It’s the ultimate nightmare scenario. You’ve had a hard week’s work and the weather looks like it’ll be good over the weekend, so you decide to drive up to your small holiday cottage that you fell in love with the first time you saw it.
You set off later that evening and after a long and tiring drive, you reach your cottage. As you put the key in the lock, something isn’t quite right. The door gives at your push. It’s unlocked already, and as you step over the threshold and look round at the small yet cosy front room, you realise that there are things missing. Valuable things...
It’s only a nightmare for most people, but it could happen to anyone, for a variety of reasons. We’re going to look at some of the ways we can manage properties which are unoccupied over significant periods of time and, in particular, the steps we can take to minimise the risk of anything untoward happening in our absence. We’ll also touch on the kind of unoccupied home insurance you’ll need in order to keep your property doubly secure.
How long can you leave a property empty?
There are a lot of empty properties in the UK. According to government statistics
, there are roughly 700,000 unoccupied properties of which 200,000 have been empty for six months or longer. Leaving your house or property empty for a period of time has consequences for your insurance coverage. Typically, insurance policies won’t cover an unoccupied property. Properties are normally considered as ‘unoccupied’ if it has been at least two months since anyone lived in them.
One way around this time limit is to ask a family member or some other trusted person to go and sleep overnight at the property one or two times a month while you are away on an extended trip, as it is, to all intents and purposes, ‘occupied’ and thus, doesn’t invalidate the policy.
How long can you leave a house empty without paying council tax?
There’s no hard and fast nationwide rule about exactly how long you can avoid paying council tax on an empty property. In fact, some homes don’t get a Council Tax bill for as long as
they stay empty.
However, you can be forced to pay double your Council Tax if your home has been empty for two years or more (unless it’s an annex or you’re in the armed forces).
How do I protect my house when away on holiday?
People looking to break into properties are generally on the lookout for places that actually look unoccupied. There are a number of signals they’ll look for that may indicate a property doesn’t have anyone there:
- There’s post and junk mail (leaflets, etc.) stuck inside the letterbox, or even outside on the ground.
- The lights are never on, even in the evenings.
- The curtains are closed during the day.
These are all green lights for potential thieves to give them an idea that a property is empty. That clearly makes it an easy target. It’s actually not that difficult to take the steps that give the impression that your home is inhabited. In the three cases above:
- Make sure you cancel any non-essential postal deliveries before you leave so that there’s less likelihood of a build-up of unopened envelopes and leaflets in your letterbox.
- Use a timer plug, which switches the lights on for certain periods during the day and evening. You set the periods and if it’s on at logical times (for example, between 6-10pm in the evening), it will serve as a deterrent for potential unwanted guests.
- Don’t pull your curtains fully closed while you’re away. You may worry that it will simply act as a ‘window display’ for thieves but if you’ve got a light on a timer, they may be cautious enough to avoid the temptation of approaching the house to look through the window.
These days, there are lots of gadgets and gizmos targeted at the security-conscious home-owner but remember if you are controlling any of the devices remotely, that could throw up a security threat. Devices controlled over the internet can be vulnerable to hacking, and there is certainly no shortage of dodgy characters who are perfectly capable of getting into your system (perhaps with a little help from their friends).
Despite those words of caution, the cost of home security has come down a lot in recent years and it is a far more fail-safe method of keeping burglars out. There’s a vast array of products to choose from at electrical retailers and sales staff will be more than happy to help you make sure you choose the best option for your home. If you really want to go the whole hog, some home security systems even let you view live video remotely and, using an app on your smartphone, monitor what’s happening in real time.
Publicise your security measures
Position warning stickers near the most obvious and simple entry points, such as front and back doors, side doors and garage doors. This highlights the attention you have given to implementing security measures while you are away.
Avoid at all costs leaving a ‘key under the stone’
Once they’ve seen your closed curtains, those thieves will probably conclude that you may well be the kind of person who would leave a front door key ‘under the stone’ just in case someone pops round who might need it. If it isn’t literally under a stone, it may have been placed on the ledge at the top of the front door frame. It’s much better to leave a key with a friend or neighbour rather than trying to hide it in an obvious place.
Install an outdoor sensor light
It’s a pretty straightforward and affordable option to position an outdoor sensor light on the front wall of your house. These are relatively cheap nowadays and act as a way of scaring off an intruder who strays too close to your front door or window. They are equipped with powerful motion-sensor floodlights and aren’t necessarily for use just when you’re away! Again, they can be set on a timer to come on and off at certain times of the day or night.
