Getting Hold of Property
This section looks at:
1. Sources of Empty Property
2. Tracking Down Empty Properties
3. Putting Forward A Proposal To Owners
1. Sources of Property
Council or Housing Association Owned Empty Housing Stock
Despite what they might initially tell you most council housing departments and housing associations will have some surplus property. However you need to ask the right questions to find it!
Housing Associations and Councils (that still own traditional council homes) will inevitably own some properties that are empty. These fall into various categories and only some of which will be suitable for you to acquire.
- Management voids – These are empty homes that are between lets. Councils and housing associations will be very unlikely to make these available.
- Non-management voids – These homes are out of the general letting pool. They may be in poor condition, awaiting sale, demolition or refurbishment. Depending on how long the council expects them to be empty, you may be able to persuade the council or housing associations to make some of these available to you.
- Acquired voids – Councils sometimes compulsorily purchase privately owned homes. This may be to make way for a new road, a regeneration scheme or because they are causing local problems. Most councils are good at dealing with these sorts of property, but some are not. There are some like this in North London that have been empty for 35 years! In some cases councils may be willing to permit temporary use of these properties. Often responsibility for these properties lies with the Regeneration section of the council.
Transferred Council Housing Stock
About half of the councils in England and Wales have “stock transferred.” That means they have sold or given their council homes to an existing housing association, or one specially set up for the purpose – an ALMO.
Stock transferred councils however may still have surplus property. Most councils own shops some of these have empty flats above. Councils also own staff houses many of which have fallen out of use due to changing employment patterns. They may for example have empty caretaker houses near schools, or empty groundsman’s houses in or near parks or cemeteries. Responsibility for these properties rarely lies with council housing departments, but with obscure departments called things like Property Services, and Leisure Services. These properties are rarely saleable due to their location and so some councils may make them available to you.
Other Publicly Owned Property
There are of course many other publicly funded bodies that from time to time find themselves in ownership of empty properties. Among these are
- Other Council Departments ( eg education, social services)
- Health authorities
- The Department of Transport and Highway Departments :
- The Ministry of Defence
- The Prison Service
At one time or another they will all have properties on their hands which they own, or have been purchased for one reason or another and which are vacant pending the delays with the project in question( eg a new school, hospital or a new road).
The difficulty here is that they are not housing authorities and may take some persuading to accept that they have any obligation to put their assets to good use while they are standing empty.
Empty privately owned homes
85% of all empty homes are privately owned and both the number and the proportion are growing. However the ownership is diverse and sometimes obscure. Only a relatively small proportion will be suitable for temporary use, and most probably only a small proportion of owners will be interested in discussing it with you.
But it may still be worth looking into.
2. Tracking Down Empty Properties
There are a number of ways of tracking down empty properties and/or finding out who owns one that you’ve identified:
Using The Land Registry
If you’ve identified a particular property and want to find who owns it, then you can go to The Land Registry. This is a government owned register of land in England and Wales. The ownership of most properties is recorded on it. The register is “open”, meaning that anybody is able to see details held on any property in the register. The details include a title plan showing the boundaries of the land, and a title register showing ownership and details of anybody who has a financial interest in the property such a mortgagee. However, even though you’re able to identify the owner, you may find it difficult to actually get hold of them – it’s not unknown for people to give their address as that of the empty property in question. The easiest way to see the register is to view it on line at www.landregistry.gov.uk for a fee of £3 per property.
Approaching Councils or housing associations about their own stock
If you want to find out what’s available, then you could approach either your local council’s housing department or one or more local housing associations.
Generally speaking, it’s about establishing who it is exactly that you need to talk to to get the help you need, but it’s a good thing to find out generally about the situation in the area. You could do this by:
- attending any meetings dealing with housing that are public
- checking council housing and empty property strategies (see below)
- making contact with and speaking to local politicians &
- making contact with interest groups such as local residents associations
Many local authorities have an Empty Property Officer (EPO) and they may be a good place to start. Their job is really to chase privately owned empty properties, but if you explain what you’re trying to do, then they’re likely to be sympathetic and should be able to point you in the right direction within the council – it could be the housing department, the regeneration department or somewhere else
Housing associations won’t have an EPO and vary considerably depending on their size. It’s probably best to approach their housing management division, if they have one, or their regeneration team which should be keen to engage with the local community.
