- 8th January, 2024
Picture the scene: a potentially highly desirable Edwardian three-bed terraced house, on a leafy commuter-friendly road littered with German and Swedish SUVs. Outward appearances suggested the owner was neither an enthusiastic gardener, nor a committed DIY-er. The local Council had done its best to keep the garden under control in the face of complaints from the neighbours. In truth, this property had been a thorn in the Private Sector Housing team’s side as the house had been empty for 10+ years and the owner was nowhere to be found. The Empty Homes Officer approached us for an informal discussion - could we help? Yes, we definitely could!
Ethan had died 20+ years before without leaving a valid will. The property devolved on his intestacy to his surviving spouse (Ilsa), who saw her days out there and, when she died eight or so years later - also without leaving a valid will - their only child (let’s call him Benji) inherited it. Title to the property had never been registered and Benji, discovering that the front door keys worked just fine without a grant of probate or registered title, lived in the property for a while, having to work around piles of his parents’ hoarded possessions. He ultimately abandoned the property and the Council subsequently changed the locks and Sitexed the windows. Some years later the Empty Home Officer approached us for help.
So far, so not-very-unusual
We see cases like this all the time and our MO is to locate the relevant people (in this case Benji) who can apply for the grant of probate so that the property can change hands and be brought back into use. As a rule, they welcome our offer of help navigating the intricacies of intestacy, probate, registration of title and so on. To summarise: for the property to be brought back into use, it would be necessary to do all the background work so that someone could apply for grants of probate to (i) Ethan’s estate and (ii) Ilsa’s estate. Thereafter, title could be registered in Benji’s name – if he wanted it…
Objective: trace Benji
So we needed to locate Benji, explain the position and offer to help him untie the knots in what had become, for him, a potentially tricky situation with the possibility of outstanding Inheritance Tax, some Council Tax arrears and other indebtedness. We located Benji living hundreds of miles away from the property. He acknowledged that something needed to be done but politely and unambiguously rejected any prospect of his dealing with the property or participating in any way in its disposal or the administration of his parents’ estates. He was also strongly opposed to inheriting the property or receiving any proceeds of its sale.
Say hello to our friend
I’ve heard EHOs refer to properties like this as being “stuck in probate hell” as they shake their heads in despair and you can see why. On one hand, Benji’s resolve to do nothing was firm – on the other the Council wanted their Council Tax arrears and weren’t going to take no for an answer and no doubt HMRC would have a point of view. And let’s not forget the neighbours, openly fed up. Call Benji’s refusal to engage with the process an immovable object; our determination to assist the Council to BEHBIU*, an irresistible force. When they meet, as Johnny Mercer (not that one) put it, Something’s Gotta Give. Benji doesn’t want to be involved? He has capacity to make decisions? We have tools at our disposal which cut through problems like this – because probate is involved, things become easier with many more options to hand than otherwise: In this case, the answer was contained in a friend of ours: s.116 Senior Courts Act 1981.
S.116 Senior Courts Act 1981
You can read s.116 SCA behind the hyperlink above. Broadly, it enables the Court to appoint anyone as administrator to any estate, if there’s a good reason to do so, passing over whoever would ordinarily be in the driving seat. To be fair, it’s usually a last resort and the costs of the application are met by the estate to which the order relates. There can be many drivers for an application and they include the Council’s wish to BEHBIU* and its need to be settled up with where it’s owed money. Generally speaking our experience is that when people realise that things are going to happen anyway but in the long run it’s going to cost them, they tend to reconsider their position and willingly engage with the process. But Benji just did not want to know.
We applied for and were granted an order under s.116 and, with the authority to act, we could bypass Benji, and administer Ethan’s and Ilsa’s estates, settling all the liabilities to HMRC, the Council and other creditors, ultimately selling the property. Needless to say we kept Benji in the loop throughout although he maintained his position, and we paid the proceeds of sale into Court, notifying him accordingly. The neighbours were happy to have a young family acquire and fix up the property and join the residents’ association, the Council were super-pleased to have an apparently impossible case dealt with and we were, as always, delighted to help.
How about you?
We deal with seemingly very tricky empty homes cases all the time. Whatever the facts behind your problem empties, it’s almost certain we’ll have dealt with something similar and can offer a solution. You’re welcome to buzz me for an informal chat on 07850 739812 or email me via email@example.com.
