What is an unoccupied property?

What comes to mind when you hear “unoccupied property?” Perhaps it’s the house down the road from you that seems a little quieter than it should be or something that resembles a haunted house with broken windows, high levels of decay, and even some graffiti.

The truth is that both of these types of vacant properties, and everything in between, are far more frequent than you might think! In 2020, according to government figures, there were 268,385 homes in England that had been empty for at least 6 months.

This is due to a number of reasons, however, what many property owners don’t realise is that an unoccupied property can present difficulties when it comes to your insurance. So, you may be wondering what an unoccupied property is and what it can mean for you. If so, you’ve come to the right place.

In this article, we’ll not only explore what the definition of an unoccupied property is, but also the implications for your insurance and some tips for maintaining them.

  1. What is an Unoccupied Property?
  2. What is the difference between an unoccupied and vacant property?
  3. Tips for maintaining an unoccupied property

1. What is an Unoccupied Property?

A property is classed as “unoccupied” when there is not a clear human presence in the property. There may be, however, other materials present such as appliances, furniture, or personal items such as clothing.

From an insurance perspective, there is normally coverage for an empty property for a certain period of time – typically between 30-60 days. Insurers understand there are reasonable circumstances that may cause someone to leave their home empty for an extended period of time such as travel or extensive renovations.

If you plan on leaving your property “unoccupied” for an extended period (longer than what is covered in your current insurance policy), it may be worth checking your current policy and updating it accordingly.

2. What is the difference between an unoccupied and vacant property?

You’d be forgiven for thinking that the words “vacant” and “unoccupied” are interchangeable when referring to an empty property. This is because, in most circumstances, these words effectively mean the same thing. From an insurance perspective, however, the difference between these terms is very important.

For a property to be classified as “unoccupied”, possessions need to be present as if the owners or residents could return at any given time. A “vacant” property is defined by the law as being “completely empty” – that means absent of a human presence, along with any possessions.

Many insurance policies will include occupancy cover in some cases (as discussed), but vacancies are another matter. In fact, it’s quite common for insurance policies to contain vacancy exclusions. This is because a vacant property presents a high level of risk for insurers, as they are more attractive targets for vandals, squatters, and thieves. The level of risk only increases the longer a property is left completely empty.

Having these exclusions in your policy could mean that you aren’t covered for incidents like malicious damage (such as broken windows), vandalism, flooding, theft, and more.

This can be problematic for property managers, as there are reasonable occasions when your property may be vacant. For example, this could be an unfurnished rental property that is waiting to be filled with a tenant. So, what can you do to help yourself in a situation where you have a vacant or unoccupied property?

Let’s find out. 

3. Tips for maintaining an unoccupied property

1. Keep up Appearances
As we discussed earlier, one of the key differences between an “unoccupied” and “vacant” property is the presence of possessions. So, make a conscious effort to make the property appear occupied to disguise the fact that it’s empty.  This will deter any would be thieves, squatters or vandals.

Position some furniture and belongings within the property, especially in rooms visible through exterior windows. Try to avoid letters and packages piling up (especially in visible areas), and letting other signs of neglect appear – such as an untidy garden or unemptied bins.

Another trick you can use is lights set on timers. Especially if you’re keeping your windows closed, this can create the appearance that someone is present in the property which is a great deterrent for thieves.

2. Get Help

If you are unable to visit your property on a regular basis, why not get someone to help you monitor your asset?

If you have a neighbour that you trust, this can be a great place to start. Given their location, they can monitor your property with ease and notify you and the police should they notice anything suspicious. Give them a set of keys so they can collect mail, move items around the rooms, and change the position of curtains to create the appearance of a resident.

Another option is to ask someone you trust to stay at the property either full time or on an intermittent basis to help safeguard your asset. This could be a family member, a friend, or someone else that you trust. It’s important that a clear understanding is shared between you and whomever you share this responsibility with.

Alternatively, you can hire a property guardian. This is someone who will protect a vacant building from antisocial behaviour, vandalism, and squatters. Typically, they will pay you a small amount of rent which will help you to offset some of your maintenance costs. There are multiple services that will advertise your property and help you to find pre-screened guardians. There may be some fees to use these services.

3. Get the Right Insurance

Not having the right insurance for your unoccupied property leaves you vulnerable and unprotected. No matter the reason that has caused your property to be unoccupied or vacant, you need to ensure your asset is protected. Getting the right policy means you can rest easy knowing that you’re covered in case of fire, flood, theft, or any other unfortunate events.  Make sure you check the terms of your unoccupied property insurance policy to ensure you comply with insurer requirements.

4. Manage Utilities

Leaving your utilities running and connected, such as gas and water, increases the risk of accidents. When the gas and water is in regular use, they are less likely to cause problems. So, disconnect your utilities to avoid any accidents and save money on bills.  This is especially important during the winter months when pipes are prone to freezing and bursting.  If you cannot disconnect the water supply, central heating should be kept on low to prevent pipes freezing. This may also be a requirement for some insurers.

5. Install a Security System

Many people make the mistake of thinking they only need to protect their property if it contains valuables. If anything, a vacant or unoccupied property is a more appealing target for anti-social behaviour. Installing a security system will add a further layer of protection by deterring crime and vandalism.

Depending on the system you choose, you may even be able to monitor your property remotely from wherever you are. Having a security system can also help to make insuring your asset easier and more affordable.

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