Every week or so we get a call from somebody who has spotted an empty property and wants to know how they can claim it for themselves. The BBC TV series “Britain’s Empty Homes” that started this week has prompted viewers to ask us this question on an almost daily basis. The people who ask believe that because a property is unused, it is freely available to anybody who wants it. All you have to do, they think, is get there first, lay claim and hey presto it belongs to you. These callers area usually disappointed when we explain that it doesn’t quite work like that. What everybody else may be surprised to hear is it’s not entirely untrue either.
The legal concept here is a bit of common law called Adverse Possession. It goes back to the days of Henry V111. In essence it says that if somebody squats a property or piece of land for 12 years without being challenged they can apply to become the registered owner. If the original owner can’t disprove the claim they loose title.
In practice it only works like this for property or land that is not registered with Land Registry. The Land Registration Act of 2002 introduced new rules for registered land that better protects the rights of the owner. The squatter can apply to become the registered owner after they have occupied the property for 10 years. Land Registry then contacts the land owner gives them notice of what as happened. They have 65 business days to object. If they don’t the squatter becomes the registered owner, If they do the application fails and the owner is free to evict the squatter. However if after another two years the squatter is still there, they can apply again and they’ll almost certainly successfully become the new registered owner, even if the original owner objects.
More details from the Land Registry here