Are you a landlord, or a second home owner?

What would you gamble?

Most of us like the odd flutter, whether it be the Grand National once a year or the National Lottery twice a week.  But how much would you risk?

Would you stake your house on the toss of a coin?  Heads I win, tails you lose……No?

No.  Most people wouldn’t.  So, why would they put rental / second homes at risk?  Usually, they do so unknowingly.  Some property frauds centre around tenants successfully selling or mortgaging their landlord’s property.  But there are actually a few straightforward ways to protect your rental properties or second homes from property fraudsters.

1. Choose wisely.  Especially when it comes to property professionals and tenants.  Just one reason for doing so – if you employ a dodgy letting agent and they run off with a rental deposit, you are still liable to repay that to the tenant, from your own resources, even if you can’t recover it from the letting agent.  If a deal seems too good to be true, it usually is!  Some property frauds rely on dodgy professionals to give the appearance of a genuine deal.  Trust your instincts and if someone appears suspicious, and cannot allay your fears, make additional checks or walk away. 

2. Get your family and friends on the case.  If you have a house that you rent out because, say, you now live and / or work abroad, ask friends and family to keep an eye on the property for you.  Some frauds are avoided because of something as simple as a family member noticing that there’s a “for sale” board outside of the property!

3. Keep your documents safe.  This seems like a “no-brainer” in these days of identity theft, but make sure you don’t leave any personal papers in a property that you rent out.  A tenant will have utility bills in their name, at the property – a starting point for a property fraudster to pose as you and sell your house– and so any other official papers they find will seem like a gift from God.

4. Update records.  All proprietors registered at the Land Registry have an “address for service” which is an address that the Land Registry use for official correspondence.  They would use this address, for example, if they received an application that needed verification from a registered proprietor.  If your address for service is out of date or, even worse, the address of the property that you have rented out, then you’re unlikely to receive any official correspondence.    A tenant with a criminal mind is unlikely to pass on any official looking correspondence from the Land Registry.   You can have up to three addresses registered – one can be an address abroad, one can be an email address – although do bear in mind that an address for service is in the public domain, so take care with the email address you use 

5. If in doubt, go for the old “belt and braces”.  A few years ago the Land Registry introduced a particular kind of restriction that you can enter against your title.  This restriction requires any application to the Land Registry to be accompanied by a certificate by a conveyancer that the person who has signed a document is in fact the registered proprietor.  Whilst this doesn’t protect against a bent lawyer, it is the best protection you can get at the moment.

If someone is hell-bent on committing a fraud, and if they’re experienced in doing so, then sometimes nothing you can do can prevent it.  If a fraudulent tenant and lawyer conspire, then there’s not a lot you can do. But please don’t expose yourself to unnecessary risk.  A fraudster will exploit any opportunity – don’t give them the chance.

If you’re worried, ask us to check – we can either put your mind at rest, or advise you on the protection you need.   You’ve worked hard for your assets.  Make sure that, in the roulette of fraud, your number doesn’t come up!

By Helen Murphy, Head of the Residential Conveyancing Team at Cambridge solicitors Barr Ellison. Contact Helen on 01223 417200.

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