Cannabis is big business – and worrying statistics show 90% of cannabis farms are being set up in residential homes. Could your buy-to-let be in a dealer’s sights, and how do you protect yourself and your property?
We’ve all seen the pictures in the press. Grim-faced policemen surrounded by forests of plants – electric lamps and blacked out windows.
Cannabis farms are being uncovered with depressing regularity on the streets of the UK.
Gangs have moved away from large scale industrial premises to cultivate the drugs behind closed doors on even the most respectable of neighbourhoods.
Shockingly police say more than ninety per cent of cannabis farms are being set up in residential properties, with rental homes particularly attractive as there is no paper-trail – the properties cannot be connected to the gangs running the operations.
Renting out several homes or flats also helps criminals avoid putting all their eggs in one basket and spreads the risk should they be caught.
So how to you stop your buy-to- let becoming a criminal gang’s next target?
Many landlords’ reactions would be: ‘I’d know if it was one of my homes’.
But would you?
Those behind these illegal operations will often pay several months’ rent in advance – and could even have a fake ‘family’ or seemingly respectable professionals set up to pose as your new tenants
It is once that tenancy is secured that the criminal gangs move in, with homes often completely destroyed inside as walls are knocked down and floorboards ripped up to make room for hydroponics systems, high intensity lighting and ventilation shafts, with repair bills often totalling tens of thousands of pounds.
Cannabis farms use huge amounts of electricity, so often the electricity supply is tampered with and meters by-passed to avoid racking up huge bills – something which is also a significant fire risk.
What does the law say?
Landlords could face prosecution, a jail sentence, or even have property seized if their tenants are found to be running a cannabis farm.
Possessing, selling or growing cannabis is illegal under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 and, under Section 8 of the act, a person concerned with property management can receive a maximum of 14 years in prison or a fine.
Landlords must be ‘knowingly’ allowing the drug to be grown in their homes in order to be prosecuted.
However even if you have no knowledge of the operation you could still be left in the midst of a criminal investigation – so it pays to be vigilant.
How big is the problem?
Figures released by the National Police Chief’s Council at the end of 2015 claimed that on average, a quarter of a million plants with an estimated street value of over £62 million are seized by officers annually.
However last year police in Merseyside alone closed down 214 cannabis farms – taking £22.5million worth of cannabis off the streets.
The force has a dedicated Cannabis Dismantling Team, which receives on average of four reports of cannabis farms a day.
And the figure is on the increase.
By the start of April 2017 they had closed down 55 farms in the region. By the same time this year the figure was already almost 90.
The team, one of just three in the country, was set up in 2013 to identify the farms, close them down and dispose of the plants and equipment.
In addition to six officers there is a Crime Scene Investigator, to collect forensic evidence from the scene and a dedicated engineer from energy company Scottish Power, which loses £4.8million a year to cannabis farmers bypassing meters.
Sergeant Gary Sorrell manages the team, and said it is vital that landlords arealert to the risks.
He said: “The largest proportion of buildings we are called out to are residential properties.
“We see landlords who don’t carry out the necessary checks and take a chance on tenants and also homes that are rented out, then sub-let.
“Recently we were called to a beautiful two-bedroomed terraced cottage in Gateacre, South Liverpool in a very, very small cul-de-sac.
“Cannabis was being grown in every room bar the kitchen, with an estimated £1.6million worth in total.
“When we went in the property was literally an hour from going up in smoke – and probably taking the rest of the homes on the street with it.
“They had electricity over water and it was so hot in the loft that our Crime Scene Investigator couldn’t take photographs because of the steam.
“The cost of repairs to that house for the landlord are immeasurable.”
And it isn’t just damage to your rental homes.
He said landlords they could find themselves at the centre of a police investigation if drugs are found growing in their properties.
He said: “We collect DNA and forensic evidence from every property and if we find any evidence that the landlord could be involved in cannabis cultivation they are arrested and questioned.
‘While this doesn’t necessarily mean they would be charged or convicted, they would at the very least be involved in a very serious investigation.
“There is an idea amongst some that cannabis cultivation is a victimless crime, but it isn’t – it is connected to other serious offences and organised crime.
“Human trafficking, modern day slavery, guns, murders, streets wars – it is all inextricably linked.”
In addition to the threat of criminal prosecution there is also the risk of fire caused by attempts to by-pass electricity meters to steal electricity.
Charlie Pugsley, Deputy Assistant Commissioner of London Fire Brigade said: “Cannabis factory fires can be very severe because of the way criminals use unsafe wiring to illegally obtain electricity in order to grow the plants.
“They’re often hidden in unused rooms, or lofts which meanswhen a fire takes hold it spreads rapidly before being discovered, destroying roofs and damaging neighbouring buildings.
“By the time firefighters are called, because of the way the area is concealed, the fire can often be well developed and flames are already visible from the outside of the building.
