3 Years Running: Buy-To-Let Legal Services Award
The Sunday Times
It was their dream home, buy before they could move in, squatters beat them to it. Anna Mikhailova reports.
Moving house is stressful enough at the best of times - up there with divorce and a trip to IKEA - without squatters setting up camp in your new home between exchange and completion. That is just what happened to one unfortunate couple, however.
Last year, Emma and Dom Runacres put in an offer of £250,000 on a three-bedroom property in Mottingham, Kent. The house, which had belonged to the vendor's late mother, was in need of work, so the couple were allowed access before completion. Yet, in between their regular visits, five Lithuanian squatters moved in, parking their shiny new Audi TT on the drive.
"We had been round to the house on the Thursday morning, and on Friday they came and changed the locks," says Dom, 34, a construction-site manager.
The next four weeks turned into a nightmare for the Runacres - especially because they had already sold their own home for £210,000, which left the couple and their three children, Ellie, 9, Daisy, 4, and Layla, 1, stranded. Just days before Christmas, they had to move into a rented two-bed flat in Sidcup, and live out of boxes.
"You never think in a million years that this sort of thing will happen to you," says Emma, 29, who works in sales. "I thought I'd be 40 before I could get a house like that, and I became a little obsessed with it once we couldn't live in it.
"Every time I drove past, I noticed little things like the squatters' toiletries in the windows, and the fact that the bins were full. It was the small details that were upsetting."
The couple are far from alone. Squatting - which is considered an ancient right, rather than a crime, under English (but not Scottish) law, unless the police can prove breaking and entering or damage - is undergoing a resurgence in Britain, partly as a result of the recession. Squatters' numbers are also being boosted by a young generation of artists and activists who seek to make a political statement by moving into empty buildings.
In a case that made headlines, a north London family returned to their home after the Christmas holidays to find that it had been occupied by a group of Romanians. To add insult to injury, police then accused them of being "racist" for questioning the squatters' right to live in Britain. In another high-profile case last year, the Lister family, from Thames Ditton, Surrey, returned to their £1.2m property to find it had been taken over.
"We have seen an increase of 15%-18% in the number of squatters we've had to evict in the past year," says Paul Shamplina, co-founder of Landlord Action, a firm that deals with evictions and problem tenants. "It is happening more and more in ordinary houses, not just commercial buildings. It's mainly down to the recession: a lot of it is not being able to afford rent, especially in London."
Squatters have got smarter, too, and usually spend weeks monitoring a property before they move in, often sticking pieces of paper in the front door to see if it's ever opened, or pouring glue into the keyhole. They are usually well versed on the legal procedures to evict them, and how to make the most of loopholes. "Owners often feel the system is against them," Shamplina says.
When the squatters moved into the Runacres' new home, the vendor sought help from the police, but was told it was a civil matter, and that they couldn't help. As keen to sell as the Runacres were to buy (the deal was dependent on vacant possession), he decided to go and reason with the intruders.
According to the Runacres, when the owner and his girlfriend arrived, the front door was open. After they walked into the hallway, he was threatened by the squatters and his girlfriend found the sharp edge of a bowie knife pressed firmly against her neck. The couple retreated, unharmed but shaken, and were unable to progress with the sale. The police, however, were reluctant to get involved.
Landlord action was set up by landlords for landlords with problem tenants. That is, tenants who are in rent arrears or break some other part of a tenancy agreement. Landlord & tenant law is a specialist area and we found solicitor charges were too much and too vague. When you have a bad tenant you want to evict them fast. Any landlord would want a bad tenant out. they want advice and help with the law. And that's what we do. We are experts in this area and unlike solicitors, we only act for landlords, never tenants. And we'll help recover the outstanding rent. Our free advice line is open to all landlords and we have carried out thousands of evictions.