The tenants look respectable and pay rent up front. But, increasingly, landlords find their properties are being used as cannabis farms.
Buy-to-let-landlords are under siege. Rents are falling, the value of their asset has been shrinking, mortgage deals have become scarce, and they are being hit with a raft of regulations. Now Britain's army of property investors face a new menace: the tenant farmer. Thousands of buy-to-let properties have been rented for cultivating cannabis in.
As National Tackling Drugs Week draws to a close, police warn that the problem is becoming more severe.
Cannabis cultivation can wreck a home within days and it can be hard, if not impossible, to claim on insurance. Cannabis farmers move in fertiliser, high-intensity lighting and other equipment. When they quit, they leave electrical wiring in a dangerous condition, walls knocked down for heating ducts, as well as the debris of intensive farming. Some booby-trap properties with doorknobs wired to mains electricity and spikes under window sills.
And that's to say nothing of the impact on communities. Crimestoppers says cannabis cultivation can fuel a range of organised crimes including people trafficking, firearms possession and money laundering.
The Association of Chief Police Officers defines a cannabis farm as a property where there are 100 or more plants. In 2007-08, the latest period for which there are records, police raided more than 3,000 farms countrywide. These statistics ignore smaller-scale cultivation. "Of those premises, 94% were domestic dwellings – mostly buy-to-let properties," says Detective Inspector Dave Boon of Greater Manchester Police. "Nationally, 501,905 plants were seized in that year. They would have resulted in 20 tonnes of cannabis with a street value of £60m. But we know cultivation is under-reported and often undetected. I discovered there was a farm within very near distance of my home not many days ago."
A 300-plant "farm" or "factory" produces around 50kg of "skunk" worth £150,000 (at £3,000 a kilogram).
The police say it is a growing problem – and that it is being fuelled by landlords desperate to rent out their properties.
"The initial approach," says Boon's colleague DI Bob Collier, "is for a respectable couple or a single female, often middle-aged, to approach a letting agent with the offer of six or 12 months' rent up front, often in cash. They may have forged references but really rely on how loudly cash talks, especially in the present economic climate. Of course, these people disappear once they get the keys."
They know agents are less likely than owners to inspect properties as long as there are no complaints. Cannabis farmers often go for properties in cul-de-sacs, because it means fewer passers-by who might wonder why the curtains are always closed or the windows covered over.
One landlord told Guardian Money how, late last year, she discovered her buy-to-let property in Edgware, north London, was being used as a cannabis factory. She has spent £10,000 so far on putting things right. "It happened because I wasn't around," says the solicitor, who did not wish to give her name. "It's been a learning curve." She says that, with hindsight, she should have guessed something was amiss. "I never thought they'd be growing drugs," she says. It has not put her off being a buy-to-let landlord, however. Her advice to others? "You just have to check and keep your wits about you."
Nowadays local newspapers and regional television news bulletins seem to constantly be running items about cannabis factories.
In the past few days alone, police have discovered factories in locations from Sunderland, Wolverhampton, Nottingham and Middlesbrough to Aylsham in Norfolk, Waltham Abbey in Essex, and Wembley and Hendon in London.
Collier says the damage cannabis farming causes to a home can run into tens of thousands of pounds.
"The first thing they do is rig the electricity and bypass the meter so they don't have to pay for power. United Utilities estimates it would cost £30,000 in heat and light for a year on the meter," he says.
"There's so much power used we can detect farms from helicopters using infrared technology. Then they knock down walls for heating ducts. And when they leave after a year, landlords have to clear up what's left from up to four harvests," he says.
Insurers often refuse to pay claims for cleaning up the mess. They offer a variety of reasons, from landlords not taking sufficient care of their property to the house being used for commercial purposes.
And – a key factor in many landlords keeping quiet – a cannabis farm claim, whether successful or not, will push up premiums substantially.
"For landlords, it is once the police have cleared the property that the real challenge starts. Assessing the damage and trying to find the cash to make the property fit to rent again is a horrible experience," says David Salusbury, chairman of the National Landlords Association, which this week issued its own warning about the problem.
It says that many owners are simply too frightened to go public, highlighting the example of a landlord silenced by "threats from the local triads".
How to spot cannabis tenants
• Be wary of cash up front – no matter how respectable the potential tenants may seem.
• Take time to check references. Ideally, they should come from a former employer and previous landlords. It's better to lose a tenant than have a drug factory on your property.
• Check your property at least once a month and get to know the neighbours, who will hopefully keep an eye out for anything suspicious. Don't rely on agents unless you get inspection reports in writing. If you live too far away to visit, be willing to pay a neighbour to keep an eye on the property.
• Permanently shuttered or covered windows can be a sign of a cannabis factory.
• Don't be put off by tenants' excuses such as: "We work shift patterns so we can't let you in as we'll be asleep." If you have suspicions, never confront tenants – they may be dangerous. Call Crimestoppers on 0800 555 111.
The Guardian, Saturday 13 June 2009
Source - http://www.guardian.co.uk/money/2009/jun/13/cannabis-farms-buy-to-let
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