Squatting is a relatively rare problem for landlords, but when it does occur it can be a nightmare to deal with.
While taking out landlord insurance may help cover some of the costs of repairs should squatters damage the property, it can still prove very difficult, time-consuming and expensive to remove unwanted guests.
The main issue revolves around the often cited but little understood concept of 'squatters' rights'. This was regulation originally brought in to prevent landlords from using violence to force out unwanted tenants, but has since been appropriated by squatters.
It means that, while you have the right to enter into your property when unoccupied, if a squatter is present at the time it is illegal to use force to get inside, for example by breaking down a door or smashing a window.
As squatters are usually aware of this and have no problem ensuring someone is in 24 hours a day, this little piece of legislation can make it extremely difficult to regain possession of the property.
The police may take action if there is evidence that the squatters have caused damage in order to enter the property, but in the majority of cases landlords will need to go through the courts to regain the premises.
It is also important to note that, in the eyes of the law, tenants who refuse to leave after the end of a lease are not the same thing as squatters and separate procedures exist to deal with this situation.
Property consultant David Lawrenson of LettingFocus.com advises: "You will need to use the special court processes for trespassers. Usually the paper can be issued in less than four weeks but if you go down this route (or indeed any route to get rid of squatters) you are strongly advised to use the services of a solicitor to help you.
"For most people this will be the most attractive option and is usually easier than waiting in vain for them to go out so you can nip in and change the locks. It is also much better from the point of view of your own physical safety."
Of course, as with most things, when it comes to squatters, prevention is better than the cure, so landlords are strongly advised to take a number of precautions to protect their properties from intruders.
This is particularly so when the property is unoccupied, such as in between tenancies.
The National Landlords Association (NLA) recommends taking measures to make it appear as if the property is in regular use.
This can include putting lights, TVs and radios on timers, leaving curtains and blinds at the windows, regularly cutting any grass and clearing mail and rubbish away from any exterior doors.
It is also a good idea to inform the neighbours that the property is empty and ask them to keep an eye on it in your absence, providing contact details in the event of any suspicious activity.
Most importantly though, landlords should make sure that all doors and windows are locked securely at all times.
Finally, rented property owners may want to consider taking out a professional landlord insurance which provides cover between tenancies.
Posted by Simon Hayes