*you know: Bring Empty Homes Back Into Use
- 4th July, 2023
At first sight, this looked like a bit of a headscratcher. An Empty Homes Officer in the West Country had been struggling with a property which seemed to be Stuck In Probate Hell. She buzzed me for a no-obligation chat about it and subsequently decided to refer it to us for help. The property had been unoccupied for over a decade and the neighbours, although not thrilled about it, had done their best to keep it looking reasonably presentable. Fortunately, title was registered and the owner, Jack, had passed away intestate, survived by his partner, Diane, who’d died 18 months or so later, also intestate. Nobody had done anything about probate on either estate. Jack and Diane had lived in the property for many years and were known to have been married. So far, so not-overly-problematic. Assuming Diane had inherited the property on Jack’s intestacy it would devolve on her intestacy to her next of kin – and this was the route that the EHO had tried to go down. However, although Jack and Diane had the same surname and had indeed been married, they had never, as it turned out, been married to each other…
A potential can of worms, dealt with straightforwardly
Our top priority at all times is to do everything we can to support EHOs as they BEHBIU* regardless of the complexity of matters they ask us for help with - and this case did seem tricky until we examined it closely. A few people had taken a look and drawn a blank – hence it being Stuck In Probate Hell. However, our approach is to demonstrate the true position by thorough research and the documentary record, rather than necessarily taking things at face value without verifying the story. Self-evidently, for Jack’s property to find a new owner and come Back Into Use it would need to go through probate, together with the rest of his estate. Similarly, although she didn’t own any part of Jack’s property, we discovered that Diane also owned a property in another part of the country in her own name, also empty. For her property to change hands and be brought Back Into Use, Diane’s estate would also have to go through probate and we would therefore be dealing with two estates. Given Jack and Diane were neither married to each other nor blood-related, each was irrelevant to the estate of the other – we would need to conduct separate investigations, identifying and locating their respective next of kin, keeping our referring EHO client (and the EHO on Diane’s patch – he was surprised to hear from us but very happy that we’d be doing our best to solve one of his problem empties) fully in the picture throughout.
We rebuilt Jack’s family tree and Diane’s too. We showed that both had been married and divorced (so they could have married each other but presumably decided against it) and that neither had had children nor, coincidentally, siblings. In both cases the next of kin was in the class of the uncles and aunts of the whole blood and their issue – put simply, we would be reconstructing four families and looking for Jack and Diane’s cousins. It’s not unusual for cases like these to have an overseas element and many of the relevant family members were outside UK; in USA, Canada, Australia and continental Europe. No wonder nothing had happened with Jack’s property for so long…
Speed not haste and a happy outcome
As soon as we’d located and spoken to next of kin in both families, we applied for probate to both estates and as soon as the grants arrived started administering them, preparing both properties for sale. Each was sold to new owners and both were brought back into use to the delight of the neighbours and the EHOs in question. There was perhaps three months between our EHO client referring Jack’s property to us and our application for probate to his estate.
Very many cases referred to us by EHOs are very straightforward to solve – often a quick database consultation delivers the up-to-date address of an absent owner while you wait and we handle these every day. Whether a case is a very simple look-up or, like the one above, seems to be a super-complex probate exam question (or anything in between), you are welcome to buzz me for an informal chat on 07850 739812 or email: firstname.lastname@example.org. We will always do our best to help you BEHBIU*.
*You know – Bring Empty Homes Back Into Use
- 22nd May, 2023
Some time ago, an Empty Homes Officer rang me for a chat regarding a particular empty property. As we’ll see, this was a far-sighted decision with a positive outcome and considerable social benefits for her community. The property owner had died and, although she’d prepared a will, she hadn’t signed it. Accordingly, her estate, including her home, would devolve as on her intestacy to her as yet unknown next-of-kin – could we help trace them?
Of course we could. Our task was to support our EHO client through the process of bringing the property back into use by identifying and locating the owner’s next-of-kin, taking their instructions in the probate so the property could change hands and be re-occupied as soon as possible, and keeping her fully updated along the way. We located the next-of-kin who asked us to help with the probate and whose members shared with us the fascinating story of how the house came to be in the family.
