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I was doing a lead inspection in a vacant house in Baltimore City, when suddenly someone opened the living room window and climbed in.
“Can I help you?” I asked.
He replied, “Yeah, you can help me. This is my house!”
He immediately unlocked the front door to let in two of his friends. I walked right by them while the door was still open. From the safety of the front sidewalk I called the owner to tell him what had happened.
Luckily nothing happened, but it got me thinking about problems with vacant houses: squatters and burglars.
Some people have the image of burglars breaking into your house in the middle of the night while you are asleep. Statistics prove that this isn’t accurate. The fact is most burglars don’t want to run into you any more than you want to run into them. That’s why they look for empty houses (either vacant houses or nobody home).
Most break-ins occur through the front door, in broad daylight, and during the summer.
If your property is vacant make sure all of your doors and windows are closed and locked. Make sure any exterior buildings such as a garage or shed are closed and locked. Garage doors often provide access into the house.
Burglars are always on the lookout for signs that a house is vacant: an unkempt yard, mail overflowing the mailbox, newspapers on the front lawn and advertisements and flyers at the front door. Make sure you are cleaning up all these items so your house looks like someone living there. You don’t want burglars to know it’s empty!
Contrary to popular belief, most burglaries do not occur at night. Instead, 65% occur during the day. Burglars are thieves, but they’re not particularly violent. They want to get your stuff and go. They do not want to run into you. The most common hours for a burglary are between the hours of 10:00am and 3:00pm.
If the neighbors know your property is vacant, form a relationship so they can help keep an eye on it. Give them your business card and ask them to call you if they see anything suspicious.
Often burglars will knock on the door posing as a salesman or repairman to see if anyone is home. If they get inside, they will look for any valuables.
The other big problem is squatters. An empty house can quickly become a squatter’s dream.
Change all locks as soon as a property becomes vacant. Secure any points of entry a squatter could use. Make sure all locks on all windows work properly.
Inspect your property often (daily if possible).
When I enter a vacant house I make as much noise as possible. You should do the same thing during your inspections. You want to know if someone is there, and you want them to know you’re there while you’re still near the exit. You don’t want to surprise someone or have them surprise you in the closed quarters of the house.
Open the front door and yell something appropriate (“Hello? Anybody home?”). Next look for any possible points of entry to warn you someone may have come in – an open window, an unlocked door, etc …
There are obvious signs when someone has been squatting: trash, clothes, food, mattresses, blankets. They can cause quite a mess: clogged toilets and sinks, food and trash laying around, and roaches, ants and mice.
Make sure area around the property is well lit. Squatters like to enter where no one can see them – where it’s dark, when their view is block by bushes or other objects, and especially where they can’t be seen by residents in nearby houses (usually in the back).
Happy landlording, and please use these tips to help keep yourself and your properties safe!