In May 2019, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) said the number of empty homes in England in October 2018 was 634,453, representing a 4.7% increase on the previous year’s total. 216,186 were classed as long-term empty properties (homes that were empty for longer than six months).
However, newly published 2018/19 figures from Data Cymru have shown a 43% rise in empty homes in private ownership in Wales since the earliest records in 2009/10. These 27,213 homes sit empty either because local authorities have been unable to contact the owners or the owners are unable – or are simply unwilling – to bring the property into use.
Wales has the highest proportion of empty homes in the UK, with over 22,000 unoccupied for more than six months.
The ‘wasted resource’ of so many empty properties comes at a time when thousands of people are said to be in need of affordable housing and housing charity, Shelter, has called for a simpler process that would allow councils to have the power to seize empty homes and auction them.
Shelter Cymru has said that councils already have the power to take over homes and could bring them back into use but feared to do so through a lack of expertise or an unwillingness to ‘get it wrong’. The Welsh Local Government Association (WGLA) says the most effective way of bringing empty property back into use is to provide time-consuming support and advice to the owner, although in a small number of cases the Empty Dwelling Management Order was used.
Empty properties can attract vandalism, drug users and anti-social behaviour including fly-tipping, which often makes them difficult to return to use. Living next door to an empty property can also devalue your home by as much as 18% and make it hard to sell.
Shelter Cymru says the average cost of returning an empty property to a habitable condition is between £6,000 and £12,000 so it makes sense to reduce the number of empty homes urgently. The WLGA says a significant proportion of empty properties are in such a poor condition that they are unmortgageable and therefore more suitable for sale by auction. However, property owners are often discouraged from selling at auction as the fees can be prohibitive.
The Welsh Government runs a Houses into Homes scheme which offers interest-free loans paid prior to the commencement of work and can be used to pay for work on houses and commercial buildings, including splitting a single property into flats. The loan is secured on the property and takes into account existing lending up to a maximum of £250,000 or 80% of the property’s value.
The Welsh Government has set a target of 20,000 new affordable homes by 2021 and says it expects the number of empty properties to be reduced as a result of the £40 million funding it has already provided to councils to bring empty properties back into use. A new enforcement team has been established to help councils to tackle empty homes.
Shelter Scotland is currently lobbying for the introduction of a Compulsory Sale Order power to bring back into use the 39,000 empty homes in Scotland. The Scottish Government has faced critisism over its manifesto commitment to introduce compulsory sales orders when it said it would not be delivered within the current parliament. The new power would have allowed local authorities to sell abandoned buildings or plots of land to the highest bidder.
If you’re buying a property that has been disused, make sure you ask a Chartered Surveyor for a building survey.