The family stand
Our deceased’s uncle had fought in WW2 and had sent his wages home to his mother. Anticipating he wouldn’t survive the war, she gave the money to her daughter – his sister. She married and she and her husband used the money sent home by the soldier to help buy their home. They had one daughter, our deceased owner, who was born, and subsequently lived and died in the property. Our deceased’s uncle did survive the war, came home and spent the rest of his days in the same town as his sister - relations are understood to have been strained, perhaps explaining why part of the family emigrated to USA. The deceased owner’s estate is now going back into the family that the money to buy the house came from in the first place, closing the circle.
Whenever we enter empty properties in cases like this, we’re mindful that it was once somebody’s home and respectful of their life and possessions. In this case, the property needs quite a lot of work to a lean-to extension containing the kitchen, and a fairly brutal 2-3 day pruning session in the garden but beyond that it’s in good shape. The deceased had been – well, not a hoarder exactly, but definitely a committed collector. Together with the usual supply of books, CDs and DVDs etc there were many stamp albums and collections of postcards which must have been of sentimental value. However, on the shelves in the third bedroom, there were a couple of dozen Star Wars action figures and Barbie and Cindy dolls, dating back decades. All in mint condition, all in their apparently never-opened boxes. A glance at e-Bay shows the prices that some of these can command. Coincidentally, one of the next-of-kin was a mad-keen Star Wars enthusiast and enquired about the action figures – could he have them? The answer was that yes, he could, if he paid the market rate for them so that no other beneficiary of the estate was deprived of their value. In the end he bought a small handful and the rest were auctioned.
The best bit
Some weeks later, our EHO client and I were catching-up over a frothy coffee and a luxury biscuit and discussing the case. We talked about the possibility of the Council acquiring the property for its social housing portfolio. As it turns out, the property pretty much exactly meets the needs of a Council refugee housing project. Our EHO client lobbied her housing team colleagues and I’m delighted to say the estate has accepted an offer from the Council.
Are you free for a frothy coffee* and luxury biscuit – my treat? Perhaps you’re dealing with a problem empty and could use a no-obligation chat to work out the way forward. Either way, you’re very welcome to email me at email@example.com or buzz me anytime on 07850 739812. We’re here to help you BEHBIU**.
*or other beverage of your choice.
**You know: Bring Empty Homes Back Into Use.
- 24th March, 2023
When Councils ask us for help BEHBIU* we’re never entirely sure, until we get under the bonnet, what we’re going to be doing. Will it be as straightforward as tracing the absent owner of an empty home to a new address or providing our local authority client with a grant of probate containing the names and contact details of slowcoach executors of a deceased owner? In either case, we’ll be turning the case round in a couple of hours tops, providing the Empty Homes officer with new information so they can engage with the right people with a view to moving the property towards re-occupation. On the other hand plenty of cases come our way where the property has been empty for yonks and is in serious disrepair. Have a look at these pictures – as you can see there’s water damage and preventative measures in the form of some plastic sheeting to fend off the worst of the ingress. You’ve probably seen a lot worse and so have I. However, these pictures are of the neighbouring property, not the empty itself. As you can imagine, the neighbour wasn’t overjoyed with the condition of next door’s property and would definitely have had a go at the owner if she could. However, he had died years previously and no-one had done anything about the probate. The neighbour complained to the Council – the Empty Homes Officer didn’t have the enforcement powers she needed because they sat with her colleagues in Planning and it was hard work persuading Planning to prioritise this case enforcement-wise. In any event, with the owner deceased and with no immediately obvious person to serve notices on, nothing was going to happen overnight. Eventually, this case came across our desk – though the hourglass was running low on sand – and we set about identifying and locating the deceased owner’s next of kin. As it turned out, they were distantly related to the deceased owner, both in terms of their blood relationship to him and also geographically with quite a few relevant people overseas, and none of the family had had any contact with the deceased for decades. As soon as we took instructions from the next of kin, we squeezed the property onto our blanket empty homes insurance policy and took the steps necessary to avoid any further damage to the neighbour’s home and to make it presentable for sale generally.
Have any of your empties been too problematic for too long? Would an informal chat about the options be useful? You’re always welcome to buzz me, anytime, on 07850 739812 or ping me a note at firstname.lastname@example.org .
