Reality Alert: A fire completely burned a vacant building to the ground and caused severe damage to several adjacent buildings. Neighbors of the property had complained to the building owner about trash being left in front of the building, and police had recently discovered homeless people living in the vacant property. On a cold winter night, a group of homeless people entered the building through an unsecured basement window and started a fire for warmth. The fire quickly spread out of control and engulfed the entire building. Luckily, no one was hurt in the fire but the resulting damage to vacant property and surrounding buildings was severe.
Common Concerns with Vacant Property
Vacant buildings are common for many reasons. Vacancies affect every type of property, including commercial, residential, industrial, retail, and more. The common assumption is that a vacant property doesn’t need any attention; “It’s empty! What could go wrong!?”
In many ways a vacant property is more susceptible to property damage, criminal activity and insurance claims. There are several dangers associated with vacant buildings. It is important to understand these dangers and take immediate steps to prevent them.
One of the major exposures facing vacant property is theft. Thieves know no one is inside, so they select vacant property since there is a lower likelihood of being caught. Even if the building is completely empty of all contents, thieves may still strike to steal copper piping or other valuable building components. Make sure there is nothing valuable for thieves to take in case they do strike your vacant property.
Another major concern for vacant building owners is vandalism. People will break into vacant buildings for a number of reasons, and, if given enough time, can cause significant damage. Vandals find vacant buildings to be easy targets. The level of damage can range from something relatively minor like broken light bulbs to extreme amounts of graffiti.
Trespassing or Squatting
As seen demonstrated in the story at the beginning of this article, another major vacant property concern is trespassing or squatting. Homeless people looking for easy shelter may seek out vacant properties. In the process, they can cause damage to the building and may reside there for an extended period of time. Homeless people are not the only trespassing threat for vacant property; people often break into vacant properties to engage in more nefarious, illicit activity. The longer a squatter stays in a vacant property, the higher the possibility that large levels of trash and waste will be left behind.
Even after a limited amount of time, weather can wreak havoc on an unattended property. Both cold and hot temperatures can severely damage the building’s interior. Rain, snow, wind, and hail can all cause damage to the exterior of a building. It is important to take a few precautions when preparing a building for vacancy in order to protect it from the elements:
- Thermostat: Make sure to keep your thermostat set at an appropriate range. During colder months, keep the temperature set at a minimum of 55 degrees in order to prevent the pipes from freezing. During warmer months, make sure to set your air conditioning to a minimum of 85 degrees otherwise if your building gets too warm it will become susceptible to damage from humidity and mold. Using a backup generator to ensure constant access to heat or cooling should be considered.
- Secure Openings: Make sure all doors, windows, and other openings are secured properly. Wind, rain and other forms of weather can enter buildings through these openings and cause damage, so make sure they are properly secured and routinely inspected for signs of vulnerability.
- Bring all outdoor items inside: High winds can be dangerous and can quickly turn any unsecured outdoor object into a projectile. When preparing a building for vacancy make sure to bring all unsecured outdoor objects indoors.
Protecting Vacant Property
Install Security Systems
Keeping a vacant building secure is the most important aspect in preventing damage. There are a number of ways to provide security for a vacant building. Depending on the value of the building and its contents, the likelihood of damage occurring, and any other factors that could affect building safety, you will need to determine what methods of security are best for the property.
- Alarms: An alarm system should be seriously considered for any vacant building if one does not already exist. Alarms will deter individuals from attempting to enter your building and will quickly alert authorities if someone does break in. If the building has an existing security alarm system, be sure to continue the service. Alert the alarm service provider that the building will be vacant.
- Security/Patrol Guards: Contracting with a security company to patrol a vacant property is another way to help keep it secure. Patrol guards can be contracted to visit the building at random times every day to make sure nothing is wrong. These guards are a great way to deter trespassers and vandals and can provide quick notification if there are any other problems.
- Lighting: Motion-activated lights and general lighting can also help protect vacant buildings. Keeping entryways and other areas around the building well-lit will deter individuals from attempting to enter the building. Motion-activated lights are also another great deterrent because they will only turn on when someone gets too close to the building and will most often scare off potential criminals.
- Cameras: Installing security cameras will help protect vacant property in two ways. For starters, cameras can act as deterrent for would-be criminals. The second is that it will help identify who is causing damage and enable you to enact preventative measures to keep it from happening again.
Alert Others of Vacancy
Another good way to help protect vacant property is to alert others that it is vacant so they can keep an eye out for any suspicious activity. Be sure to alert local fire and police departments so they know that the building is vacant. In addition, contact the building’s utility provider so they can keep you informed of any unusual spikes in power usage. If possible, it is also beneficial to alert neighbors or nearby tenants that the building is going to become vacant so they can help observe the building and report any unusual activity.
The final component of protecting vacant property is to continue to perform all necessary routine maintenance. Necessary maintenance will depend greatly on the specific building, but some of the most common issues are:
- Snow Removal: Make sure to keep any sidewalks in front of your building free from snow and ice. Regardless of whether a building is occupied or not, it may still be the responsibility of the building owner to keep publicly accessible thoroughfares free from snow and ice.
- Temperature: As mentioned before, it is important to keep the interior of your building at a reasonable temperature. Make sure to have someone regularly check the building’s thermostat to ensure the appropriate temperature ranges are being met.
- Sump Pump: All buildings should be equipped with a sump pump to remove excess water and protect them from flooding. Check your building’s sump pump to ensure it is functioning properly.
- Roof: Any leaking in the building’s interior hints at a potential problem on the roof. A small roof repair will be much less costly than extensive water damage from a leak.
- Sprinkler System: Continue all routine maintenance of sprinkler and fire protection systems.
- Gutters: Keep all gutters clean and free of debris. Clogged gutters can lead to poor drainage and can cause water to seep into your building, resulting in significant damage.
- Ice Dams: Inspect the gutters of a vacant property during the winter months to see if any ice dams are forming. Ice dams can cause large amounts of water to enter and damage buildings. If you do notice any ice dams forming, contact a professional to remove them and add needed insulation to prevent them from reforming. Learn more about preventing and fixing ice dams.