“Not only can fires caused by cannabis factories be incredibly damaging to properties, but it can also put neighbours at a huge risk due to rapidly spreading fire, electrical hazards, buildings being made structurally unsafe or from chemicals used in the process.
“Firefighters can also be exposed to extra risks when dealing with the fires because of dangerous wiring and even booby traps at some of the properties.
“It is important that people know the key signs and inform the police so that they can act swiftly to prevent these dangerous fires.”
Will I be covered by insurance?
It depends on your policy, but many landlord insurance policies will not cover you for damage or loss of rent resulting from criminal activities such as cannabis farming.
Even those that do may set a maximum limit on any settlement payable – a figure of a few thousand pounds for example.
Priya Gill of RLA insurance partner Rentguard said: “As a whole, cannabis farms and any subsequent damage caused in the setting up or use of them are not covered under any of our insurance policies.
“This is excluded under the illegal activity clause that applies to the whole of the policy.
“Illegal activity is against moral code and is something that insurers generally cannot be seen to indemnify as it takes away any punishment element.
“Some insurers in the market do offer this cover however their pricing is generally very uncompetitive.”
What should I be doing to protect myself and my property?
The most important thing is to be sure you know who it is you are renting your homes to – and that they are who they say they are. Property reference checks are vital.
To protect yourself and your property:
- Do not be rushed into agreeing a tenancy however attractive the financial inducement. Time should be taken to ask the prospective tenant to complete an application form, do credit checks and take up references.
- Ask to see some photographic proof of their identity.
- Ask for more than one type of identification for joint applications
- Check the prospective tenant’s current address
Once your tenant or tenants have moved in:
- Take the time to make an initial inspection visit a month or so after the tenants move in. If access is not agreed, look for curtains or blinds being closed all day.
- Always check your tenanted property regularly, without interfering with or harassing the tenants, to make sure it is still occupied, as well as carefully monitoring rent payments.
- Read through the checklist in the table on page ** to see if any of the warning signs are present.
I think my tenants are growing cannabis – what do I do now?
If you have reason to believe your tenants are growing cannabis ring the police immediately.
If the police take action, they may serve a Closure Order. A police Closure Order is for a maximum of 48 hours and they must apply to a magistrate during that period for a closure order which can then be up to three months
Closure Orders see properties physically closed down and if police do this you can apply for mandatory possession under Ground 7a of Section 8 if it is for more than 48 hours, which has a notice period of a month.
Alternatively, if the police do not take action and you have strong evidence that cannabis is being grown in the home you can apply for possession under Ground 14 of Section 8.
If the evidence you have is not strong enough for this or the tenancy is nearing the end of the term the best route would be to serve a Section 21 notice.
Case study: Robert Zielinski
Robert Zielinski was sentenced to eight years for setting up cannabis farms worth up to £7 million in a string of rental properties across Merseyside.
Zielinski, 52, of Cliff Street in Liverpool sub-let properties, telling the landlords he would rent them to workers and associates of his.
However a long-running investigation by Merseyside police discovered that 33 of these homes were found to have been used for cultivating cannabis over a two year period.
One of the farms, in Egerton Park, Rock Ferry was found across 11 flats and consisted of 985 plants to the value of between £400,000 and £804,000 – a yearly yield of up to £3.5 million.
It was reported that not every property Zielinski dealt with was used for growing cannabis but he used his legitimate business as a cover.
He was reported to have changed the locks at some homes to keep landlords and agents out and lied about tenants when questioned by them.
Merseyside police described the properties as ‘death traps’.
Speaking after his sentencing in February this year Detective Constable Carl Woods said: “We are pleased that Zielinski has been removed from the streets for the foreseeable future.
“He was responsible for setting up a significant number of cannabis farms across Merseyside, locations which are both death-traps for those living close by, and as a magnet which can attract serious and organised crime to these areas.
“Electricity was also abstracted at the locations, which not only ran into a bill of hundreds of thousands of pounds, but also presents a huge fire risk for those who have the misfortune of living by such locations.
“Criminal groups involved in the cultivation of cannabis are often involved in other serious organised crime which brings significant harm to those communities.
“Groups will often rent residential properties in the heart of our communities, and the growing of cannabis bring huge risk to neighbouring properties.”
What to look out for
The National Police Chief’s Council has provided RPI with a checklist for landlords of things to look out for in their properties:
- Strong, sickly cannabis smell or overwhelming use of air fresheners.
- Windows constantly covered and blacked-out.
- A stream of different late-night visitors.
- Strong, constant light during the day and night.
- High levels of heat coming through the walls of a neighbouring property.
- Condensation in the windows.
- A constant low buzzing noise from extractor systems.
- Cables, plastic sheeting and compost bags dumped by bins, in garden or the street.
If you have any concerns that your rental home may be being used to grow cannabis you are advised to contact the police immediately.