Monday, January 18, 2010

Ownerless Empty Homes - They Belong to the Queen

Of course one of the reasons that properties become empty is that a single owner-occupier dies. A number of people who contact us at the Empty Homes Agency are under the impression that when this happens the property doesn’t belong to anybody and it’s up for grabs. I’m sorry to disappoint again but The concept of ownerless property Bona Vacantia (Latin for ownerless property) does exist in British law, but more on that later. In fact the truth is weirder than you could imagine.

Firstly most people die having left a valid will. Where this happens an executor is appointed and the property is disposed of in the way the deceased wished. This process is called probate.

Sometimes the will expresses wishes that are ambiguous or cannot happen, and quite often people die without having left a will. Where this happens the property (estate) is said to be intestate. Where this happens administrators are appointed and the property is disposed of according to rules set down in the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975. This generally ensures that property is left to the deceased closest relatives.

In some cases people die with no valid will and no close relatives. This is where Bona Vacantia comes in. Under a little known feudal principle called Escheats, if no valid owner can be found the ownership passes to the crown. Of course Buckingham palace doesn’t get directly involved, the process is carried out by the Bona Vacantia division of the Treasury Solicitor. They make an effort to find the rightful heirs of the property and if unsuccessful dispose of it and treat the proceeds as general taxation.

In Cornwall and Lancashire, or to be precise the land covered by the Duchies of Cornwall and Lancaster the property passes not to the crown but to the Monarch personally through the Duchies of Cornwall and Lancaster. The Monarch has appointed a firm of solicitors Farrer and co to manage the process in a similar way to Treasury solicitors. Both Duchies claim that the proceeds of property is donated to charity and does not personally benefit the Queen or the Prince of Wales.
So for those morbid souls looking to pounce on an ownerless property after the owner had died - hard luck; the Queen Prince Charles and Alistair Darling have beaten you to it.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Liberal Democrats Empty Homes Announcement Today

Lots of people have proposed policies that would help get more empty homes into use. But few have proposed something truely game changing. But today the Liberal democrats did just that annoucing a bold policy that would help get 250,000 empty homes back into use. To put that in context that's a third of all the empty homes in England and three quarters of those that have been empty long-term. It would cost a fortune, £1.4billion made up of grants and loans. But they say that the bennefits would be felt by the creation of 100,000 new social homes, 65,000 new jobs and 150,000 private homes returned to use. In other words this isn't just about getting homes back into use it's a stimulus package to get the building industry working on rennovating exisiting homes rather than hoping the market for building new homes picks up. For more info see here

Monday, January 11, 2010

Old Empty Home Falling Down - Let's Do Nothing

Heston in West London is not an area known for its heritage. It was the birthplace of Jimmy Page, but he’s still alive. Most people just know it as a service station on the M4. So when local Hestonians found out that they had a 600-year-old house in their town it is not surprising that they wanted it looked after. Sadly that’s exactly the opposite to what has happened. The Hermitage is in a pitiful state. No roof and experts reckon the walls will fall down if remedial work doesn’t start in the next 18 months.

The Hermitage is, to put it mildly, in the latter stages of decline following years of neglect. In cases like this it’s easy to say something should have been done years ago. It’s also easy to say that the council should sort it all out. The truth is when properties get into this state there are usually very few options left, and most of the options are in the hands of the owner. The cost of renovation will be enormous, the management of restoration will be a nightmare, and the potential for a public pillorying if it all goes wrong - huge. The clock is ticking, and if the only option on the table is imperfect it’s probably still better than doing nothing. Which is why it’s a bit odd that when the owner of the Hermitage proposed to renovate and turn it into a care home, local MP Alan Keen said “We certainly don’t want the council to give planning permission to anyone else to do anything nasty to it. I would like to see it kept and that’s what the residents want, and it’s my duty to support them.” Of course Alan Keen has a bit of history on this subject. His own house in Hounslow is apparently still empty following a debacle with Squatters, Comedian Mark Thomas, and the MP's expenses scandal. It's easy to say what shouldn't happen but in the absence of a better idea that's little better to a death sentence to a house with little time left.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Help Yourself to Free Empty Property?

Every week or so we get a call from somebody who has spotted an empty property and wants to know how they can claim it for themselves. The BBC TV series “Britain’s Empty Homes” that started this week has prompted viewers to ask us this question on an almost daily basis. The people who ask believe that because a property is unused, it is freely available to anybody who wants it. All you have to do, they think, is get there first, lay claim and hey presto it belongs to you. These callers area usually disappointed when we explain that it doesn’t quite work like that. What everybody else may be surprised to hear is it’s not entirely untrue either.

The legal concept here is a bit of common law called Adverse Possession. It goes back to the days of Henry V111. In essence it says that if somebody squats a property or piece of land for 12 years without being challenged they can apply to become the registered owner. If the original owner can’t disprove the claim they loose title.

In practice it only works like this for property or land that is not registered with Land Registry. The Land Registration Act of 2002 introduced new rules for registered land that better protects the rights of the owner. The squatter can apply to become the registered owner after they have occupied the property for 10 years. Land Registry then contacts the land owner gives them notice of what as happened. They have 65 business days to object. If they don’t the squatter becomes the registered owner, If they do the application fails and the owner is free to evict the squatter. However if after another two years the squatter is still there, they can apply again and they’ll almost certainly successfully become the new registered owner, even if the original owner objects.
More details from the Land Registry here