Disconnect your garage door
As we said, technology can be hacked. Electronically operated garage doors using a keyring button opener can often be opened with a universal remote-control console. The best measure is to disconnect or disable the garage door opener or even go retro and return to a manual lock.
Secure your outbuildings
If you have gardening or other tools and equipment in your outbuildings, they could be used by thieves to enter your home. Make sure all your items are securely tethered and the outbuilding is locked (and preferably padlocked).
Check your locking devices
It’s worth reinforcing sliding glass doors (French windows) by using locking bars to stop them from being opened. Make sure doors are all locked – check, double check and triple check as it may invalidate your house insurance if they’re not.
Natural (minor) disasters
Naturally, there are general risks for property,
and although they cannot be called major catastrophes, they may feel like that when you return home after a long trip away to find burst pipes, flooded ground floors and ruined possessions.
Problems like utility leaks, storm damage and/or flooding, or fire need to be anticipated. Apart from the loss of items, these can be extremely costly to put right even if you’re at home when it happens. The risk of and potential for further disruption and expense is magnified when the property is unoccupied.
Flooding and water pipe leaks or breakages
If you’re in the house when this happens, you can sort it out promptly by calling an emergency plumber if necessary. If it’s your holiday home where the leak or flood has occurred, there’s a pretty good probability that the problem will have been left without attention for a considerable amount of time, so the chances that there’s serious and extensive damage (with the accompanying costs) are much higher.
Fire can quickly take hold of a property. What might have started as a small and manageable fire could turn into an inferno and leave your holiday home uninhabitable, especially if there’s no one there to raise the alarm. Severe damage will be caused by flames, smoke (and water, when the fire is put out). Very often, holiday homes are located in relatively quiet areas for large periods of the year, so there is a lower probability of anyone spotting a fire and calling the emergency services in time to prevent significant damage.
Squatters’ rights and wrongs
Squatters trespass and occupy properties without permission, so they can target any kind of empty property. They can be extremely difficult and expensive to get rid of and may be the cause of damage. Squatters also have a reputation for anti-social behaviour and possible malicious damage or theft of fixtures and fittings could substantially impact the building’s interior.
How do you keep your house safe during the holidays?
Of course, leaving to go on holiday means your permanent residence is going to be empty for some time, so you need to have some kind of plan to put in place so that you don’t come home to an unpleasant surprise.
One way to use prevention rather than painful cure is to use a neighbour
as a ‘guardian angel’. You obviously don’t want to impose too much but ask them to check up on the house every couple of days. In fact, it doesn’t have to be a neighbour. You could ask a friend to have a quick walk-round the house once a week.
They may be able to send a quick electronic update every few days for a little extra reassurance. If something does happen, at least you are forewarned and can get in touch with them to clarify the situation and get a measure of the extent of any damage. Who knows? Perhaps it won’t be as bad as you imagined in your doomsday scenarios!
In any case, using a neighbour or friend (and, of course, reciprocating their favour at some point), will give you greater peace of mind while you are absent.
Last, but certainly not least, if you are going to be away for more than a week, ensure you turn off the water at the mains and unplug all electrical devices.
The advice above is variable to the extent of how long an absence there will be. If you are leaving to go on a round-the-world odyssey, you are likely to be away for months on end, in which case, you will need to ask a bigger favour of your friend or neighbour, or take further steps to increase security and lower risk.
We’ve talked about electronic gadgets, devices and systems (internet-connected or not), but for long absences, there are other measures
you can adopt:
- Show visible signs of security on the interior and exterior of your property.
- Any small but valuable items like jewellery should be deposited with family, a trusted friend, or at a security box in a bank.
- Get a gardener to pop round every couple of weeks to mow the lawn and tidy up in general – an overgrown garden is a clue that the property is empty.
- If you live in a quiet area without much footfall, or you live in a large and valuable property, it might be advisable to inform the local police of your absence.
Above all, have a plan
Above all, if you are leaving your holiday home empty for an extended period of time and it’s a large property, have a plan for the management of the building and its contents
. Leaving it to chance and hoping for the best simply won’t cut the mustard, especially with your home insurer!
Non-standard unoccupied home insurance
As you can see from the above, there are all kinds of variables affecting your status with regard to insurance if you have an unoccupied property, especially in the case of a holiday home. It’s important to note that your coverage could be affected if you fail to tell your insurer the truth about how long the property will be vacant for.
In some cases, being in possession of an empty holiday property may mean changing the status of your home insurance to ‘Non-standard’. There’s a lot to think about around this issue, so visit us
to get the best advice on the most appropriate unoccupied home insurance for your circumstances.