so on. This situation is often referred to as a house being “reclaimed by nature”
Perhaps the most severe cases of this abandoning of a home is the detrimental affect to the actual structure itself, with bricks being allowed to erode, paint flaking off, rendering cracking and windows falling out.
So all in all, an empty home is NOT a good thing, whether speaking from a community point of view, the point of view of someone who has to look out each day on a neighbouring wreck, or for someone who despairs at finding a decent place to live on our small island, most would agree, it’s not good!
What can be done about an empty home?
All is not lost and there are several things that can be done in the situation of an empty house which is falling into disrepair or worse.
Information for owners
If you own a building that is empty and unloved then SHAME ON YOU.
There may be a legitimate reason beyond your control such as the reasons we highlighted above, OK fair enough, but with the millions of people in the UK living in cramped, sub standard accommodation, and our young people priced off the housing market, the home should NOT remain empty, even if for the points I raised.
Information for concerned residents
The first thing would be to approach your local council.
Many local councils in England and Wales have a special department for empty homes, and they try and make contact with the owner to find the reason why it is abandoned, and then liaise with several agencies to try and get the property back into use again.
What is the UK government doing about empty homes?
We asked the then Lib Dem MP for Torbay, Adrian Sanders what the government were doing about the problem and he kindly responded by saying….
“There are a lot of measures the Government is looking at but on the whole how to implement them has been left up to local authorities.
The option to impose an empty homes levy-a large increase in council tax for empty properties-has done quite a lot to encourage the owners to sell or rent their properties.”
Well, the formulation of the Homes and Communities Agency sought to tackle this problem head on and a vide0 has been produced giving information on what can be done about empty UK properties,
The government seem to be at least making some sort of progress on the housing problem and are working with local authorities to bring empty homes back into use for those who need them.
I have emailed a few MP’s for their own views and will update this article once they reply.
One final point and at least one piece of good news.
The photo we started the piece with is of “Park manor”, which was an abandoned mansion house in Warrington, Cheshire, which is actually now, with our help, a fine dining restaurant called “Spirit”, pictured below. (yes it IS the same building!).
Original article by Guy Alexander Bell, Bsc.(hons.). Surveyor.