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How to Live for Free in London – A Squatting Guide

Why pay rent when you can squat? Save your cash for your next trip..

Squatting is the act of taking over an empty building and making it your home. There are various kinds of squats ranging from volunteer community centres to private homes to rather dodgy ‘open houses’ where all and sundry mix.

The latter are best avoided as they can be quite random affairs where your possessions and person may not be safe. Squatting is a perfectly respectable way of providing a roof over your head though and is only unique in the respect that you don’t pay rent.

In many places squatting is not actually a criminal offence. It’s a civil matter between you and the landlord. That said you really need to know what you are doing before you get started and this guide is your basic introduction.

The legal information given here is specific to the laws in England but many of the sections apply to the culture of squatting as a whole.


So why would you want to go and live in an old, abandoned building? And what’s this about not paying rent – isn’t that immoral not to mention illegal?

Not really. Firstly, squatting in most countries is a civil offence, not criminal. Secondly, The current rent situation is that most people pay 30-50% of their salaries just to put a roof over their heads. There’s no option of living in your own teepee in the average town or city and so there’s no choice but to hand over your hard-earned money to a landlord.

This wouldn’t be so bad if every house belonged to a little old lady down the road who had a small apartment as her only income but the reality is starkly different. Millions of buildings over Europe are left empty while their owners either wait for their real estate value to rise or they plan some lucrative development project. Most of the property actually belongs to avaricious landlords with a real estate portfolio big enough to house your average village.

To have shelter over your head is a basic human right. Yet in most places you’re required to pay out huge deposits (which are not always given back), jump through all the hoops of merciless agencies and wait for months for the most basic household needs to be attended to.

The housing barons hold us at their mercy and make us pay whatever the market will bear. That is immoral.


How to Find a Squat?

There are thousands of empty properties, some of which are more obvious than others. The most obvious are the ones with steel doors, which can be hard to get through, but boards, or general abandoned look are a good sign. Look around and ask around. Local squatters’ groups and ASS have lists of empty properties, but rely on everyone to keep them up to date. Make sure the place is actually empty before doing anything.

If you are looking at a house, it is best to squat one that has been empty for at least two or three months i.e. a little bit run down. You will probably be able to live there longer.

Many empty properties can be walked straight into, as they have become insecure through vandalism. It is an offence to break into an empty property if anything you do can be classed as “criminal damage”. In theory therefore, the police can only arrest you if they catch you “red-handed”, e.g. with a crowbar in your hand, or if there are witnesses.

Thus in general it’s best to try and find access through a broken window or door. Some squatters have been known to jemmy open doors and windows but we would not of course recommend this. Nor would we recommend doing in daytime wearing overalls so that people will be less alarmed..


Who Owns the Place?

If you need somewhere now, don’t worry too much about finding out who owns the place before you occupy it – just go for it. Otherwise, or once you’re in, it can be useful to know. Keep all letters, especially for previous tenants as these can give you some idea who the place belongs to and why the previous tenants left. All this information may help you stay longer in your home if your case comes to court – call ASS for more information on this.

An Estate Agent sign will probably mean it is privately owned. The local authority Planning Department keeps records of all planning applications for each address in its borough. These records are for public scrutiny and usually arranged in alphabetical order by street or block name. Each application will have the applicant’s name i.e. the owner or property agent.

Her Majesty’s Land Registry keeps an open register of ownership of properties that you can consult for £5. You will need Form 313 which you can get from local libraries, CABx etc. or call the main office on 0207 917 8888. Often the best way to find out who owns a property is to ask local people such as trustworthy neighbours.


Basic Squatting Tips

Send a letter addressed to yourself in your new home. This is sufficient proof for the police that you live there. Make sure that there is somebody in as much as possible in the first week or two, especially if the place is being worked on. It is often a good idea to keep a copy of the squatters’ legal warning by the front door, because the owners may come round and try to repossess the place by pretending that they thought there was no-one living there. It is illegal for them to throw you out if you are in physical occupation of the place when they arrive. They can be prosecuted if they do this.

If you have to leave the place empty, leave a radio on to give the impression that somebody is in. Explain to anyone who shows an interest or hassles you that you are homeless and have a legal right to occupy the empty property. it is a good idea to keep fairly quiet for the first two or three days to give the neighbours time to get used to you. Normally you will have no interference from them.

It is normally in your interest to have a legal supply of gas and electricity. If you don’t, you could be disconnected or charged with theft, and some councils have been using this to carry out dodgy evictions.

You should go to a showroom of your regional Electricity company and probably have to fill in a form. In many places they are demanding to see a tenancy agreement unless you can tell them you had an account which was up-to-date at your previous place. It can be better to go to a showroom in an area less known for squatting and say you work in the area and can’t get to the local one.

Don’t tell them you’re squatting as they are not obliged to supply you and are increasingly reluctant to do so. Phone ASS for more information if you have problems.

Gas is similar but tends to be less hassle.

Squatting and the Law

The following information is specific to England only. For international information please see the international squatting resources.

Despite the introduction of the Criminal Justice Act, Squatting is still legal. Squatting means occupying empty property to live in and is a necessity for many. Squatters have the same basic rights as anyone else, and can not be evicted without the owners carrying out certain civil legal proceedings first.

At some point you will probably receive a summons to appear in court. Always turn up to fight your case, particularly if it is the new Interim Possession Order hearing, which could result in having only 24 hours to leave or face arrest. The owners are supposed to show that they have a right to the place and you don’t, and there are various ways of claiming that they haven’t proved it, haven’t gone through the procedures properly etc. Call ASS for advice as soon as possible. ASS have many years experience of getting adjournments or even tenancies, and a computer with all the arguments on.


P.I.O. stands for PROTECTED INTENDING OCCUPIER (Sec. 7 of the 1977 Criminal Law Act), someone who has a right to live in the premises and requires the premises to live in, and has the necessary certificate or statement. They can get you out without going to court.

A genuine P.I.O. is either a tenant or freehold owner of the premises.A tenant of a Council or Housing Association must have a certificate proving their status. A freehold owner, or tenant of a private landlord must have a statement signed before a justice of the peace or commissioner for oaths. All PIOs must be able to move in straight away.


What If the Cops Come?

If the police arrive, don’t open the door, speak to them through the letter box. Explain that you are not a burglar; you are living there because you have nowhere else to live. Do not say that you broke in. You can say you were walking past and the door was open.

Be polite but firm with them. Once you are inside a place and have “secure access”, (i.e. your own lock on the door) the main danger of arrest and prosecution is over. Try to get the front door reasonably secure as fast as possible (i.e. change the lock).

If the police insist on coming in, tell them that no arrestable offence is taking place and they should leave you alone. In the unlikely event that you are arrested, phone RELEASE ( 0845 4500 215 ) and they will put you in touch with a solicitor. You have the right to make one phone call. The police must release you within 24 hours, or charge you. You still do not have to tell them anything other than your name, address and date of birth.


Some Squatting Resources

Squatnet – This is your one stop directory for ssquattin links around the world in many different languages.


Melbourne squatting guide Sydney Housing Action England


Organisation staffed by volunteers and provides a wealth of information in a variety of languages


CIA – Counter Information Agency – Autonomous squat in Amsterdam with cheap cafe and alternative resources