If you find it impossible to get anywhere, then it’s worth thinking carefully about making use of the local press. They tend to really like running stories about empty properties, while councils and housing associations hate them. If you do get a story about an empty property into the press, make sure that you come over as positive, offering a solution for the owner – make sure not to alienate them to the extent that they won’t want to talk to you and will never trust you.
Using The Freedom of Information Act.
This Act gives the power to everybody to request any information held by public bodies like councils and it’s possible to use it to request information held by the local authority on the addresses and ownership of empty homes. The council is obliged within 21 days to either provide the information or give reasons why they are legally unable to give it out. To find out more read this Empty Homes Agency article How to Make a Request.
A good way of making a request is via the website www.whatdotheyknow.com and it also includes details of the results of previous requests for information.
In making a request it is probably best to be as specific as possible, rather than just asking for a list of all properties, which could lead to you receiving a large amount of raw data. In this context you might be able to make use of Google Street View to identify properties in which you’re interested.
However, if you do make a request, remember that it is possible to get a negative response. Many local authorities refuse requests sometimes for good reasons, but sometimes for spurious ones. Most are worried about how information will be used. In relation to privately owned properties, case law allows them to give out information on properties owned by companies and organisations, but not by individual people.
Empty Property websites
ReportEmptyHomes.com is a not for profit website run by the Empty Homes Agency. It is designed simply to enable people to report empty property to the council and track what happens to it. It also however holds a large stock of reported empty homes that you can view.
The place that many empty homes come up for sale is at auction. Auctions are a quick and decisive way of disposing of property, which is why neglected properties that don’t have immediate saleability appeal are often sold through them. Loads of properties are sold through auctions every week, but thousands more fail to sell and some auction houses are willing to release the details. So you may be able to approach owners in this way.
For a comprehensive list of property auction houses in the UK from the Empty Homes Agency see here
Derelict historic buildings
Several organisations working to save historic buildings publish catalogues of buildings they consider to be at risk, many of which are empty and abandoned. The owners have not necessarily given permission for their property to be featured, and if you are interested in one you will need to find a way of persuade the owner to let you use it. Cherish or Perish is the current catalogue published by Save Britain’s Heritage (SAVE). This contains details of hundreds of properties across England and Wales (but not London). You can order of from their website www.savebritainsheritage.org
Local Authority Empty Property Strategies
Finally, do have a look to see if your local authority has an Empty Property Strategy. It won’t identify individual properties for you, but it may provide useful information about the extent of empty property in the area, how the local authority plans to deal with it and the names and details of officers within the council who are responsible for it.
If you want to see an example then here’s Birmingham City Council’s latest strategy document
3. Putting Forward A Proposal To Owners
Having identified a property and the owner, the next step is likely to involve persuading them to let you use it.
Whether or not you get a meeting with the owner, it’s likely that you’re going to need to put forward a written proposal and possibly make a presentation of some kind. Both these of these would need to cover:
- Details of Your Group/Organisation: Your suitability as a group/organisation to take on responsibility for managing a property. You need to demonstrate that you’re properly organised and led and that you’re capable of taking and carrying through decisions..
- Who Will Be Housed:Details of who you intend to house and how it will benefit them
- Financial Benefits: The financial benefits to the owner in terms of bringing the property back into use in terms of; income arising from the use of the property, savings in terms of vandalism, security and maintenance and the overall protection of the value of the property.
- Community Benefits: The benefit to the community arising from brining the property back into use in relation the surrounding area .
- Technical Competence: Your ability to carry out any necessary repairs
- Financial Viability: Your ability to raise the necessary money and manage your financial affairs
- Your Integrity: Your trustworthiness when it comes to honouring your undertaking to hand back the property at the end of the agreement.
- Referees: If you’ve got contacts with people who the owners trust, then you it might be worth getting them to act as your people who will support your proposal.
You could include the above in a letter or perhaps as a separate document. If you do the latter, then perhaps put a picture of the building(s) on the front cover.
For details of the sorts of agreement you might want to enter into with the owners, see Section 4. 6
Details of Local Authorities
All local authorities: http://www.direct.gov.uk/en/Dl1/Directories/Localcouncils/AToZOfLocalCouncils/index.htm
London Local Authorities: http://www.londoncouncils.gov.uk/
The Land Registry:
The Empty Homes Agency:
Freedom Of Information Inquiries: