There are lots of reasons why you may leave your home unoccupied for a lengthy period – a long holiday, working away, renovations, hospitalisation or maybe you’re a landlord between tenants.
Whatever the reason, there are a number of safety considerations to think about which can impact your insurance. Most standard home insurance policies will only provide full cover for empty properties for up to 60 days. Properties that are empty present a much higher risk of burglary, water damage, fire, vandalism, and could result in the difficult situation of evicting squatters.
In this guide, we’ll help you put in place measures to protect your unoccupied home in the event that it is empty for a prolonged period. Firstly, what are the insurance implications of leaving a property empty for an extended period of time?
To help you find what you need we’ve broken our guide down into these sections:
- How long can a property be left unoccupied?
- The risks of leaving a home unoccupied
- Securing an empty property
- How to make your property look lived in
- Leaving your home in winter
- Fire prevention for an empty property
- Do you have to pay council tax or for a TV license in an empty property?
- Insurance for empty commercial buildings
Most standard home insurance policies allow your home to be empty for up to 60 days per year. If you leave your property unoccupied for longer than this, you may not be covered.
What are the insurance options for unoccupied properties?
There are unoccupied house insurance policies available that can provide comprehensive cover at a reasonable price. Policies can include; damage to the property, damage to and theft of contents, damages due to a third party for injury or damage sustained on the property. Policies are flexible and can run from as little as one month to a year.
There are a number of risks your property is vulnerable to when left unoccupied that need specific attention, including:
- Burglary: thieves are far more likely to target a home they think is unoccupied.
- Vandalism: an obviously empty home can be an easy target for vandalism. Common issues include; broken windows, graffiti and arson.
- Water damage: burst water pipes can be a significant hazard and they are often costly to repair and put right any damage caused. Properties left empty in winter are particularly at risk.
- Fire: as well as the risk of arson, fires can be caused by faulty wiring, gas leaks or a poorly maintained heating system. The risk of significant damage is much greater in unoccupied properties as hazards often go unnoticed until it is too late.
- Squatters: the longer a home is unoccupied, the more appealing it is to squatters. Eviction of squatters can often incur a lengthy, and costly, legal battle.
As burglary and vandalism are two of the most common risks associated with empty homes, we’ll take a look at how you can improve the security of your empty property. There are two key elements to consider: making sure your physical security is up to scratch and making your home look ‘lived-in’ to the casual observer.
Empty property security
The harder it is to get into a property, even an empty one, the better. There are some basic principles to property security which are vital when leaving a property unoccupied:
- Check that all door and window locks work and conform to the standards required by your insurance company.
- Lock everything, including any garages, outhouses, sheds and connecting doors. Padlock any garden gates.
- Consider fitting motion-sensor security lights around your property and ensure that any already fitted are working properly.
- Fit a motion-sensor video doorbell, which will immediately notify your phone if someone approaches your front door, enabling you to call the police if you see something untoward.
- Make sure you don’t leave keys visible through windows. Never leave spare keys under pots, wheelie bins etc.
- If you have a burglar alarm, make sure it is set up and operational when you leave. Investing in a burglar alarm can also provide a visible deterrent to anyone thinking about breaking in.
- Consider fitting a ground anchor to motorcycles, even if they are in a locked garage.
- Keep valuables out of sight and, if possible, lock them in a safe. Alternatively, remove them completely and ask a trusted friend or family member to look after them.
- Inform the local police, and any Neighbourhood Watch scheme, that the property will be unoccupied.
- Don’t give any indication on social media that you are away from your home for an extended period.
The ultimate deterrent would be to employ a house sitter, or ask a friend or family member to stay at the property while you’re away. If this isn’t possible, there are things you can do to give your property a lived-in look and ensure your empty property is secure.
When leaving a house unoccupied in the summer:
- Mow the lawn before you go. If you can’t pop back to keep it neat every fortnight, ask a neighbour, friend or trusted professional gardener to do it for you.
- Don’t allow post to build up, either on the doormat inside or poking through the letterbox. Cancel any newspaper and milk deliveries and arrange for post to be redirected somewhere else while you’re away.
