About one in 20 houses in the UK lie empty. Nearly a million homes haven’t been occupied for the past six months or more, often to the detriment of the property itself. As this is a waste of precious resources, various initiatives, both public and private, have been established to encourage people to bring these properties back to life, and to help both existing owners and those who want to buy one and take on its renovation.
But first, you need to find the property. If you have a particular area in mind, the simplest solution is to approach local estate agents as, although rundown properties are rarely shown in their windows, if a property is for sale it will be on at least one agent’s books. Alternatively, for wider searches, there are subscription-based websites, such as www.plotfinder.net and www.propertyrenovate.com, where properties suitable for renovation are listed.
Even if a property isn’t for sale, the owner may still be willing to sell it if approached. Empty property not advertised for sale takes a bit more tracking down, but only a bit. Most local councils can supply a list of empty properties, and many have an empty-houses officer whose job it is to increase the housing stock by getting empty property occupied, and who can provide details and advice. Some councils are more helpful than others-if you encounter an unhelpful one, make a written request to see the empty-property list citing the Freedom of Information Act 2000.
If you’ve found your property, but still need to find its owner, you can get this information from HM Land Registry for a small fee. If the building is privately owned, but the owner is unwilling to sell or to improve the property, or if the owner can’t be traced, you can approach the local authority to make a compulsory purchase order. However, this is a complicated, lengthy business, as the council will first try to negotiate with the owner to improve the property. If a compulsory purchase is made, the council will normally attach preconditions when it comes to selling it relating to the building’s future use.
It’s estimated that about one-eighth of Britain’s empty houses is publicly owned. If the building is in England or Wales and is in public ownership-for example, a former Ministry of Defence home then, in most instances, a Public Request To Order Disposal can be made to the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government asking to investigate why a property has been left empty. The Secretary of State has the power to order public authorities to dispose of empty homes or land.
If successful, in both these instances the property will then be sold on the open market, so you might see all your hard work going to benefit another who then snaps up the property. But there are also cases where properties have been sold for as little as £1, in recognition of the huge cost they’ll take to be restored to a habitable state.
Getting a mortgage to fund the works needed to a dilapidated property is hard as most lenders lend on the present value of the property. Certain lenders, such as the Ecology Building Society, offer mortgage schemes tailored towards renovation projects. However, lenders won’t provide money up front, but will release it in stages as renovation progresses. Some lenders will issue funds for the next stage of renovation in advance of that work starting, others only after it’s been completed. In the latter instance, the owner will have to find the money up front from somewhere else in the short term to pay to get the next stage of renovation started.
Local authorities can provide grants and loans for renovating property, again often with a proviso as to the use of the completed building, such as the owner agreeing to lease it to the council or a housing association for a set period. If the property is of historical importance, the owner might be eligible for a grant from national bodies such as the Heritage Lottery Fund or English Heritage, or from a local conservation scheme.
Empty Homes Agency (www.emptyhomes.com)
HM Land Registry for England and Wales (www.landregistery.gov.uk)
Registers of Scotland Executive Agency (www.ros.gov.uk)
Land Registry of Northern Ireland (www.Irni.gov.uk)
Ecology Building Society (www.ecology.co.uk)