*you know – Bringing Empty Homes Back Into Use
– 8th February, 2023
I’ve been working with Local Authorities generally and Empty Homes Officers in particular for years now and it remains true that each has their own approach to their common objective of BEHBIU*. Councils differ: some EHOs have no difficulty accessing Council Tax data; for others it’s a challenge. Some councils simply will not engage with the private sector without a full procurement process; others adopt a lighter touch. UKGDPR causes problems for some councils’ Information Governance teams while others navigate it compliantly and straightforwardly. All of which is professionally rewarding - it keeps me and my colleagues on our toes and makes the work even more interesting than it otherwise would be - and none of which is a problem for us.
Similarly, as more and more EHOs come to us for help with their different problem empties, from the simple absent “gone-away” property owner (usually traced within a few hours - tops - with up-to-date contact details passed to the EHO on the hurry-up) to complex problems starring multiple unregistered properties featuring deceased owners with skirmishing families and fed-up neighbours in well-rehearsed supporting roles, we cut the coat according to the cloth we’re working with, offering, if you will, a tailored approach - there’s no “one-size-fits-all” approach at Fraser and Fraser (get on with it - ed).
Our priority is to support Empty Homes professionals of whatever discipline as they’re BEHBIU*, operating with Transparency, Responsibility and Accountability and keeping EHOs fully in the picture as to developments on all the matters they’ve referred to us for help. No-one’s saying that the unregistered 20+ years empty of a deceased owner with unknown next of kin is going to be housing a family and generating Council Tax overnight - but there’s no reason why it shouldn’t before too long, and sooner than you might think. The same goes for empties generally - it’s highly unusual for us not to be able to help one way or another and the feedback from EHOs has been very gratifying. Everything we do is free of charge to councils, UKGDPR-compliant, and has BEHBIU* front and centre - and it all starts when we hear from you.
Which of your empties could you use our help with? Would an informal chat be useful? You’re welcome to email me at email@example.com or buzz me on 07850 739812 anytime. I look forward to hearing from you.
*you know - Bringing Empty Homes Back Into Use.
– 8th January 2023
It can be risky to take things completely at face value - they’re not always as they seem. Take the case we’ve just dealt with for an EHO at a council in the Home Counties. The EHO was relatively new in post and on her list was three-years-empty 23 The Limes. On its facts, the matter looked fairly straightforward: the property owner had died without leaving a will and there was a daughter - let’s call her Rita - in the picture as next of kin. The dream outcome would be for the house to change hands and be re-occupied and for that to happen Rita would have to put it through probate.
Rita kept promising the EHO she’d get probate but you know how it is, events seemed continually to conspire against her and… n-o-t-h-i-n-g h-a-p-p-e-n-e-d. Although the neighbours were vocally not thrilled about it being empty, the place wasn’t actually falling down or being used as a rodent’s theme park so enforcement à la s.215 or s.4 or similar were not going to help.
The EHO was running out of ideas - could we help? Of COURSE we could. We spoke to Rita who was charm personified and gave very plausible reasons for the delay - her dad had wanted her to have the property but she couldn’t get solicitors to do the work and so on. We looked into things and discovered that the owner had two children - let’s call them Sue and Bob - and that Rita was in fact his second wife’s daughter. Rita had always had a close relationship with and had cared for the owner towards the end of his life but she wasn’t his daughter. Sadly, she wasn’t entitled to apply for probate - hence solicitors not getting involved - or to inherit the property. Sue was in UK and Bob lived overseas and both had been estranged from their dad and had assumed that he had left the house to Rita.
Liaising with our EHO client, we took instructions from Sue and Bob to deal with the property as part of the administration of their dad’s estate. We applied for the grant of representation promptly and, although it took a while to arrive (they mostly do these days…), we had the property on the market and sold within months. The EHO was super-happy with this - we’d kept her fully updated along the way, 23 The Limes was off her list, the new owners were paying Council Tax and the neighbours were happy. We were delighted to have assisted and, in a pleasing coda to the story, Sue and Bob instructed us to distribute part of their dad’s estate to Rita, in recognition of her relationship with and care for their dad.
If you’re an EHO you probably have problem empties that could do with moving along, whether or not they’re like 23 The Limes and we can almost certainly help. You are always welcome to contact me for an informal no-obligation chat via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on 07850 739812 anytime. We’re here to help you BEHBIU*.