- Install a timer on a couple of lights to come on in the evenings to give the impression someone is at home
- Ask a neighbour to put the bins out, even if they’re empty, on bin day.
- Ask a neighbour if they can park their car in your drive and move it every now and then into a different position.
If your home is going to be empty for a prolonged period in winter, there are a new set of problems to deal with. During a winter cold snap frozen liquid in pipes expands which causes the metal to rupture, and when there’s a thaw, water bursts out causing untold damage.
- Keep the heating on 24 hours a day at a low level, around 14C. Alternatively, set the heating to come on for a few hours in the early morning and late evening to prevent the pipes from freezing
- If you don’t want to spend money on heating at all, you can drain the water from the heating system. Beware the chance of small pockets of water remaining somewhere in the system though. One of these two measures is likely to be a requirement of any insurance you take out.
- Make sure all exposed pipes are properly protected with insulation tubes.
- Don’t leave any taps dripping, especially externally, as they can freeze very quickly.
- Disconnect any hose pipes from outside taps and cover with insulated caps.
- Open under-sink cupboard doors, and loft doors, to allow warmer air to circulate around water pipes.
- It’s also possible to fit a leak detection device to your water system, like the Aqualeak AquaSmart, which automatically shuts off the water supply when a leak is detected and sends you a text message to let you know.
Empty buildings can prove magnets for vandals and arsonists, while pests can also chew through wires and cause electrical fires. There are things you can do to reduce the risk of fire and, if one does occur, ensure its quickly dealt with.
Tips to reduce the risk of fire:
- Remove flammable materials: ensure that any flammable materials like paper, plastic, old furniture or other rubbish, are not left close to the property.
- Install alarms / alert systems: smoke alarms may alert close neighbours to the beginning of a fire, while a full fire alarm system linked to the fire service will ensure help arrives quickly.
- General security: good quality security – motion sensor lights, burglar alarm, doorbell camera etc – can deter vandals and reduce the risk of arson.
- Turn off utilities: during the summer it may be worth turning off the gas and electricity supply to lessen the chance of fire. Check with your insurer if it is a condition of your insurance to keep the heating on at a low level to prevent burst pipes in the winter.
The rules on paying council tax on an empty property can be complicated and the specifics vary between councils. It’s highly likely you will have to pay council tax on an empty home. Local councils do have the power to offer discretionary discounts for “unoccupied and substantially unfurnished” properties.
There are some circumstances where discounts may apply, including:
- Some councils offer reductions of around 20 per cent, for up to 12 months, for properties being renovated.
- If a property is left empty when someone has moved into care, hospital or is being cared for by relatives.
- If the occupier is in prison (unless their sentence is for not paying a fine or council tax).
- Where a property cannot be lived in by law, has been repossessed, or has been compulsorily purchased for demolition.
- If the property has been left empty following the death of the council tax payer.
- A full council tax discount may be available on a person’s main home, if they have had to find alternative accommodation due to domestic abuse, and they become liable for council tax at their new address.
Most councils now levy an extra charge on properties that are empty for more than one to two years to try to reduce the number of long-term empty homes.
Typically, council tax rates double after this time period, with possible increases of 200% after five years and 300% after 10. It is important to explore all possible avenues for occupation before deciding to leave your property empty as the costs can quickly mount up.
TV licensing on an empty property
If your property is going to be empty, you can contact TV Licensing and let them know. If you already have a TV license you can cancel it via their website.
The risks to unoccupied business premises, especially if they are in a more remote area or on an industrial estate, can be even greater than for domestic properties. Commercial properties can prove a magnet for vandalism, break-ins and arson. Steps can still be taken to keep properties secure – many of which are similar to those for domestic homes.
Read our guide on how to manage an unoccupied commercial property.
Empty business premises will require a specialist insurance policy to maintain full cover. Failure to immediately inform your insurer of a property becoming unoccupied for longer than the policy allowance, is likely to result in a lack of cover should you need to claim.