The implications of owning a vacant property

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A curious tale of adverse possession hit the headlines recently. Twenty years ago an Australian property developer, Bill Gertos, came across an empty house in Sydney. He changed the locks on it, carried out some repairs and began renting it out to tenants.

At the end of 2018 Mr Gertos won a landmark legal battle against relatives of the property’s previous owner and was granted ownership under a law that recognises squatters’ rights.  The house has been estimated to be worth a little under £1m.

What is adverse possession?

Adverse possession is a legal principle that allows a person to claim a right to land that is owned by someone else. For example, this could be through continuous use of a private road or cultivation of a unused piece of land. In Mr Gertos’ case it was an uninhabitable and unoccupied residence.

Adverse possession rewards the productive use of land and punishes landowners who "sleep on their rights." Mr Gertos spent nearly 150,000 Australian dollars on repairing and renovating the property before he let it out and continued to look after it for twenty years.

The family argued that Mr Gertos had not acted openly, meaning he should not be able to claim ownership through squatting laws.

However, the court ruled that he had “succeeded in taking and maintaining physical custody of the land, to the exclusion of all others.”  The family are planning to appeal the decision.

Is my property at risk from adverse possession?

In order to assess whether your property is at risk it’s important to understand the law around adverse possession, your rights and those of others.

In England, it is possible to claim adverse possession if;

  • You have occupied a property for 10 year (or 12 years if it is not registered with the Land Registry).

  • You have acted as the owner of the property for that entire period of time.

  • You did not have the owner's permission e.g. the property was not originally rented to you.

There are a number of elements within these requirements that also need to be met;

  • The person seeking adverse possession must occupy the piece of land in a manner that is open and clear and must not make efforts to remain undetected.

  • The land must be occupied exclusively by the person who is seeking adverse possession and may not be shared with the public or the true owner.

  • The occupation must be adverse to the interests of the true owner. So if the landowner has given permission to a person to use the property then the possession is not considered to be hostile.

  • Possession of the land must continue for the jurisdiction’s predetermined statutory period.

  • Possession must be continuous – although this may be consistent with the type of land or property being possessed, for example, this may be only during the winter or summer months.

Adverse possession of the title to government-owned land may not be obtained.

Someone has made an adverse possession claim on my property, what shall I do?

If your property is registered with the Land Registry then they will inform you if anyone makes an application for possession. It’s important you act quickly if you want to keep the title registered to you.

As the owner of a registered property you get 65 days to object to an application for possession.

If you are successful in your objection and there are squatters in your property you may need to take further action to remove them and fully reclaim your property.

You can remove squatters using an interim possession order, or by making a full claim for possession.

It is best to get legal advice from a solicitor if you need any help making a claim for possession.

How can I protect my property from adverse possession?

Depending on your personal circumstances it may not be possible for you to keep a frequent, close eye on the property or land that you own.

By its very nature, vacant property is most vulnerable to unwanted intrusion and there are a number of steps you can take to protect it while it remains unoccupied.  Security systems, such as alarms and CCTV monitoring can act as both a deterrent and provide vital evidence should you need to present this during legal proceedings.

You may also want to consider bolstering windows and doors with timber or steel hoardings, and securing outbuildings and garden gates with a robust locking system and heavy duty bolts.

We Can Help

At MW Solicitors, our mission is “to make quality legal services accessible to everyone” including those who find themselves in the victims of adverse possession.

Our specialist Property Dispute Solicitors are here to offer a helping hand and to guide you though the process of defending or making a claim of adverse possession.  Don't delay talk to our experts today on 020 3551 8500 or use our Contact Us form to arrange a callback.

This is a guest blog from SafeSite Security Solutions who provide professional vacant property security products and services, for your peace of mind. Safe Site Security Solutions can also handle all types of property clearance and waste removal, carried out in a responsible and ethical manner.

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