*you know - Bring Empty Homes Back Into Use.
-8th November 2022
I was slightly aghast at the latest empty homes figures. Even disregarding second homes, unsold new-builds, the regular ebb and flow of straightforward CT exemption “F” cases and so on, there’s still a heck of a lot.
We’ve recently taken on a case that was a real thorn in the side of the EHO at the council in question. The property has been if not empty (most rooms are wall-to-wall and floor-to-ceiling hoarded), at least uninhabited for 15+ years.
The story was not that unusual - the owner lived in the house and passed away and the children did nothing with the probate. The children passed away and there’s a surviving grand-daughter left in the lurch. The garden’s like a jungle and the neighbours are - to put it mildly - fed up. The grand-daughter’s pretty daunted by the task - added to her busy life and geographic distance from the property, solicitors have asked for funds up-front to make a start on the probate with no hard-and-fast quote as to likely total cost and, like very many of us, the grand-daughter is pressed for cash at the moment. So, she was in a bit of a bind.
The EHO ran the facts past me and I said of course we could help. A conversation with the grand-daughter later, we’ve agreed commercial terms with her and we’re on the path to Bringing the property Back Into Use. The long and the short of it is that the grandparents’ and parents’ estates are going to need administering and the devolution of the property dealt with accordingly. To the grand-daughter (and the EHO), it looked like a paperwork nightmare - but we do this sort of thing all the time.
Are you dealing with problematic privately owned Empty Homes? Could you use a no-obligation chat about the options? Email email@example.com buzz me on 07850 739812 whenever. We’re here to help you BEHBIU*.
*you know - Bring Empty Homes Back Into Use
– 8th October 2022
One of our case managers buzzed me the other day with some news of an Empty Home we’re helping to Bring Back Into Use.
An Empty Homes Officer at a Local Authority had been getting nowhere trying to engage with the owners and referred it to us - could we help trace them? It turned out the owner had passed away so as part of our service we’re making sure the property goes through probate smoothly and as quickly as possible so it can be re-occupied with all the attendant benefits.
The property hadn’t been empty all that long and was in reasonable shape so it’ll be on the market very soon and no doubt a family will be in residence shortly. Quite a lot of the empties we deal with have been empty for yonks, are hoarded and so on - you get the picture. Anyway, the case manager and I were chatting about this property and mentioned the address - another colleague was nearby and double-checked he’d heard us correctly: it turned out the property had been on his paper round 25 or so years ago. How’s that for a small world?
Although we can’t promise a trip down memory lane with every case we take on, we can promise a first class, UKGDPR-compliant and straightforward service, strongly committed, every time - just like you - to BEHBIU*.
Are you dealing with a problem empty? Would you find an informal, no-obligation chat useful? You’re welcome to buzz me anytime on 07850 739812 or mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I look forward to hearing from you.
*you know - Bringing Empty Homes Back Into Use.
- 8th August 2023
How is everybody doing?
Prime Ministers come and go, the seasons change and so does the weather. One constant seems to be that a great many Homes remain Empty and EHOs sometimes need more information than they have in order to bring them Back Into Use - often that extra piece of information makes all the difference.
A lovely piece of work came in this morning: an EHO who’d been circling us for a while took the plunge and referred four addresses to us. These were all long term empties, with at least one having been unoccupied for breathing down the neck of 30 years - presumably the neighbours were super-relaxed people as the property in question needs a lot more than just a lick of paint. We made some enquiries and found that the owners of two of the properties had simply moved away - one just around the corner, the other 200 or so miles away.
In the other two cases, the owners had passed away and grants of probate to their respective estates have been extracted. In all four cases before lunchtime today we provided the EHO with up-to-date contact details of the gone-away owners and the executors of the deceased owners. I dare say letters from the Council to the owners and executors will be going out in the post fairly soon. Although the EHO was gratifyingly impressed with our service, this is very routine for us - we do it all the time, Free of Charge to the Council, always compliantly with UKGDPR and always with BEHBIU* front of mind.
Can we help you with any problem empties? Contact Nick Beetham via email@example.com or on 07850 739812 anytime for a no-obligation chat.
*you know - Bringing Empty Homes Back Into Use.