Unlocking the potential of empty homes

Cat Ainslie, Empty Homes Adviser at the Scottish Empty Homes Partnership, busts some myths regarding acquisition of vacant properties

The Scottish Empty Homes Partnership is funded by the Scottish Government and hosted by Shelter Scotland. Its core aim is to bring empty private sector homes back into use. We work in partnership with local authorities, promoting the benefits of empty homes work throughout Scotland. Our advice service is available to help anyone with an empty homes issue, including owners, neighbours and those looking to buy empty homes.

  • Have you seen a rundown property and thought about it as a renovation project?
  • As a landlord, are you thinking about opportunities to develop homes that are unoccupied?
  • Is the deterioration of a home nearby affecting your property?

There are approximately 43,000 private long-term empty homes in Scotland. These are residential homes that have been registered as empty on council tax records for six months or more. There is a housing emergency, where there is a considerable shortage of affordable housing – and a lack of decent homes in the right places where people want to live. The answer to this problem may seem obvious – let’s bring more of these empty homes back into use. This is true and it’s why we exist, but it’s not quite that simple. Before you start out on your empty homes journey, there are important things to note about matching the supply of private empty homes and demand from buyers. We hope that we can debunk some common myths about empty homes, answer some of our most frequently asked questions and share our insight into the world of empty homes.

Do you have a list of empty homes?

We are often asked if there is a publicly available list of empty homes. This does not exist. Information on empty homes is collected by local authorities through council tax records and can only be passed on to a third party with the permission of the owner.

If council tax records aren’t updated by owners, then local authorities aren’t always aware that a home is empty until it is reported by someone in the community.

If there are so many empty homes, why can’t I buy one?

Often, we are approached by investors and individuals looking to make an empty homes purchase. Although there are thousands of empty homes, buying one is not that easy.

Even if a property has been sitting empty for years, falling into a state of disrepair and causing a problem for neighbours, ultimately, there is no legal requirement to ensure that a property is occupied. In Scotland, the owner is responsible for their property. This is the reason why we can never force a property to be sold. As a private individual you need the consent of the owner to buy the property, as only local authorities, Scottish Government or utility companies can acquire a property without an owner’s consent using a Compulsory Purchase Order.

An empty home is affecting my property. What can I do?

We sometimes get calls from neighbours and community members with concerns about an empty home nearby:

  • Perhaps your own property has been affected by damp, coming from the unoccupied house next door?
  • Maybe you need to arrange common works, but the flat above is empty?
  • Has the disused property opposite deteriorated, affecting the value of your home?

As a landlord, you’ll take your responsibilities to maintain your property very seriously. We understand that landlords would be concerned about an empty property causing a barrier to meet their obligations. With most empty homes’ issues, we advise that the first step is to trace, and attempt to engage with the owner.

It’s important to note that for the purpose of completing essential common works, you don’t need the consent from all the owners. In these cases, majority agreement can allow the work to go ahead, however this may leave other owners out of pocket. It is possible to take action to recover costs retrospectively. However, in practice this could be more difficult if the absentee owner can’t be traced.

If you are unable to trace or contact the owner, or if the problem is more complex, feel free to contact us or your local empty homes officer for advice.

Could I buy the empty home to handle the repair issues myself?

If the owner of the empty home can be traced, and agrees to sell their home, then purchasing their disused house is one way to ensure repair works are completed and the home doesn’t deteriorate further. We know of a recent case where a landlord and letting agent aimed to do just that.

The Scottish Empty Homes Partnership has a connection with social enterprise letting agency Homes for Good (HfG) to address the rising number of empty homes in the west of Scotland through the purchase and letting of empty properties. HfG recently purchased an empty flat in a tenement, in a high-demand area of Glasgow. It already owned one flat in the tenement, but the deterioration of the empty home was causing repair issues and was a barrier to organising common works. The flat, empty for a number of years, had also become a concern to neighbours, due to disrepair, unauthorised access, antisocial behaviour and criminal activity. However, it is now on its way to becoming a home once again.

Further to this, HfG is now liaising with another owner, who owns two flats in the block. Benefits to HfG and to the wider community of acquiring further flats in the block include:

  • Achieving majority ownership
  • Improving the efficiency and profitability of managing and maintaining these homes through regular repair and maintenance of common parts
  • Reducing antisocial behaviour in the tenement
  • Preventing further homes becoming vacant in the block
  • Providing more affordable housing.

Following up a search for an empty home

We are sometimes contacted by individuals who have seen an empty home and would like to ask the owner if they would be interested in selling. Even with the knowledge of an owner’s whereabouts, there are still challenges in identifying them and making contact. It is important to bear in mind that even if contact with the owner is achieved, they may not be open to selling.

If you spot an empty home and would like to follow this up yourself, you can begin by obtaining a copy of the Title Sheet from the Registers of Scotland (ROS), for a small fee plus VAT. This would show details of the last owner and their address. These details aren’t always updated so sometimes we see that they just give the empty property address.

If there have been no transactions associated with the property in some time, then it may still be on the older Register of Sasines, and the ROS fee for this search is slightly greater. From here, you can contact the owner directly and ask them if they would be interested in selling.

Auction and open market

Keep an eye on property auctions and the open market. Many homeowners choose this route to sell their empty homes.

Matchmaker Schemes

Some local authorities in Scotland participate in a Matchmaker Scheme to help connect people wishing to sell an empty home with people who want to buy them. The matchmaker schemes are free to join, and you can register an interest here.

We tend to find that the Matchmaker Schemes are oversubscribed, with more potential buyers registered than empty home sellers. However, we have heard some success stories of individuals going on to buy empty homes marketed through the schemes.

Is there anything else I need to think about?

Before taking on an empty home it is important to do some research about the local market, as homes might not always be in areas people now want to live. You should consider the demand for housing in the area. Is a property empty just because it requires some work or will you struggle to find someone to occupy it after renovation because there are other factors at play? 

Do you have an ongoing empty homes project that you would like to share with us? Or perhaps we’ve inspired, you, but you have some more questions on empty homes? Contact our advice service on:

Tel: 0344 515 1941

Email: emptyhomes@shelter.org.uk

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